With small klieg lights shining and a video camera rolling, the candidates for Los Angeles city controller took turns standing at a bare lectern to earnestly pitch their campaign philosophies.
But in the Occidental College classroom, only four students sat in the audience as a panel of fellow students questioned the prospective controllers on why they coveted the city's third-highest elective office.
At another gathering in downtown Los Angeles, only a few reporters showed up at the City Hall steps for a news conference called by one controller candidate who said he would outline a plan to save the city $5 million.
As the would-be controller waited for more news people to appear, a reporter walked up to the group and then scurried away--after learning that he was at the wrong press conference.
The campaign for city controller--the city's chief financial officer and auditor--has become the Rodney Dangerfield of municipal elections, clamoring for respect and encountering apparent indifference.
"Nobody knows much about it, nobody cares much about it and 'What the heck does it matter anyway?' is the general attitude," lamented Alice Travis, one of four controller candidates in the April 9 election.
Indeed, the nonpartisan controller campaign has not been an easy race to sell in an election year in which the mayor is fighting to retain his job and several candidates for city attorney are involved in a feisty battle of their own. It doesn't help that the controller candidates are largely political unknowns.
They are Celes King III, a bail bondsman from South-Central Los Angeles; Dan Shapiro, a Studio City lawyer and former head of a mayoral committee on city finance and budget; Travis, a former member of the Los Angeles city environmental quality commission, and Rick Tuttle, a community college trustee and UCLA administrator.
None enjoys the name recognition or fund-raising power of the man they hope to replace: incumbent James Kenneth Hahn, the son of county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. After just one term, Hahn decided to run for city attorney and left the race wide open for his successor.
There is no obvious front-runner among the candidates. And during campaign appearances and interviews they have disclosed few major policy differences and no animosity. Each has championed the need for more city auditors and stressed the watchdog function of the controller's office in reviewing expense accounts and city payments. And each has insisted that his individual experience singles him out as the obvious choice for the office.
But with the election only five weeks away, most voters still do not know who those choices are. Unlike the city attorney and mayoral campaigns, no mailings have gone out nor have any radio and television ads been aired, primarily for lack of money.
The first filing deadline for campaign contributions showed that Shapiro had raised $67,750 in loans and contributions; Travis, $35,600; Tuttle, $21,870; and King, $900. All of the candidates have talked about the need to raise much more to emerge as the April winner or qualify for a June runoff.
"It's going to come down to who can raise the adequate money to get their message across," said Shapiro, who included $33,500 in loans from himself and his family in his initial fund raising.
Tuttle, 45, who works on his campaign out of his Venice home, has won elections twice before as a member of the community college board, but this is his biggest campaign.
At UCLA, Tuttle serves as the administrator for student activity programs. That background did not hurt him when the Los Angeles Collegiate Council, which held the forum at Occidental, endorsed him for controller.
But Tuttle has some other big-name backers, and he reminds voters of that support during his campaign. One of the biggest is Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, the former controller who pushed the office into the public eye when he was elected in 1977.
Reiner drew headlines by questioning expenditures by city officials and refusing to approve some expenses, earning himself praise as a public watchdog and criticism as a publicity seeker.
Tuttle said he would be the same kind of activist controller as Reiner, would try to set "a civic tone" and establish clear standards for public officials to follow. He said he also would push for more help to audit city departments.
"The . . . current team of auditors is doing is good work. There's just not enough of them to cover all the departments," Tuttle said.
Tuttle's day-to-day campaign manager is his wife, Muff Singer, but the real political clout behind his candidacy is the campaign firm of Berman-D'Agostino. The firm is part of the Berman-Waxman Democratic political organization, which claims the loyalty of Democratic elected officials from the Fairfax District to the beach and into Southwestern Los Angeles. Reps. Howard L. Berman of Studio City and Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, who founded the influential Westside Democratic group, are longtime friends of the Tuttles. Michael Berman in the political consulting firm is Howard's younger brother.
Although the controller's office is a nonpartisan position, the city's registered voters are mostly Democratic, and Democratic strength is particularly strong in Berman-Waxman territory.
Berman-D'Agostino has gained a reputation for sending out hard-hitting mailed advertising targeted to the special interests of voter groups. Tuttle has set his sights on raising $250,000 to pay for this effort.
Tuttle is also supported by the Los Angeles County Federation, AFL-CIO.
Travis, 41, who finished third in a field of eight primary candidates in the 1981 controller campaign, has hired Englander and Associates, another political firm known for its aggressive tactics.
In her first sparsely attended press conference, Travis stood at the courthouse steps with her campaign manager, Harvey Englander, and charged Tuttle and "the Berman-Waxman political machine" with an "irresponsible and ridiculous" attempt to hurt her candidacy.
Tuttle had sought to overturn Travis' ballot designation as a Los Angeles city commissioner. Travis had resigned from her mayoral appointment on the environmental quality commission after entering the controller's race, but she beat back Tuttle's legal challenge by arguing that previous candidates--including Reiner--had kept their ballot designation after giving up city jobs to run for office.
A Democratic Party national committeewoman, Travis said she would use her political ties to help raise the $150,000 she says is needed for her campaign. A former council aide who has served on county and state commissions, Travis has portrayed herself as someone who would open up the city's budgetary process and--unlike Reiner and Hahn--would not leave the job to run for higher office.
'I'm a Fighter'
"People will remember that I'm a fighter and I really care for this office. It's not just something I'm running for as a stepping stone. It's an office I've had a commitment to for a long, long time," she said.
Among her supporters are Council President Pat Russell, Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters and Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who is coming to Los Angeles to host a fund raiser for Travis.
Shapiro, 38, who raised the most money during the initial campaign-reporting period, said he is running for the $48,424-a-year controller's job to implement cost-saving suggestions that he felt were shelved by city officials.
As chairman of Mayor Tom Bradley's Select Committee on City Finance and Budget, Shapiro said his panel identified $50 million in savings that could be gleaned by "better management of existing assets and resources."
"A few of (the recommendations) were accepted, but the majority were ignored," Shapiro said. "And that's why I'm here."
It was Shapiro who called a news conference to warn that the city would lose $5 million in business taxes this year because of the lack of field auditors in the city clerk's office. But he was not discouraged by the small turnout to hear his message.
"I'm on a mission," he said later. "I think there's millions of dollars out there to be saved. . . ."
Shapiro, a real estate attorney, in 1980 headed the Studio City Residents Assn. in its successful fight to curb high-rise development along Ventura Boulevard. And he has been active in the push for a city ordinance to regulate adult entertainment businesses.
Shapiro, who is running for office for the first time, hired the firm of Winner, Taylor & Associates. The firm, which has strong City Hall ties, has been behind the successful campaigns of several council members.
Among the Shapiro backers are Bert Boeckmann, owner of Galpin Ford and a prominent San Fernando Valley fund raiser; Albert A. Dorskind, vice president of MCA Inc., and Ted Bruinsma, the former head of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
Despite reporting only $900 in his first disclosure statement, King, 61, said he is confident that his "one-to-one, talk-it-up" campaign is on the move and that funds will begin flowing into his coffers.
King is a black Republican who said he plans on strong support from the black community and the GOP. He has run his bail bond and insurance agency since 1951 and has served on the Los Angeles city Human Relations Commission and as a president of the local branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
"I have been a social-change person who also has been concerned with the dollars," said King, who added that he will push for more outside auditors.
But he said that the controller's office in recent years has been in danger of being "usurped" into "a political net."
"I intend to depoliticize the office and work for the people," he said.
King, whose campaign is run by the Sacramento-based firm of Leo McElroy Communications Consultant, refused to consider himself an underdog.
But, he added: "I know there is an American tradition to support the underdog, and if it accrues to my benefit, then I will accept."