How two corgis and a Pikachu suit helped Kenneth Mejia make history in L.A. controller race
To get some attention for his unconventional Los Angeles city controller campaign, Kenneth Mejia turned to Pokémon.
He wanted to dress up as the Pikachu character, a cheery yellow rodent who has been used as a symbol of defiance at protests and by politicians, but his campaign manager was wary. Too silly, Jane Nguyen recalled thinking.
But Mejia insisted. By October 2021, he was standing on a street corner in Little Tokyo dancing in the outfit.
Just over a year later, Mejia — a certified public accountant with little name recognition — has claimed victory over City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who conceded on Wednesday. Mejia holds a 61%-to-39% lead over the veteran politician, according to updated election results released Thursday. Mejia, who is of Filipino descent, will become the first Asian American to hold citywide elected office in Los Angeles.
His victory is the latest win for L.A. leftist activists, a powerful force in local elections who have pushed for big changes to City Hall’s approach to policing and homelessness.
As city controller, Mejia, 32, vows to hold agencies accountable and bring financial transparency to city spending. Critics paint him as a leftist activist who is too “extreme” for City Hall.
Mejia, who wasn’t available, referred questions to Nguyen.
Another batch of results is expected Friday as Karen Bass and Rick Caruso vie to become the next Los Angeles mayor.
Born and raised in Sylmar, Mejia graduated from Woodbury University in Burbank and worked at Ernst & Young as an auditor, according to his biography posted on the Green Party’s website.
He also co-founded a community group focused on helping the unhoused and low-income families and became an activist with the LA Tenants Union.
It was Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaign in 2016 that propelled Mejia’s political career.
“You moved me Bernie. I always knew things were wrong but I thought all I could do was little acts of kindness,” Mejia tweeted in August 2016. “I was wrong. I could do more. We could do more.”
A onetime member of the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council, Mejia unsuccessfully ran for the same congressional district three times, including twice as a member of the Green Party.
As a debate raged on in Koreatown in 2018 over the city’s plan to put a homeless shelter in the neighborhood, Mejia met Nguyen, who was starting the homeless advocacy group KTown for All. A graphic Nguyen made for the People’s Budget LA Coalition in April 2020 showing L.A. spent $3.1 billion on its annual police budget was transformed into a billboard for Mejia’s campaign.
“Where will YOUR tax dollars be spent? L.A. deserves financial transparency,” read the billboard, which noted the outsized city spending on the LAPD.
Rick Cole, a former top L.A. budget official and former Santa Monica city manager who became one of Mejia’s best-known supporters, was impressed by the boards.
“He was running a completely different type of campaign,” Cole said. “It was fresh and it stood out.”
In an interview the day after the election, Cole described how Nguyen, 33, and Mejia complemented each other during the campaign. Nguyen is “extraordinarily focused and practical” and a “no-nonsense, get it done” person, Cole said. Mejia is “constantly dreaming up” ideas and asking, ‘“How do we do this?” Cole said.
In one of his most-viewed TikTok videos, seen nearly 150,000 times, Mejia and his volunteers are seen dancing to BTS’ “Permission to Dance” while the text describes how some firefighters and police officers earn city salaries despite living out of state.
Other videos and tweets highlighted his two corgis and digital maps that he created using city data.
Mejia’s campaign was unique because it focused on educating voters about what the city controller does and how the office fits into City Hall, said Bill Przylucki, executive director of Ground Game L.A., which works to elect progressive candidates.
“We will be studying his campaign to make our future campaigns better,” Przylucki said. “He really, really deserves a lot of credit for being flexible and open-minded and not having an overly rigid approach.”
An overall anti-incumbent sentiment in the city also helped Mejia, political watchers said.
“Voters wanted change,” said Bill Carrick, who represented controller candidate Reid Lidow in the primary. “Mejia ended up being the one who could make the best case” that he represented that change.
As Mejia steps into the office, he will give priority to addressing crowded dog shelters and audit the city’s police budget, said Nguyen, who said she will be his chief of staff.
At a meeting earlier this year of the city’s Animal Services commission, Mejia warned the commissioners and managers at the department, which has faced criticism for the care of its animals, that he could use subpoena power to get documents.
“To all the commissioners listening here, what do you all do?” Mejia said. “I think that’s one great question that you should ask yourself after every meeting. What have you accomplished? How are you holding [Animal Services] accountable?”
Still, Mejia will face limitations. Though the controller can use audits to pressure city departments, the City Council and mayor make policy decisions. Controllers traditionally have had a hard time getting elected officials to do anything with their reports, said City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who endorsed Mejia, adding that he has the chance to put his “imprint” on the office.
“What I think Kenneth has a real opportunity to do is to talk to rank-and-file city employees and find out what they think needs to be looked at,” Bonin said.
Some, including Koretz, have drawn attention to Mejia’s past inflammatory remarks and actions — such as holding an oversized, photoshopped image of Hillary Clinton behind bars wearing an orange prison jumpsuit — and called Mejia’s views on issues such as policing extreme.
Former Controller Laura Chick, who endorsed Koretz, also has pointed to a report in Los Angeles magazine that Mejia campaign workers were among the protesters who helped shut down a mayoral debate at a synagogue in the San Fernando Valley — behavior that Chick called “unacceptable.”
Mejia will also have to work with career city staff, managing some 160 employees in the department. And he will, by definition, be considered an “establishment” figure when he takes office, although Nguyen said they’re not afraid of “ruffling feathers in City Hall.”
“We’ll do our best to navigate the politics of City Hall,” said Nguyen, who had not previously run a campaign. “I’ve never held the government jobs, so it’s daunting for me to think about, but Kenneth and I are always willing to work with anybody, even establishment people.”
Over the past year, four Los Angeles City Council members have lost their campaigns for reelection or higher office. A fifth could soon join them.
Ricci Sergienko, a co-founder of the People’s City Council, a left-wing activist group that has supported Mejia, said it has high hopes for him. The group has gained a following for its progressive outlook, and it also routinely attacks City Hall politicians and the Los Angeles Police Department on Twitter.
“The expectation is that Kenneth is going to go in and audit LAPD and continue to do the role of educating the public,” Sergienko said. “If there’s any veering away from what our expectations are, we are not going to be afraid to call it out.”
Former City Councilmember Michael Woo, who made history in 1985 by becoming the first Asian American to serve on the council, said that because racial issues weren’t overtly discussed in the controller’s race, he isn’t certain that Mejia’s win is a “big moment” in terms of his racial background.
Still, “what he does with the office could be a big moment in terms of being a highly visible Filipino American citywide official,” Woo said.
For other Filipino and Asian Americans, Mejia’s victory does represent a significant achievement for the city’s Asian Americans, who now make up nearly 15% of the population.
It’s especially a big milestone for Filipino Americans, the city’s largest Asian American community, who are also celebrating Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta’s election. Bonta was appointed in 2021 by Gov. Gavin Newsom and ran for his first full term in office this year.
“It definitely shows that there is a strong progressive voice that’s coming from the Filipino community,” said Aquilina Soriano Versoza, executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California. “There’s a conservative part of our community, but we have a very active progressive side of our community that’s taking action.”
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