City Councilman Dennis Zine has never struck me as a controller type. He’s garrulous, outgoing, street-smart — the remnants of his first career as a Los Angeles police officer and union representative. He was a forceful personality at the Police Department, where he often squabbled with his then-boss and now-colleague on the City Council, Bernard C. Parks. Zine was combative then and still is, more of a brawling, glad-handing pol than a cerebral, numbers-driven type.
And yet, Zine is by any measure the front-runner in the race for Los Angeles controller, if only because he’s the sole candidate in the race who holds public office already. If he wins, he will become the city’s chief auditor, but his campaign so far hasn’t done much to stimulate debate. He talks about eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” at City Hall. But he doesn’t offer many specifics about where he expects to find them — or, for that matter, why he hasn’t done more about them during his 12 years on the City Council. Indeed, most of the insider chatter about Zine’s campaign is about how he’s the luckiest candidate in town because Councilwoman Jan Perry elected to run for mayor instead of challenging him for controller.
Zine’s perceived vulnerability in this race means that more than the usual attention is going to two candidates who might otherwise be thought of as long shots — businessmen who have never held elected office and who come to the campaign as fierce critics of City Hall. Cary Brazeman runs his own marketing business, and Ron Galperin is a lawyer who has served on a couple of prominent city commissions. Both have put their own money into their races; both are pressing to make the controller’s race a referendum on City Hall’s efficiency and effectiveness. And both are swinging hard at Zine.
“Zine has no demonstrated record of leadership on city issues,” said Brazeman, a youthful community activist whose marketing flair shows up in his literature. One flier pictures Zine with an ice cream cone and calls the councilman “Double Dipping Dennis,” a reference to Zine simultaneously drawing a council salary and a police pension. “To me, it’s indefensible that we’re paying people like Zine close to $300,000 while we’re laying off 311 operators.”
Galperin is equally pugnacious, if slightly less colorful. “Mr. Zine has been part of this problem all along,” he told me last week. “He loves to get up in front of a microphone, but we don’t need more press conferences.”
Galperin and Brazeman have other similarities beyond bashing Zine, but they’re not copies of each other. Brazeman sees himself as an outsider who can push the council and the mayor to take seriously such issues as the city’s persistent structural deficit, driven in part by its ballooning pension obligations. He emphasizes his success as a private citizen at highlighting city problems: He helped call attention to the Fire Department’s misleading reporting about its response times, and he critiqued the proposed deal between the city and AEG in order to sweeten the results for taxpayers. One of his favorite phrases is “shine the light,” and he promises to do so as controller.
Galperin, meanwhile, is wonkier and deeply immersed in the details of city procurement and spending. He gets animated talking about the city’s asphalt plants and the possibilities of collecting more effectively on the city’s parking taxes, and he argues that his experience with city commissions looking at waste and savings — he’s president of the Quality and Productivity Commission — have equipped him with the insights needed to turn the controller’s office into an engine of efficiency.
There is, of course, the possibility that Brazeman and Galperin could split those voters who see City Hall as the problem and leave Zine to coast into office — perhaps without even a runoff — by virtue of name recognition, if nothing else. For the two outsiders then, part of the challenge is not just to convince voters that City Hall needs a change but that one of them can bring it about.
That dynamic — the need to beat each other, not just Zine — can be seen already. Brazeman has accused Galperin of accepting laundered campaign contributions in his unsuccessful City Council campaign a few years ago, and Galperin counters by alleging that Brazeman is hiding some sources of financial support and says he is weak on solutions. “It’s not enough just to identify the problem,” he said.
Still, they both recognize who their main rival is, and they insist that voters will share their skepticism about him. As Galperin put it, when he tells voters his opponent is Zine, the most common response is: “Huh? Zine for controller?”