LA ELECTION WATCH - How much does experience as a controller count? Ron Galperin is betting it counts for a lot.
The Democratic city controller from Los Angeles is running to replace Betty Yee, who has served as state controller for two terms and is ineligible to run for re-election.
He faces a crowded field in the June 7 primary: Malia Cohen, chairperson of the state Board of Equalization, who has the Democratic Party endorsement; state Sen. Steve Glazer, a Democrat from the East Bay; Democrat Yvonne Yiu, a city council member in the San Gabriel Valley who has poured nearly $6 million into her campaign; and Republican Lanhee Chen, an academic with national political experience.
But none of the other candidates have what Galperin calls the “golden ballot designation” — the title “controller” next to his name.
In a down-ballot race, he hopes that’s enough for voters to boost him into the top two, even though his time as L.A. controller hasn’t been an unqualified success.
“I’m the only one who’s running for this office who has spent the last nine years as a controller, and who’s actually done this day after day,” Galperin said in an interview with CalMatters. “I think what we need is somebody to step into this role, who actually knows what it is that they are doing.”
Here are five key takeaways from the conversation:
Housing is key
Galperin sees the controller post as a way to take on what he calls an “existentialist” and “humanitarian” crisis facing California: housing affordability and homelessness.
“It is a public health crisis. It’s also an economic crisis,” he said. “If we want people to come to California, if we want them to stay, if we want them to invest in California, we’ve got to much better address this problem.”
Taking it on means looking at state spending — specifically the $12 billion approved last year to address homelessness — and whether the money is achieving results.
Galperin cites his experience with Proposition HHH, approved by Los Angeles voters in 2016 to allow city officials to borrow as much as $1.2 billion to reduce homelessness by buying or developing property and remodeling supportive housing and facilities.
Galperin conducted audits and issued reports in 2019, 2020 and this year, flagging rising costs and sluggish development. Specifically, Galperin’s 2022 analysis found that projects were taking from three to six years to complete and costs had increased to an average of $596,846 per unit, with 14% of units exceeding $700,000 and one project topping $800,000.
If elected, Galperin says he plans to create a “strike team” to audit state, county, and municipal spending on homelessness within 60 days of taking office.
Transparency and accountability
Among Galperin’s notable accomplishments as controller in Los Angeles is the creation of a data dashboard itemizing all city expenditures for the last 10 years.
“You can search and filter every single item that we’ve purchased, every dollar that we’ve dispersed,” he said. “And I want to do the very same thing for the state of California.”
Such public information is the first step to transparency, as Galperin sees it. A similar state dashboard would allow him, as controller, to track spending not just on housing and homelessness, but education and local governments.
“We are at one of these moments in time where people do not feel very trusting in government at all … I think our very democracy is at stake right now, and we have to find ways to try and rebuild trust in government,” he said. “I think one of the most important ways that we do that is through the work that a controller does.”
While California does have FI$Cal, its financial management system, the state auditor says it is far over budget and behind schedule. That failure is “particularly shameful,” Galperin said, when California is home to Silicon Valley.
He blames a lack of understanding of how different departments would need to transition to the new software, and trying to make the system do too much. He says he would convene stakeholders to develop a priority list of what can be fixed immediately, and what issues need more expertise and time.
Having an open data dashboard allows stakeholders and activists to help a controller keep an eye on how money is being spent.
“Every day I’m getting emails from a whole variety of different folks saying, ‘Well, what about this expenditure? Can you explain this?’ Or ‘Does this make sense?’ Or ‘Did you know?”
Asked whether his open data approach may have prevented the estimated $20 billion in fraud in the state Employment Development Department during the pandemic, Galperin said that while COVID required quick payments to the jobless, audits done years ago had flagged some of the problems that emerged, but were “largely unheeded.”
“If many of these recommendations had been put in place earlier, you would’ve had a very different result,” he said.
On the economy and taxes
While the state controller doesn’t craft policy, he or she can make recommendations.
A controller might, for example, weigh in on whether it’s prudent to issue stimulus payments from the state’s massive surplus to ease the burdens Californians face from rising gas prices.
Galperin said he believes any relief needs to be more targeted. “We have so many deep and profound needs in this state at this moment that I want to make sure that monies that are distributed are going to those who really need it,” he said.
He also doesn’t support increasing taxes on the wealthy — but does think it’s worth reassessing the state’s overall tax structure to account for an economy based more on services than goods.
“How do we rearrange that tax burden?” he asked. “So we should look at ways that we can make sure that it’s as fair a system as possible.”
The controller also sits on the boards of the nation’s two largest public pension funds for teachers and employees. The state faces a significant shortfall in those funds: As of 2020, the state had just two-thirds of the money it had promised.
Galperin said the state should find ways to maximize investment returns, and also avoid creating a “two-tier” system with new employees receiving lower benefits than existing workers.
And while Galperin generally supports divesting from Russian assets due to the war in Ukraine, he approaches the question with caution:
“If you’re just going to sell it to a Russian oligarch, who’s now going to make a killing on the fact that you sold it at a very depreciated price, does that actually accomplish anything? Does that help the people of Ukraine? Does that punish the Russian government?”
Indictments and corruption in L.A.
Several scandals have rocked L.A. City Hall on Galperin’s watch. But he deflects any direct involvement or responsibility.
In 2020, then-L.A. City Councilmember José Huizar was implicated in an FBI probe, dubbed “Operation Casino Loyale,” for allegedly receiving payoffs in exchange for getting development projects approved. Also in 2020, former Councilmember Mitchell Englander pleaded guilty to trying to stop federal investigators from finding out about cash and other gifts he took. And in 2021, City Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted on allegations of conspiring with a former USC dean while serving on the county Board of Supervisors to provide his son with graduate school admission, a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship in return for county contracts.
“We can have a lot of laws in place. But somebody who wants to steal is often unfortunately going to find ways to do that,” Galperin said.
And all 15 council members have their own “fiefdom” in their districts, where power over lucrative development and construction lends itself to corruption, he said. Galperin says it’s important to hold elected officials to the highest standards. “I will say that for the two that were indicted while in public office, I exercised my power as controller to immediately cut off their pay,” he said.
Galperin’s office, however, was criticized in 2017 for being slow to investigate suspected fraud in the fire department related to potentially falsified inspections. Some alleged that was related to donations that the firefighters union was making to candidates.
But Galperin denied those allegations, saying there are no “sacred cows” and pointing to reports on overtime.
To Galperin, it’s not just about the numbers. He also sees the controller role as a way to increase equity in the state. He initiated the first equity index in the city of Los Angeles, tracking and grading measures such as how many people rent versus own property and how many people live close to toxic sites.
He notes that as a member of the LGBTQ community and the first in his family to be born in the United States, he takes equity seriously.
“My parents were both immigrants who came here, speaking no English, and thankfully were able to create a better life for themselves and for their kids. But we know that so many other individuals and so many other families are struggling,” he said. “So I feel a special responsibility.”
The ‘need to be bold’
Galperin was the first openly gay person to be elected citywide in Los Angeles. If elected controller, he’d be the second openly gay statewide official in California history, after Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, who was elected in 2018 but faces a tough reelection this year.
Galperin and his husband will celebrate the 20th anniversary of their commitment ceremony this year. “It wasn’t called a marriage back then. There was no such thing as marriage equality or as gay marriage,” Galperin recalls.
He was concerned that the activism for marriage equality was jumping ahead of voters and that there might be backlash – which there was, in the form of Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage, but was later overturned in court.
The lesson he learned, he says, was that the American public moved a lot quicker than he expected.
“What I really walked away with is the need to be bold and the need to sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. And my husband, who’s a rabbi, often describes what his job is…to comfort the afflicted and to afflict those who may sometimes be too comforted. And I think that’s also what the job of leadership in the public arena is.”
For the record: This story has been updated to clarify the corruption case involving former Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitchell Englander.
(Sameea Kamal covers the state Capitol and California politics for CalMatters and is also a production assistant. She joined CalMatters in June 2021 from the Los Angeles Times, where she was a News Desk editor. Sameea was one of three 2020 IRE Journalist of Color fellows, and previously worked for the Center for Public Integrity. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia Journalism School. Sameea was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California and is one of the Maynard Institute's M200 fellows. This story was first published in CalMatters.)