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Public Indifference Plagues Hopefuls in City Controller Race

March 03, 1985|VICTOR MERINA | Times Staff Writer

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.

No Animosity

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.

Waxman-Berman Backing

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