Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick has her own way of gearing up for the day during her morning commute: She blasts bagpipe music on her car stereo and pictures herself as a Scottish warrior, heading into battle.
The fantasy might come as no surprise to her colleagues at City Hall, where Chick, the first woman elected to citywide office in Los Angeles, has acquired a reputation over the last decade as a firebrand who doesn't shrink from a fight.
But recently, the former therapist raised the stakes by calling for criminal investigations into the way the airport department hands out contracts and sounding alarms about the potential for corruption at City Hall.
With the Los Angeles County Grand Jury and a federal grand jury looking into the city's contracting practices, Chick finds herself alternately hailed as a crusader for clean government and dismissed as a political grandstander and a hypocrite.
The controller appears to be unfazed by the criticism.
Since calling for investigations into potential illegal acts in December, she has repeatedly said there was a widespread perception that those who want to do business with the city must ante up with campaign contributions.
"There is an arrogance in Los Angeles city government that is so thick you could cut it with a knife," the former councilwoman said last month.
She also said she had formed an ethics brigade to crusade for cleaner government. Her first goal is a ban on city commissioners raising money for local political campaigns. The city's 350 commissioners, most of whom are appointed by the mayor, oversee the city's departments and award millions of dollars in contracts. At the same time, many raise thousands of dollars for elected officials in the city.
Several City Council members are also pushing for the ban, and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley have supported the proposal. Earlier this month, the city Ethics Commission endorsed the idea, and the full City Council could consider it this month.
Initially, however, Mayor James K Hahn did not embrace the idea, prompting the controller to threaten to withdraw her endorsement of his reelection. But amid mounting pressure, Hahn has proposed more sweeping restrictions on political contributions, fundraising and lobbying. He also said he would support the proposal to ban fundraising by commissioners.
Some City Hall observers have said that Chick's agenda includes tainting Hahn's administration because she wants to run for his office.
"Laura is just trying to get publicity," said former City Councilman Hal Bernson, who describes himself as a friend. "She has no problem stepping on other people to do that."
Chick acknowledges that she has pondered a possible run for mayor in 2005. Still, she is outraged that anyone would question her motives.
"I get very angry and very indignant when people attribute incorrect motives to me," she said. "I know what my motives are, and I'm in a difficult struggle to achieve what the public wants."
Despite more than a decade as an elected official in Los Angeles, Chick, 59, likes to portray herself as an outsider, one who stubbornly refuses to follow the unwritten rules of Los Angeles politics.
Raised in a relatively modest neighborhood of Beverly Hills, she married soon after college and settled down with her children in the San Fernando Valley. When she began to think about a career, she turned to social work, getting a master's degree from USC.
In 1988, she began working as a field deputy to then-City Councilwoman Joy Picus, who represented a portion of the Valley. Soon after quitting that job in 1991, she stunned her former boss by running against her.
"She came to me and said she loved working for me, and she found it truly satisfying, but she wanted to think about what to do with her life," Picus said. "She didn't give a hint that she was going to run for office. I thought she had been less than forthright."
Chick went on to defeat Picus in the 1993 election and quickly distinguished herself as an effective policymaker with a quirky, brash style.
"She got things for [her] district," said David Fleming, chairman of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.
As head of the council's Public Safety Committee, she championed efforts to improve the Police and Fire departments, at times fighting bitterly with then-Mayor Richard Riordan over the pace of improvements.
She was a vocal critic of wasteful practices, blasting the Department of Water and Power for spending $800,000 on catered food during a strike and the LAPD for spending bond money earmarked for construction on new furniture.
And she roiled the political establishment by calling City Hall "the most sexist, good-old-boys work environment" she had ever encountered.
She also acquired a reputation as someone who doesn't take herself too seriously.