On election night in Los Angeles last week, as it became clear that Kenneth Mejia, a 32-year-old activist and accountant, had been elected the city’s controller in a landslide, his campaign manager, Jane Nguyen, told a group of young campaign volunteers who had been criticized for taking part in protests during the campaign that she had their backs.
Mejia, the first Filipino American elected to citywide office in Los Angeles, ran an innovative campaign that made use of old and new media, including educational billboards with bar charts showing how the city’s spending on policing compares to other priorities, and TikTok videos featuring the candidate dancing with Gen Z volunteers or in a Pikachu costume. But the campaign was powered by harnessing the energy young activists usually pour into protests — and redirecting it into electoral politics.
WHAT?!?! Where did this billboard come from telling all of Los Angeles where our budget priorities are?!
It's like whoever put it up wants Angelenos to know where their taxes are being spent!
Olympic & Crenshaw pic.twitter.com/TjF4XzEM88
— Kenneth Mejia, CPA (@kennethmejiaLA) August 23, 2022
We are so much more than a campaign who was good at social media however, we were pretty dang good lol pic.twitter.com/qgYtTBVTFt
— dan ? (@dannie_doe) November 13, 2022
A longtime housing justice organizer with the LA Tenants Union, Mejia was first inspired to run for office by the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, which had also convinced some veterans of protest movements like Occupy Wall Street that it might be possible to bring about change through electoral politics.
After three unsuccessful races for Congress since then — first as a Sanders-aligned Democrat, and then as a Green Party candidate — Mejia set his sights on the city controller’s office and assembled a campaign team made up almost entirely of fellow organizers and activists. That included Nguyen, who got into local politics through homelessness advocacy in 2018, when she co-founded a group to campaign for a homeless shelter and services in her Koreatown neighborhood. She then did graphics work for the successful City Council campaign of Nithya Raman, who was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America in 2020.
In her election night speech to volunteers last week, Nguyen spoke of “the harm and the pain that some of you had to endure because you dared to volunteer for this campaign,” and accused Mejia’s opponent, outgoing LA City Councilmember Paul Koretz, of running “one of the dirtiest campaigns that I have ever seen.” (Koretz’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
“It wasn’t enough, she said, “just to drag Kenneth’s name through the mud, they had to viciously attack some of the youngest members of our team for daring to speak out. We’ve been asked over and over again, ‘Do you denounce the actions of your volunteers?’ ‘Do you condemn them for protesting — for disrupting a meeting?’
“Here’s what I have to say about that,” Nguyen said. “I mean, fuck that!”
Kenneth Mejia’s campaign manager @theglowingstars has a message:
“it wasn’t enough that th they had to drag kenneth’s name through the mud, they attacked some of the youngest members of the campaign for daring to speak out. Here’s what I have to say about that: FUCK THAT!” pic.twitter.com/jtm0a5miqy
— People's City Council – Los Angeles (@PplsCityCouncil) November 9, 2022
“We will never apologize for confronting and challenging power,” Nguyen continued, after cheers and chants of “Fuck that” died down. “We will always stand by and fight alongside those demanding a better way of life from people in power. And when Kenneth is in office, I will hold him accountable to that.”
The Koretz campaign, in an email to his supporters, had indeed attacked Mejia, Nguyen, and their young volunteers for taking part in protests, and for what Koretz called “deeply disturbing behavior,” like disrupting a city council meeting, which he compared to “the January 6 Capitol insurrection.”
The homepage of Koretz’s campaign website also prominently featured an image of Mejia at a housing protest and a link to a separate website devoted to collecting opposition research about Mejia and his campaign volunteers, called TruthAboutMejia.com.
Along with screenshots of Mejia’s past online comments in support of defunding the police, and criticism of Democrats including Joe Biden, that site denounced activism by young Mejia campaign volunteers — like the climate activist Sim Bilal, who disrupted a mayoral forum in March by shouting insults at the subsequently disgraced Councilmember Kevin de León. The site also denounced the Mejia campaign for urging volunteers like Kyler Chin, an 18-year-old web designer and Sunrise Movement organizer, to attend protests aimed at stopping City Council from banning homeless encampments near schools this summer.
But Mejia and Nguyen, who first met at a housing protest in front of a councilmember’s home, were never likely to distance themselves from volunteers who share their faith in the importance of disrupting the status quo by taking to the streets.
In fact, the candidate and his campaign manager even attended one of the raucous protests against the City Council’s anti-camping ordinance in August, and trolled Koretz by posting a photo of themselves inside the chamber during a public comment period before activists disrupted the meeting.
We’re at City Hall today to support our unhoused neighbors. pic.twitter.com/aAbnEVWbIn
— Kenneth Mejia, CPA (@kennethmejiaLA) August 9, 2022
“Almost all of our volunteers consist of activists and organizers,” Nguyen told me by phone from Los Angeles this week. “We don’t have consultants on our team, who are professionals. We have activists who are already on the ground doing the work of advocating for their community.”
“So what activists do is they protest and sometimes they engage in disruptive protest, including disrupting a mayoral forum or disrupting a City Council meeting or protesting at politicians’ houses,” Nguyen said. “One of our values is holding powerful people accountable, and so Kenneth has never disapproved or condemned our volunteers for their actions.”
“We are community organizers,” Mejia said on Wednesday in an interview with Spectrum News. “We had over 1,200 volunteer sign-ups; we knocked on over 110,000 doors; we were very good with social media, thanks to our Gen Z team members,” he added.
Appearing with one of his pet corgis, who played a prominent role in the campaign’s ads, Mejia explained that he had used the billboards, charting the city’s spending, to show that he was already effectively doing the work of the controller by auditing the city’s finances and educating the public about how their tax money was being spent.
NEW: LA's new city controller Kenneth Mejia threw out the playbook and recruited Gen-Z volunteers to help shape his campaign strategy with TikTok videos, Corgis and informative billboards.
"We are community organizers. We are professionals, too. And we like to have fun." pic.twitter.com/mqjwIoMoAb
— Kate Cagle (@KateCagle) November 16, 2022
Rather than distance himself from the city’s protest culture, as his opponent and several of the city’s Democratic clubs had demanded, Mejia’s campaign made his experience as a protest leader central to his argument that voters could trust him to keep an eye on the city government.
A biographical campaign video released in late 2020 started with an analysis of how much money the city spends policing peaceful protests, and featured images of Mejia marching with a placard at one protest, shouting through a bullhorn at another, and banging on a drum at a third.
Nguyen explained to me that the campaign’s first and most eye-catching billboard, a bar chart showing how massive the Los Angeles Police Department budget is compared to spending on other departments, came out of her work doing graphics for the People’s Budget LA, an alternative city budget produced in 2020 by a coalition of activists led by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.
About two weeks before George Floyd’s murder, Nguyen said, as the City Council was getting ready to approve the city budget, Black Lives Matter LA brought activist groups together to prepare to fight for a reduced LAPD budget, in part by producing an analysis of what the city was spending.
“I was really interested in that because I saw that the LAPD budget took up half of the unrestricted revenue, and it left so very little for homelessness and housing,” Nguyen told me. While combing through the fine print, she noticed that the mayor only reported the LAPD’s operating budget, which was about $1.7 billion, obscuring that the real total, including pension payments and other costs, was more than $3 billion.
“I just found it mind-blowing that no one knew how big the LAPD budget was,” Nguyen recalled. So she set out to produce a bar chart comparing what the city spent on policing to housing, emergency management, and other departments. “That visualization really radicalized so many people, including myself, and it paved the way for a lot of our campaign on defunding the police,” Nguyen said.
Essentially the same graphic, displayed on billboards around the city, brought a wave of attention, and helped secure the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times for Mejia’s campaign to convince voters that what the city controller’s office needed was an activist accountant.
In August, Mejia told Bolts magazine that one of his main goals as controller will be to audit the city’s sweeps of homeless camps and the criminalization of homelessness. “I think what you’ll find is tens of millions of dollars being spent on these sweeps — and you’ll notice that the performance metrics of getting people housed from the sweeps are terrible,” Mejia said. “I’m hoping that we can show just how much the city has failed on tackling homelessness.”
Nguyen, who will be Mejia’s chief of staff when he takes office in December, told me that she doesn’t expect to keep protesting while working in government. “We’ll be able to hold elected officials and the city government accountable in a different way, and hopefully in a more powerful way,” Nguyen told me, “using the power of audits, and compelling departments and city officials to provide us with documentation.” Mejia, she added, will be “using his platform to publicize his audits and, as someone from an organizing background … mobilize people to pressure their elected officials to act.”