Ever since U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and mall master Rick Caruso finished one-two in a contested June mayoral primary, there was a quiet knowledge that the “unexpected” could roil the runoff. To be sure, people posited what form the “unexpected” could take—maybe an earthquake, perhaps an illness. But on no planet did anyone envision the disruption stemming from three veteran Los Angeles City Hall politicians engaging in a roller coaster of racism and hate speech.
Yet the conflagration ignited by Nury Martinez, who resigned Wednesday afternoon, with the involvement of her now former Council colleagues, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, as well as now ex-L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera has impacted everything in L.A., including the contest to succeed Eric Garcetti. That was obvious just moments into Tuesday evening’s third and final Bass-Caruso debate, which was televised live on NBC4 and Telemundo.
The hour-long discussion offered the last in-depth meeting of the candidates, as mail-in ballots land at homes and vote-counting day approaches. While the City Hall upheaval dominated, it wasn’t everything—here are some of the night’s big takeaways.
Both Candidates Grasped the Gravity of This Moment
We have certainly seen politicians on the local and national stage respond the wrong way in times of crisis. That was not the case here. Both Bass and Caruso had already called for the resignation of all three pols, and on the debate stage they understood the gravity of the situation, and neither over- nor underplayed it. “They went into a back room to carve up the city for their own special interest for themselves,” Caruso said in his opening remarks. In her first comments, Bass said, “There needs to be an investigation and those officials must resign. But that’s not enough.”
They both used the opportunity to call for new leadership and, shocker! Each indicated they are the leader L.A. ultimately needs.
Caruso Glimpsed the Future
Caruso launched his campaign in February, and from the jump, one of the pillars of his candidacy was combatting City Hall corruption. Over the months of campaigning, he’s hit the point repeatedly, making everyone think of the federal indictments and forthcoming trials of former or suspended City Council members José Huizar, Mitch Englander, and Mark Ridley-Thomas.
No one foresaw the current catastrophe but the widespread understanding that L.A. has a visible-from-space corruption problem has now reached a whole new plane. Nix mall master and call the guy Carusotrodamus. The developer used this campaign pillar to his advantage Wednesday night, slipping into his style of making a point by saying the same thing again and again. If I had a quarter for every time Caruso harped that, “The system is broken,” then I’d be covered at L.A. parking meters for a year. And that’s including the really expensive Downtown ones.
“Council members need to be free of corruption. That’s like the basic minimum standard,” he said in one of the most on-point and unintentionally funny lines of the night.
Bass Was Ready With a Different Approach
Bass also found a way to make the moment resonate, too, though it was the precise opposite of Caruso’s tack. Whereas discussing corruption made it seem like he saw the future, she looked 32 years into the past.
Coverage of the current crisis has reminded Angelenos of an uncomfortable and enduring divide between some members of the Latino and African-American communities. On the debate stage Bass recalled how, in 1990, she founded the Community Coalition. The South L.A. social justice nonprofit was born in response to the crack epidemic and epitomized grassroots work.
“When we formed Community Coalition, it was deliberately built as an African American and Latino organization,” Bass stated. “I’m proud to say we invested a lot of time in developing two generations of young people who understand the history of Black folks and Brown folks.”
The Nice Stuff
In the first runoff debate, Bass and Caruso had a few snippy moments. The second installment featured more fierce exchanges; many people were expecting the last duel to border on outright warfare, with the pair blasting each other on topics including party affiliation, Scientology, egregious spending, and USC. After all, it would be the last chance to persuade any on-the-fence voters who decided to watch a political debate instead of the first Dodgers playoff game.
Call it another impact of the Nury implosion, but neither Bass nor Caruso dropped bombs. It seemed that the two understood the damage being done to the city, and knew this was not the moment to rip apart an opponent. There were a couple of tough exchanges, including when they poked at each other’s plan to address homelessness, but few egregious remarks were heard.
The L Word
As with the first two debates, the evening brought plenty of talk about plans and policies. Yet the discussion also delivered a greater focus than before on something else tied to being mayor: leadership. After all, the job isn’t just about grand ideas, but having the capacity to excite the city enough to get crucial momentum. Some mayors are better at this than others—first-term Antonio Villaraigosa made people truly believe in the possibilities in L.A. And Jim Hahn was as thrilling as a glass of tap water.
Wednesday’s debate accented the differences in leadership style we have seen before, with Caruso seeming more likely to lead by edict and bully pulpit and Bass by unification.
“The job of the mayor is to be a stabilizing force, to have leadership, have character. Guide it in the right direction,” said Caruso at one point.
Bass exemplified her approach in the line, “We need a new direction in L.A. and new leadership that will make sure we reject the politics of divide and conquer…. We need leaders who will bring Los Angeles together and move the city forward.”
The Winner Is…
Most people I spoke with think Caruso was the stronger performer Tuesday (this includes some Bass supporters). He didn’t blow her away, and not a single Bass backer saw anything to dissuade them. And it’s easy to poke at individual moments from both candidates.
Still, the consensus I heard was that Caruso better described his vision of Los Angeles and came off as the person more likely to deliver it. Not that this matters. Who comes out slightly ahead in a debate on Oct. 11 is utterly inconsequential. All that matters is the votes cast by or on Nov. 8.