If You Support Karen Bass or Rick Caruso, Your Candidate Won the Mayoral Debate

Cityside Column: The finalists throw darts as election day approaches but neither was particularly inspiring on the debate stage

By the time Wednesday evening’s 55 minutes of verbal fisticuffs came to a close, supporters of U.S. Rep. Karen Bass had to feel good about her performance in the first debate of the runoff. After capturing the flag in the June primary, the Los Angeles mayoral race frontrunner re-affirmed her position as a lifelong, unwavering Democrat in a city where Republicans might as well have to wear a scarlet R. She reminded viewers of her roots founding the social justice nonprofit the Community Coalition, and although she fielded fire for accepting a free ride for a master’s degree in social work from the embattled University of Southern California, Bass made up for this with a display of progressive leanings and proclamations of how protecting a woman’s reproductive rights “is a reflection of your values.”

At the same time, backers of Rick Caruso had to grin when the debate closed five minutes before the start of the new season of Survivor. Although he trailed Bass by seven points in June’s primary race, the throwdown in an auditorium at the Skirball Cultural Center provided him the opportunity to detail how his business-oriented approach would put Los Angeles in a position to create desperately needed housing. The billionaire took flack for his Republican past but stuck to the points that have defined his candidacy—charging that homelessness and crime are out of control, and corruption is plaguing City Hall. He cemented the idea that if you want something beyond another politician, then he’s your guy. 

“I don’t need a deputy mayor for business,” he stated after Bass said she’d create just such a post. “I know business.”

Those who tuned in unsure who to support and who were willing to side with whichever candidate could make a convincing argument that they can make headway against L.A.’s homelessness crisis—because that’s the one thing everyone in the city is talking about and dominated the debate—probably left as uncertain as when they arrived. That’s because despite Caruso detailing plans to create 30,000 beds and hire 500 caseworkers in his first year in office, and despite Bass reminding that homelessness is not a monolithic problem but rather one where myriad elements put people on the streets for different reasons, it seemed that neither had the overarching solution Los Angeles wants. Probably because it doesn’t exist.

In other words, the debate was like many debates—one where spin-meisters could deliver all sorts of tenable reasons for why their candidate “won,” and select “evidence” to show how the other lied and face-planted. But take a step back and the evening was more likely to solidify previous feelings on both mayoral hopefuls.

The event was fast-paced and entertaining, with moderators Elex Michaelson of FOX 11 (which televised the event), L.A. Times columnist Erika D. Smith and Univision anchor Gabriela Teissier hopscotching from topic to topic and offering sharp questions that the candidates had to really work to evade. That included different facets of the public safety discussion—when pressed, Caruso refused to state on a scale of 1 to 10 how safe he feels in Los Angeles. Bass responded to questions about the recent burglary at her Baldwin Vista home, but it still felt like viewers were only getting 60 percent of the answers about what really went down and how two locked-away guns were stolen, while cash and jewelry were left behind.

The two sought to ding each other multiple times. Caruso asserted that homelessness in the city soared while Bass was in office, and Bass countered that, for all Caruso’s building, he has never created affordable housing. They sliced each other with assertions related to USC; Caruso questioned the scholarship, and Bass asked for transparency over how Caruso, as chair of the university’s Board of Trustees, dealt with the scandal of a gynecologist who sexually abused students.

They wrestled over policing, although each wants to grow a department that has shrunk to under 9,300 officers. Bass hopes to get the LAPD to about 9,700 cops, and called for moving police from administrative posts to the streets. Caruso wants to boost the force to 11,000.

There were supremely unbelievable moments. It was hard not to guffaw when Caruso indicated he’d be fine with street vendors setting up outside of The Grove, prompting the questioner, KPCC reporter Frank Stoltz, to remark on having a bacon-wrapped hot dog the next time he’s there. At another moment, after Caruso described how he would bring an ethics czar to City Hall, Bass exclaimed, “He stole my plan!” and described her own similar proposal. Caruso pointed out that he had never before heard her plan to reign in corruption at City Hall. 

In a curious way, there were perhaps too many specifics, and maybe not enough talk about something more ethereal that Los Angeles needs most of all from whoever replaces termed-out Mayor Eric Garcetti: strong leadership. Sure, that word was tossed about, with Bass saying near the beginning, “We need a new direction with bold and decisive leadership,” and Caruso remarking at the end, “Leadership starts with setting the tone.” 

But arguably, the most important task for a mayor is to lead the city, offer vision, and create excitement and belief among residents about their city’s potential. On Wednesday night, there was precious little discussion of what that would entail and how either Bass or Caruso would lead and inspire L.A. to the 2028 Olympics and beyond. Instead, the big takeaway may have been the polar opposite. As the debate closed, the two were asked to describe the state of Los Angeles in a single word. For once, they were in accord. The word, they agreed, is “crisis.”

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