L.A. Mayoral Debate: Informative, Entertaining and Truly Bashtastic

Cityside Column: Rick Caruso took the most shots, and fired back, in advance of the June election

In the run-up to Tuesday evening’s mayoral debate, the most interesting question was not who would win, but rather, which metaphor would be the most fitting? With billionaire mall developer Rick Caruso finally opting to share a stage with the other candidates, the possibilities were endless: Would he be subject to a political pile-on by the other four leading contenders? Would they grill Caruso like overcooked burgers at a Memorial Day picnic? Or would U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, City Attorney Mike Feuer, and councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León go the route of an L.A. child’s backyard birthday party and take turns whacking him like a piñata?

And as one crafty journalist said when I floated the idea, if that happens, would candy come spilling out?

No candy erupted at the event in USC’s Bovard Auditorium before a packed and heavily screened audience, but there were still plenty of treats for everyone who watched. Over the course of 90 minutes, Caruso indeed got the piñata treatment, though he revealed himself to be ready to pick up the stick and bash back.

This was by far the most entertaining and informative mayoral gathering, following a series of kinda-sorta forums that Caruso conspicuously skipped. It was televised live on FOX11 and, unlike previous happenings, not one loud F-bomb flew from those in the seats. Moderators Erika D. Smith of the Los Angeles Times and Elex Michaelson of FOX11 News hit a plethora of topics in a crisply moving evening (the event was sponsored by FOX11, the Times and the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future). For those who haven’t caught him before, Michaelson has emerged as perhaps the best debate moderator in town, with a keen ability to draw out thoughtful answers while also herding cats.

There were five people on stage, but all eyes were on Caruso. If he didn’t like the barbs sent his way, or that much of the post-event analysis was on his performance, well, that’s on him—if he shows up more frequently, then the newness of attacking the billionaire will wear off.

How did the mall master fare? Probably better than his naysayers expected, and not as well as his core supporters would spin it. Although this was his first debate, the terrain wasn’t unfamiliar; Caruso has spent ample time facing tough challenges in heated environments, including his years on the Los Angeles Police Commission. And he has never been shy about tossing bombs at government—as I wrote last month, he made waves in a 2012 speech by declaring to a well-heeled Downtown crowd that, “I strongly believe City Hall is a roadblock that’s keeping Los Angeles from reaching its potential.”

He repeatedly hit his talking points on Tuesday, seeking to paint Los Angeles as a mess due to homelessness, City Hall corruption and crime. These are all topics voters care about, and ones Caruso pounds in the TV ads that seem to run every six minutes, but on the Bovard stage he wavered from detailing unparalleled business experience to falling back on clichés and overstating the situation. If I had a quarter for each time he dismissively uttered the phrase “career politicians,” then I’d have enough to do laundry. When the topic of police hiring—he wants to add 1,500 cops—came up, he stated, “Right now we have some of the worst crime we’ve had in the history of Los Angeles.”

That’s bananas. Yes, homicides are up, but the murder rate was much higher in the late 1980s and early ’90s. And for all the hand-wringing about follow-home attacks and smash and grabs in the city, burglary and robbery numbers are well below what they were in the middle of the last decade. Caruso also didn’t look so smooth early on when, responding to a perceived attack that was pretty much nothing, he remarked, “I don’t have notes. I didn’t realize we were able to bring notes here,” and how one misses that bit of detail I have no idea.

Still, Caruso generally fared well. Then again, all five candidates had more strong moments than weak ones, and while no one outwardly won the debate, no one face-planted, either. Bass, who in the first forum in December sounded like she was speaking on fast forward, has slowed her delivery and grown more comfortable, and ably presents ties to federal government that could help money flow to L.A. While Caruso zapped Feuer for an ongoing federal investigation into the City Attorney’s office over its role in a bungled DWP billing system roll-out, the mustachioed man detailed extensive government experience and accomplishments on myriad subjects from homelessness to gun violence. He spoke with confidence and never got flustered.

Buscaino, a former cop, lost a desired endorsement when the Police Protective League backed Caruso, but he still claims his lane better than anyone as a pro-LAPD leader willing to clear tent encampments if people experiencing homelessness refuse offers of shelter and service, and while that raises the hackles of the far left, it could resonate with more conservative voters. De León spends a lot of time beating the same drum, talking about homeless housing that has opened in his district and his own difficult past, but he too is clearly targeting a lane as the voice of janitors, nannies and other working Angelenos. He also effectively pointed to environmental efforts he propelled while president of the state Senate.

The net result was that the evening emerged as a mix of chest thumping and attacks, and despite candidates’ efforts to stand out, everyone is running as a moderate to slightly left Democrat in an overly Blue city. There may be differences in plans for the size of the police force, but no one wants to defund. There are disagreements as to whether District Attorney George Gascón should be recalled, but no one was up there giving him a proverbial “Attaboy!”

That left the jabs, and they were entertaining. Feuer asserted that Caruso has opposed rent control while building luxury residences, but not affordable or homeless housing. Caruso responded by ignoring the rent control line, offering a pointed, “Mike, I’m sorry you opened this door,” and hitting the city attorney for the DWP investigation. Feuer and Buscaino each at different points mentioned Caruso’s $100 million yacht, Invictus, which ultimately prompted six words I never expected to hear at a mayoral debate, as Caruso intoned, “I do have a nice boat.”

Things got sauciest about 70 minutes in, Caruso weaving together the lines “there’s 63 years of career politicians on this stage,” and, “there’s a lot of empty promises.” That brought an annoyed counter not from one of the other candidates, but all four.

“Stop denigrating ‘career politicians,’ people who have devoted their life to public service,” instructed Bass. De León went further, remarking “With all due respect Rick, you and I are two very different individuals, and I have a body of work that you can only dream of having.”

The debate would run another 15 minutes, but it was tame after that, the moderators switching to shorter individual questions, and Michaelson explaining, “We’re starting to run out of time because everybody went after each other.”

May round two occur soon.