It is less than six months until Los Angeles voters head to the polls to pick their next mayor, and for the first time, the main candidates seeking to succeed Eric Garcetti came together.
Well, kind of.
On Sunday afternoon, the Stonewall Democratic Club, the Minority AIDS Project and the National Association of Black Journalists-Los Angeles chapter hosted a forum, offering an opportunity for mayoral aspirants to discuss the challenges the city faces, and how those issues can be solved. It was even keeled and about 60 percent informative—the figure is a reference to the proportion of leading candidates who attended. Below are some of the takeaways.
Historically, local political forums are buzzy affairs, with civic-minded crowds eager to hear from would-be elected leaders. Before the events start, candidates seem to have a contest for who can shake the most hands. But that’s not the case during a pandemic; the happening at the Minority AIDS Project’s headquarters on Jefferson Boulevard had fewer than 50 people in the audience, and there was zero glad-handing. Nor was there the partisan applause that normally interrupts, and adds energy, to these events. Darn you, coronavirus!
Pre-event flyers listed five leading candidates as attending. Yet as is often the case in politics, things didn’t work out as planned. Stonewall Democrats President Alex Mohajer began the event by stating that council members Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León “canceled last minute, very last minute, due to scheduling conflicts.” He seemed none too pleased about their absence, adding, “we consider it a statement of their priorities that they would choose not to attend today and on such short notice. The Black community and the LGBTQ community deserve to have a seat at the table.”
Buscaino spokesman Michael Trujillo countered that the councilman has a long history supporting these communities. “Weeks after being elected to City Council, Buscaino lead and brought the NoH8 campaign to Los Angeles City Hall. It was one of his first actions as an elected official and Los Angeles should know the LGBTQ community is a priority to him,” Trujillo stated. “However, like all humans balancing work, life, a campaign, [and] family, sometimes conflicts arise on a person’s schedule.”
Jonathan Underland, a spokesman for de León, also disagreed with the priorities assertion. “Scheduling conflicts are a natural byproduct of campaign season,” he said. “I know Kevin is disappointed he couldn’t make it, especially given his deep history of supporting the LGBTQ and Black communities across Los Angeles.”
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, City Attorney Mike Feuer and Central City Association President and CEO Jessica Lall were all in the house, but three people on stage might have seemed thin. So the organizers invited Craig Greiwe, an executive with PR firm Rogers & Cowan/PMK.
Before the event began, Mohajer asked the candidates not to launch personal attacks. They did as requested, and went further, not even questioning the policies or records of anyone else on stage. This shouldn’t be surprising—first forums are when the aspirants learn what their competitors have planned, and fireworks are often saved for closer to election day. Instead of combat, the candidates used the forum to offer up their brag sheet and attempt to connect with people watching on Zoom.
So how did they do?
The six-term Congresswoman is the presumed frontrunner in the race, and for good reason—she is adored by progressives and made waves when she was on the shortlist to be Joe Biden’s running mate.
Bass didn’t do anything to harm her leading-player status, but she didn’t really excite, either. Her opening statement was extensive but rushed, and sounded like when you run your podcast at 1.5 speed. Still, she was well-informed and demonstrated her experience by repeatedly pointing to legislation and efforts she worked on while in Congress and, before that, during her time in the state legislature. Nothing surprised her, whether the topic was violence against transgender people, police reform or the environment. She appeared accomplished and capable.
She did bumble one fact: When comparing responding to homelessness to the city rebounding after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Bass stated, “We rebuilt the 10 Freeway in one year.” The reality was far better—under then-Mayor Richard Riordan, the fallen portion of the freeway reopened less than three months after the temblor.
Telling line: “I have never had patience with the status quo. I’ve worked closely with City Hall, but I’ve never been a City Hall insider.”
I’ve heard a number of political observers question whether Feuer, who has won two City Attorney elections, can woo enough voters to capture the mayor’s race. It’s a fair question in a crowded field, but onstage, one was reminded of how well Feuer performs in front of a crowd. He spoke confidently and comfortably no matter the topic, and routinely cited personal experience and leadership, from mentioning his work on marriage equality to his office cracking down on the “dumping” of homeless patients released from area hospitals. He was mega-informed on every issue raised, and his plans included spurring housing creation near mass transit, and aiming to recycle water. He talked about setting specific goals and being judged by them, and said he would appoint a deputy mayor for small business.
Telling line: “My first day as mayor, I’d declare a state of emergency on homelessness. It gives the mayor additional executive authority and it galvanizes the public. This is not a problem, it’s an emergency.”
The business executive is widely respected in Downtown, where she leads prominent advocacy and lobbying organization the CCA. At the forum she pointed to her experience there and at her previous post helming a business improvement district, and her mayoral suggestions included addressing the housing shortage in part by propelling the creation of micro-units in apartment building, and creating a city public health department. She also talked up the need to speed up the development pipeline and create a city where people don’t drive across town, but where they can find most of what they need 15 minutes from home.
That said, she didn’t always appear comfortable on stage, and if I had a quarter for every time Lall used the phrase, “As mayor…” then I’d have enough quarters to park in the most crowded part of Downtown all day.
Telling line: “Public safety is about so much more than policing… We need to be thinking comprehensively and holistically, increasing the tools in the toolbox to make sure that all Angelenos don’t just feel safe, but they actually are safe.”
I’d never heard of Greiwe before he recently launched his run for mayor, nor had almost anyone I know who follows local politics. He presented himself well and pushed accountability, but whereas other candidates pointed to their accomplishments in the city or government, Greiwe mostly said what he’d like to do as mayor—the result is that he seemed out of his league, someone who is thoughtful, but for whom the office of mayor as a first political job is an absolutely massive overreach. He’d seem much more viable running for City Council or another lesser elected post.
Telling line: “It may seem impossible, but my entire life has been impossible to the very fact that I would be sitting here today…. I pledge to be your mayor, and a mayor for the impossible in Los Angeles.”
This may have been the quickest mayoral forum in history, just 44 minutes from Bass’ first line in her opening statement, to Lall’s final comment in her closing remarks. The candidates covered a lot of ground, too, fielding seven questions from moderators and NABJ leaders Jarrett Hill and Tanya McRae.
It was efficient and tidy, and as one reporter I spoke with pointed out, it allowed plenty of time to go home and watch the season finale of “Succession.” Somehow, that was fitting.
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