On Tuesday at 6 p.m., a debate with five candidates seeking to be the next mayor of Los Angeles began. By the time the event on the campus of Loyola Marymount University ended an hour later, it was already bordering on legendary, due to a squadron of loud, expletive-spewing disruptors.
There was much more to the evening than some F-bombs, and Angelenos who paid attention came away with information about the people who were on the stage, as well as those who weren’t. Here are some highlights, takeaways and things to know.
The Mall Master Was Missing
This was the second time the leading candidates in the June 7 election had the chance to appear together on stage, but it was vastly different than the first happening. At that event, hosted by the Stonewall Democratic Club on Dec. 12, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and City Attorney Mike Feuer were joined by Jessica Lall and Craig Greiwe. Lall dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, and this time Bass and Feuer took spots at podiums alongside City Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León, and real estate agent Mel Wilson.
Notably missing was the person everyone wanted to see: developer Rick Caruso. Moderator Fernando Guerra said Caruso “declined” invitations to attend. A Caruso spokesman said that the decline was due to “scheduling reasons,” but that Caruso will participate in a debate at Cal State L.A. on May 1, and may show up to others. “Rick looks forward to debates during the campaign, emphasizing those that will reach the most voters,” the spokesman said.
Scheduling conflicts? Few believe that was the case, especially when four elected officials all put this on their schedule. Perhaps it was more about avoiding conflicts.
This was like going to a Lakers game while LeBron sits out with an injured toe. It was still interesting and entertaining, but everyone knew something big was missing. Without Caruso, it felt like a kinda-sorta debate.
There Would Have Been Conflicts
If you’re a Caruso strategist, you probably don’t want him at many debates, because the other candidates will likely dogpile on him. Even with him off the stage, Feuer lashed out, charging that there were a slew of sexual assaults at USC while Caruso was chair of the Board of Trustees. Buscaino also took a shot, asserting that the guy behind The Grove and the Americana on Brand is anti-union, which in Los Angeles is the most poisonous thing you can call someone outside of labeling them a Republican.
Had Caruso attended, he surely would have been hit with these and others barbs, and candidates would have been climbing over each other to remind the audience that Caruso only registered as a Democrat in late January.
Debate, Meet Forum
People call these events debates, even though candidates rarely debate each other. They usually do mini-speeches, major self back-patting, and hardly engage. The only true tangle came, during a conversation about homelessness, when Buscaino threw a pitchfork at Feuer for what is known as the Mitchell case. Buscaino, as he has done before, lambasted the city attorney for settling the case, which concerns the possessions of homeless individuals, instead of going to trial (the decision to settle infuriated some Downtown community groups). Feuer picked up the pointy object and slung it right back, stating that only Buscaino and José Huizar voted against a settlement, and if people thought of the disgraced council rep now caught up in an ugly FBI investigation, that was no accident.
The event was broadcast live on Spectrum, so Angelenos tuning in got to see the half-dozen people who interrupted the event to scream at the candidates. The disruptors operated in whack-a-mole style, with a new one jumping up shortly after the previous one was moved out. Give credit to the LMU security staff for keeping their cool and not physically engaging, and for making the call not to have LAPD officers involved.
I’m sure the disruptors don’t care about anyone else’s reaction, but they misplayed their hand. Their message was muddled, with screaming vitriol overwhelming any sort of call to action. Rather than persuade people, they wound up having the majority of the room boo them.
Buscaino, a former cop, looked impressive for reflexively stepping in front of the podium when someone tried to rush the stage, and Guerra got points for turning the disruptions into a question about civic discourse. But the big loser was the public—after this, every future debate organizer will almost certainly severely limit the number of people in the audience.
Homelessness Is Topic No. 1
Everyone already knew homelessness was the most important issue for voters, and the forum only confirmed it. Buscaino, de León, Feuer and Bass all have talking points on their plans and accomplishments, but in general everyone agrees that there is a need to offer comprehensive mental health and substance abuse treatment, reduce the sky-high cost of building homeless housing, and ultimately not allow people to live in filth on the streets and sidewalks.
Issue two was public safety, and no one on stage wanted to defund the LAPD or reduce the size of the police force. Hence the disruptors.
I can’t fathom why Wilson was there. Sure, he’s a former Metro board member, but the only way he has a chance to win is if the five principal candidates have a debate on Caruso’s yacht and it gets lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Through Dec. 31, each of the four elected officials had raised at least $969,000 in campaign donations, and Bass has pulled in nearly $2 million. Wilson, meanwhile, had raised just $141,000, according to documents filed with the City Ethics Commission, and had spent $146,000 on his campaign.
He was fine on stage, and impressed the crowd by mentioning that he once had a ’57 Chevy, but is making the mistake many have made before him—unless you’ve got Richard Riordan or Michael Bloomberg-style experience, being mayor is not a starter political job.
Candidates attend forums for one primary reason: to convince people to vote for them. It’s hard to think any undecided person who watched the LMU event would walk away feeling strongly about any of the four main candidates. While each had moments, there was no runaway winner, no one who you would unequivocally say is the best prepared to lead Los Angeles for the next four or eight years.
This isn’t a dig. None of the four fared poorly. No one embarrassed themself. They all showed they were thoughtful, even likable, and you believed that they care about Angelenos and the challenges facing the city.
But ultimately, it felt like the candidates were getting used to the stage, that they recognize this is a lengthy process and were keeping their powder dry for later in the campaign. If the prime directive for any candidate at this point in the election cycle is, “Don’t Screw Up,” then mission accomplished. No one screwed up.
On to the next debate, er, forum.
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