Scenes From the Snippy L.A. Mayoral Debate

Cityside Column: Five candidates show up and get tougher as election day nears

On Sunday evening, for the second and presumably final time before Angelenos begin casting their ballots, the five leading candidates for mayor of Los Angeles came together on the same stage. A 90-minute televised debate on the Cal State L.A. campus, hosted by the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, the League of Women Voters and ABC7, was sometimes staid and occasionally snippy. Here is some of what went down.


The Room Where It Happens

Even though only a few dozen people were in the theater, there was a heightened level of expectation, much of which came from the presence of mall master Rick Caruso. Although U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, City Attorney Mike Feuer, and councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León have appeared at a couple dozen in-person and Zoom forums over the past four-plus months, Caruso did the bare minimum to claim he is participating in the public electoral process. This is entirely strategic—the guy has donated $22.5 million to his own campaign, and spent $23.78 million. He has made clear that his preferred mode to communicate with voters is TV commercials.


Missing Elements

Before the debate, I made three silent predictions: I guessed there would be at least four mentions of Caruso’s spending, two candidates would point to his $100 million yacht, and that Bass, even with her reticence to toot her horn, would once tout the Los Angeles Times endorsement she secured that morning. I was wrong on all three—Bass didn’t pat her own back or mention the Times. That turned out to be a mini-trend, as Caruso didn’t let viewers know that the Daily News endorsed him.

A number of barbs went Caruso’s way, but the yacht—which in a USC debate in March prompted him to utter, “I do have a nice boat”—never came up. And no one specifically mentioned his almost $24 million in spending.

Bass referred to his wealth and development history and chided him for not building affordable housing, and Caruso parried the thrust by remarking on his charitable giving. And there was only a single mention of the campaign outlay, with Feuer in his closing statement telling viewers, “If we allow our city’s outcome to be based on money, then we deserve what we get.”


Homelessness Above All

The homelessness crisis has been the leading issue throughout the race, and it was more of the same Sunday. This makes sense, as Angelenos remain frustrated by the sprawl of tent encampments, and advocates for people experiencing homelessness charge that the city has not done enough to deliver housing and support services.

Responses were predictable, with each candidate seeking to convince viewers and voters that they are the person most likely to make a difference. There were multiple promises to declare a state of emergency on the day the next mayor is sworn in. Buscaino twice referred to building hundreds of beds of permanent and temporary housing in his district, and de León three times referenced housing 80 percent of those living on the streets in Northeast Los Angeles.

Caruso sought to portray himself as the antidote to long-term officeholders he feels have not done enough, stating, “This city has been suffering for a long time.” He referenced City Hall and added, “the lack of compassion, the way people are living, is literally 10 minutes from the offices of the people to the left of me.” I assume he meant his rivals’ physical positioning, though he could have been referring to their political philosophy.


Attack Time

During the USC debate, Caruso was the target of numerous barbs. That worked to his advantage, as he was allowed to respond to each attack, and wound up getting more TV time than anyone else. Everyone seems to have learned from the past, and at first the candidates didn’t take many swings. Additionally, host Marc Brown kept the reins tight—in his opening statement Feuer derided Caruso for his penchant for building glitzy malls, and when Caruso asked to respond, Brown said no.

Things loosened up about 20 minutes in, and soon folks got chippy and spread their criticism around. Buscaino lambasted Feuer for a legal settlement related to the possessions homeless individuals can keep on the street; Bass zapped Caruso for comments he has made about elected officials; Buscaino lightly swung at Bass for the federal government’s lack of subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles; de León dinged Caruso for a bunch of things related to his time on the board overseeing the Department of Water and Power.

A question about the “broken windows” theory of policing, a strategy deployed when William Bratton was chief and Caruso sat on the LAPD Commission, ignited a round of fireworks, with de León charging that Caruso criminalized homelessness. Caruso called that a “grotesque lie,” and former cop Buscaino butted in to say, “Brother Kevin, I love you, but we are not criminalizing homelessness.” Bass tried to jump in, and Brown took charge

“Hold on. Nobody’s out of turn here. Nobody’s speaking out of turn,” he said, and put the show back on track.


Everyone on Brand

At political debates, everyone waits for a) a candidate to screw up, and b) someone to stand out and “win” the evening. That didn’t happen at the USC event, no matter what spin-meisters tell you. Nor did it occur Sunday.

All five were remarkably consistent and on brand, and if you were leaning for or against a particular candidate, then the evening was more affirming than revelatory. The approximately 40 percent of voters who were undecided in recent polls saw capable performances from everyone on stage. It’s hard to think that anyone watched what unfolded and said, “That’s my person!”

By this point, every candidate has defined their lane. Bass has grown stronger at each debate, and paints herself as the candidate who started the social justice nonprofit the Community Coalition, and comes to the race with a compassionate and confident streak, along with deep experience in state and federal government. Caruso is the outsider who thinks his business chops—and his philanthropic record—make him ready to lead a complex city government, and if he has to scare you about the state of crime in L.A., so be it. De León continues to position himself as the voice of janitors, housekeepers and other working Angelenos, and stood out as the only one to answer a question in Spanish and, another time, reference Los Tigres del Norte. Buscaino is the ex-cop who purports to be a regular guy, as well as one ready to move more aggressively than others to get tents off the streets. Feuer maintains his ability to adeptly hop from topic to topic, and speak informed and at length with a plethora of actions and solutions, whether the matter is gun control or hate crimes or banks behaving badly.

The net result is that, whatever your leaning, there is probably someone for you.


Last Blitz

The mayor’s race began more than two years ago—Feuer actually announced his candidacy before a pandemic was declared—and although election day falls on June 7, mail-in ballots will hit homes across the city in about a week. Sunday was the last time Angelenos got a chance to glimpse all five of the leading contenders at once.

The last blitz is here.