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Mayoral Candidates Tangle at First Debate

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The first LA mayoral debate, hosted last night at the Museum of Tolerance, probably wasn’t on the radar of local voters. Many are still worn out from the long presidential campaign that ended just a month ago; others are simply wrapped up in the holidays.

KNBC forged ahead, though, sponsoring and airing the debate, which featured the station’s Colleen Williams as moderator. She was joined by panelists Jose Ronstadt of KWHY, which also aired the debate in Spanish, and Ron Kaye, Managing Editor of the Los Angeles Daily News.

Of the 20 candidates who have filed to run for mayor—many of them local activists unknown in the political arena—only the five with “significant support and organizations” were invited to participate. These included State Senator Richard Alarcón (who came despite suffering from pinkeye), incumbent Mayor James Hahn, former Speaker of the Assembly Bob Hertzberg, Councilmember Bernard Parks, and Councilmember Antonio Villaraigosa.

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All five are or have been elected officials, despite the tendencies of Parks and Hertzberg to tout their status as outsiders and non-politicians. Alarcón is a former Councilmember from the San Fernando Valley. Hahn, the son of legendary former County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, has been elected to every citywide office: Controller, City Attorney, and Mayor; he has never lost an election. Hertzberg served in the Assembly from 1996 to 2002 and was Speaker of the Assembly from 2000 to 2002. Parks, the former LAPD Chief who was essentially fired when Hahn refused to reappoint him in 2002, was elected to the City Council last year. Villaraigosa, a former Assemblymember and Speaker like Hertzberg, lost the mayor’s race to Hahn in 2001. He was elected to the City Council in 2003.

No love is lost between the challengers and Hahn. During opening remarks, Villaraigosa moved quickly to attack Hahn, saying that the city is “paralyzed by scandal.” Parks sniffed, “The folks with limousines already have a mayor; I’m campaigning for those who ride the bus.” All four challengers who were present brought up the allegations of pay to play that have swirled around the current administration; local and federal authorities have been investigating charges that contractors wanting city business were urged to give political contributions. Indeed, the second question, from Kaye, was directed at Hahn, asking what he will do to restore public trust if re-elected.

Hahn responded by touting the ethics reform proposal that he offered to the City Council in May. "I've always been about honesty and integrity," he added. Villaraigosa and Parks shared a line in biting response: "This scandal starts and ends at the top." Alarcón brought up his proposal for a ballot measure that would prohibit political contributions from contractors and developers, repeating several times that "we can't change City Hall if we don't change the rules." Hertzberg worked in two swipes at Hahn, saying that unlike the Mayor, he wouldn't appoint his fundraiser to oversee the three proprietary departments (DWP, Harbor, and Airport) and adding that he would make the Controller a partner, not a foe, a reference to the rocky relationship between Hahn and Controller Laura Chick.

Hahn had to stay on the defensive on this matter throughout the night, but he didn't lose his cool until near the end of the evening. When Ronstadt asked Hertzberg to whom he was referring when he speaks of the "powerful few" who influence City Hall, Hertzberg replied that he didn't mean those individuals who supported Villaraigosa in the last mayor's race and now "don't get contracts." Hahn's face tightened as he shot back, "I'm not going to be lectured by you." He accused Hertzberg and Villaraigosa of raising "millions in special interest money" as Assembly Speakers.

Other major issues throughout the night were public safety, the economy, and education. Hahn reminded voters that he brought in the well-regarded new LAPD Chief, William Bratton, and highlighted the drop in violent crime under his tenure. All of the candidates declared their respect and support for Bratton when asked if they would reappoint him as chief, except for Parks, who said that under Bratton, LAPD has become politicized and is now "an instrument of the Mayor." He declined to state specifically whether he would keep or fire Bratton.

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On the economy, the candidates all sought to share their pro-business credentials. There was plenty of talk of business tax reform, a hot topic in City Council for quite some time, as well as integrating infrastructure, such as transportation and street services, with development. Hertzberg promised to "end the gross receipts tax as we know it" and Parks boasted that as mayor, he would "get out of the way of developers." All of the candidates also declared their support for bringing the NFL back to LA, though Villaraigosa specifically said he opposed public funding for the effort.

Kaye pointedly asked Hertzberg about his plan to break-up LAUSD in light of his opposition to the same idea when he was Speaker of the Assembly. Hertzberg said that when he was "in the belly of the beast in Sacramento" he thought that LAUSD could work things out; however, now he believes he can't start as Mayor unless the schools are fixed. Hahn criticized Hertzberg for not getting the job done while in Sacramento "where you can break up a school district," something that is not under the authority of the mayor. He also highlighted his status as a parent of two children in public schools. None of the candidates aside from Hertzberg expressed support for breaking up LAUSD.

Criticism of Hahn made up much of the debate, but that is to be expected; any re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. It's too early to say whether he will be genuinely damaged by the allegations of corruption in his administration or whether voters will be swayed by his warning that "we don't want to go back to when police officers were fleeing the city; we don't want to go back to when housing wasn't being built." Villaraigosa and Hertzberg are strong challengers and either--or even both--could be in a run-off; it's highly unlikely that any candidate will emerge as winner in the March primary. It seems even less probable that Parks or Alarcón will bleed enough support away to continue on past March, but LAist won't count anyone out just yet. Parks has support in the African-American community and his pro-business stances may help garner some endorsements from business groups. Alarcón, running on a populist platform, also received sustained audience applause several times when discussing his ballot measure proposal to restrict campaign contributions from contractors; expect to hear a lot more from him about this idea as the race moves forward.

The next debate, organized by the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voter, is scheduled for December 21; it will be broadcast live on the city's public access channel and shown later on KABC (Ch. 7) and KCET (Ch. 28).