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LA mayoral candidates pile on mall magnate in his first debate

The leading candidates took similar positions on homelessness and policing.

(CN) — The five leading candidates for mayor of Los Angeles, California, appeared on stage together for the first time Tuesday night at the University of Southern California campus for a televised debate .

It was the first debate to feature mall magnate Rick Caruso, who currently serves as the chair of USC's board of trustees. Caruso was something of a late entry to the race, filing papers to run on the last possible day.

"It’s great to see Rick Caruso here — finally," quipped City Councilman Joe Buscaino early in the night. It was a sign of things to come, as he and fellow candidates City Councilman Kevin de León and City Attorney Mike Feuer hurled a panoply of attacks at the billionaire developer. Because the debate's rules said that a candidate who was attacked would get extra time to respond, it meant that Caruso got significantly more airtime throughout the 90-minute program.

Congresswoman Karen Bass, who is widely seen as the frontrunner in the race and who leads recent polls, stayed largely above the fray. Since the top-two voter getters in the June primary will face off in a November runoff, the other four candidates appeared to be competing with each other for second place.

A number of previous candidate forums have been interrupted by protestors, including one held at a San Fernando Valley synagogue on Monday night that was so inundated with shouting and cursing from the audience that it ended early. The protestors, left-wing activists, were irate that the major candidates have all taken up similar positions around policing and homelessness, though they quibble at the margins. All favor hiring more police officers, though Caruso and Buscaino want to hire 1,500 officers and the other candidates want only a few hundred more. All favor building more emergency shelters and banning homeless encampments, though they disagree over the details — whether, for example, police officers should be used to clear encampments.

"I believe there are some things you don’t do on the street, and sleeping is one of them," said Bass, a longtime Democratic politician, in a line that could have come from either Buscaino or Caruso, both of whom are former Republicans.

"It’s neither progressive nor humane to let people live and die on the streets," said de León.

During the debate, homeless rights attorney Shayla Meyers tweeted, "Ah, logged onto the mayoral debate to hear all of the candidates use different words to describe clearing encampments as a solution to homelessness."

Caruso argued that his background as a developer mean that he could fulfill his campaign promise to build 30,000 shelter beds in his first year in office. "I’m the only one on the stage that’s builder, so I’m confident I can do it," he said. As to the city's housing crunch, which has led to soaring home prices and rents as well as homelessness, Caruso blamed an excess of regulations. "We have to untangle regulations," he said.

Caruso and Buscaino took similar positions on most issues. In speaking about the need for more police officers, both described a city gripped by violence.

"Today, you see mayhem and chaos in the city of Los Angeles," said Buscaino.

"Right now we have some of the worst crime we’ve had in the city of Los Angeles," Caruso added. "Everybody in this city, every corner of the city no matter where you live, what your background is, is scared to walk out their doors and is worried about crime."

While shootings and homicides have risen dramatically for the last two years, crime overall has been relatively flat during that same period. And the current number of shootings and homicides pale in comparison to what they were in the early 1990s.

The other three candidates did not push back against Caruso and Buscaino, although de León did point out that hiring more than 1,000 police officers would be expensive and would likely require raising taxes.

All five candidates rebuked LA County District Attorney George Gascón, whose reforms — including ending cash bail, reducing sentences and not prosecuting minors as adults — sparked a revolt amongst prosecutors in his own office and have led some to blame Gascón for the recent spike in homicides. 

Most of the attacks leveled at Caruso focused not on his positions, but his money. In one of the night's more memorable moments, Feuer revealed that Caruso's 216-foot yacht, the "Invictus," is registered in the Cayman Islands (a charge which Caruso did not refute), suggesting that perhaps that was done to avoid paying taxes on it and challenging Caruso to release his tax returns.

""I’ve been very fortunate in my life," said Caruso. "I do have a nice boat, and I do have a lot of nice things.”

He then promised: "I will release everything that I pay in taxes, including the taxes on that boat. Believe me, I pay my fair share — plus." The other candidates pledged to release their tax returns, with the exception of Councilman de Leon.

"That was a political spat that was on stage for political theater," said de Leon after the debate. When pressed, he said, "If we’re all gonna do it, then that’s fine with me."

After the debate, Feuer sought to highlight that the real issue was not Caruso's taxes, but his money.

"Imagine Mr. Caruso running without money," said Feuer. "He would not be a viable candidate. The only thing that makes him competitive is the fact that he has a lot of money. Is that the defining feature of who should be mayor from the standpoint of any voter in this city? I don’t think so."

Neither Caruso nor Bass made themselves available to the media after the debate.

One issue that got only a few minutes was Covid. Though most of the candidates agreed — all said some version of "listen to the experts" — Buscaino stood out by calling for an end to the city's public employee vaccine mandate.

"This emergency is over," he said. "Enough with these emergency orders."

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