(CN) — Congresswoman Karen Bass and mall developer Rick Caruso, the two candidates running to be the next mayor of Los Angeles, squared off in a televised debate Wednesday night. The evening saw the two alternate between marginal disagreements on policy proposals and pre-planned attacks on each other's record.
Bass went after Caruso for being registered as a Republican for more than three decades and for donating money to pro-life causes. Caruso suggested Bass had been somehow negligent in securing her two guns, which were stolen from her home earlier this month. He also pointed out, in something of a non sequitur, that Bass has "supported Scientology, lays praise on Scientology.” (Bass has had to address that issue before.)
Both candidates leveled charges at the other relating to the University of Southern California.
The centrality of USC, a private university founded in 1880 on the outskirts of South LA, is a curious feature of this local election cycle. The school has been beset by a string of scandals in recent years, one involving the dean of the school of medicine, another involving George Tyndall, a USC gynecologist accused of abusing hundreds of female patients.
Last year, a longtime elected official, Mark Ridley-Thomas, was indicted on federal corruption charges stemming from allegations that he was bribed by the USC School of Social Work's dean. Then a County Supervisor, Ridley-Thomas is alleged to have agreed to throw his support behind handing contracts to the school in exchange for full-time tuition and a professorship for his son Sebastian, a former state legislator.
Both candidates are connected to the university. Bass received a full-time scholarship to USC's School of Social Work (worth $95,000) in 2011, in much the same way Sebastian Ridley-Thomas later did. Bass has not been charged with a crime and there is no indication that she is under investigation. But prosecutors in the Ridley-Thomas case have said that Bass' own scholarship is "critical" to their case. Bass also received an honorary degree from USC in 2019.
During the debate, Bass defended her degree, saying, "I was offered that scholarship so I could be a better legislator. I studied nights and weekends. I didn’t apply for an MBA so I could be a venture capitalist. It's a social work degree that was given to me on merit."
Caruso, meanwhile, has given lavishly to USC, whose campus is home to the Caruso Catholic Center, and whose school of medicine includes the "Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology." Caruso also served as chairman of USC's Board of Trustees for four years, from 2018 to this year, when he declared his candidacy for mayor. He has been criticized, by the Bass campaign and others, for his handling of the Tyndall scandal, and for not releasing the results of USC's internal investigation.
"Victims of the gynecologist have asked you release the report," Bass said, during the debate.
Caruso defended his own record, paraphrasing an LA Times headline: "When USC was in a crisis, they called on Rick Caruso."
Bass and Caruso were the top two vote-getters in the June primary, in which Bass finished seven points ahead of Caruso. A recent poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Government showed Bass ahead by 12 points. Caruso has spent at least $60 million of his own money on his campaign, far more than any other local candidate in LA history.
When it came to policy positions, the two candidates seemed to differ in only marginal ways.
Asked about homelessness, Caruso repeated his pledge to build 30,000 shelter beds in his first year, to "get them into shelters and keep them safe."
"We have 13,000 women living on the street every night," Caruso said. "What we’ve allowed to happen is insane. It’s inhumane.
We’ve got to have a different direction."