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Mayoral candidates Bass and Caruso trade barbs on USC, stolen guns, Scientology and abortion

When they weren't dishing out pre-planned attacks, the two candidates were laying out their small distinctions in policy positions

(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."

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"Shelters are not the answer," Bass said in response. "We have to have interim housing. But it has to be limited in time." Bass stressed the need to construct permanent supportive housing. "Rick's plan just calls for shelters. You have to move them into shelters, then move them into permanent housing."

Both candidates suggested they would loosen regulations to make the construction of market-rate homes and apartment buildings easier and cheaper, but neither gave any details on how they would do so. Asked about environmental regulations, Bass said, "I do think that rules need to be relaxed in a lot of areas, because we are in a crisis."

Bass said she was in favor of extending the city's eviction moratorium, which has been in place since the start of the Covid lockdown in 2020, and which the city is currently considering lifting. Caruso said the eviction ban should be extended, but also changed.

"If someone is making money and can afford the rent, they shouldn’t be carried," Caruso said. It was not entirely clear what changes he was proposing.

Caruso has pledged to hire 1,500 more LAPD officers, and to ban street encampments. Bass, while sounding more moderate on crime and more empathetic about homelessness, also wants to hire more police officers — though only about 300 — and also wants to ban street encampments, though she wants to do so in a less heavy-handed way that relies more on social workers than law enforcement.

"You can’t criminalize poverty," she said.

A moment from a previous debate came back to haunt Bass. During the primary campaign, Bass was asked to rate her own personal safety on a scale of 1 to 10. She said it was a "10." After the recent break-in at her home, she said it was now a "5."

Caruso seemed to blame Bass for the theft of her firearms, saying, "There are two guns on the street now. And we have terrible gun violence in the city of Los Angeles now."

Both candidates said they would hire an "ethics czar" to fight public corruption; both, when asked to describe how the city was doing in one word, said: "crisis"; and both, when asked where they would take an out-of-towner visiting LA, said the beach.

The mayoral debate was the second bout in a double-header debate night. The undercard featured the two candidates for Los Angeles County Sheriff: the wildly controversial sitting Sheriff, Alex Villanueva, and the challenger, Robert Luna, the current chief of police in the city of Long Beach. Though Villanueva finished first in the primary, he garnered only 31% of the vote. His eight challengers in the race have all endorsed Luna.

Villanueva's tenure has been marked by a constant feuding with the county's five-member Board of Supervisors, who are in charge of the sheriff department's finding, but can't fire any of its officials. He has ignored numerous subpoenas by the civilian oversight commission and the inspector general, and he recently caused a furor by having his deputies search the homes of a supervisor and a member of the oversight commission, acts they said amounted to intimidation tactics.

During the debate, a far more contentious affair than the one that followed, Luna repeatedly attacked Villanueva for his divisive leadership.

"I would stop this us vs. them culture and mentality," Luna said. "Law enforcement, you have to be a good partner, you have to collaborate and get along with people."

Villanueva said Luna would be a "puppet" of the board of supervisors. During their hour on stage together, he pelted Luna with an array of vaguely worded, difficult to discern attacks on Luna's record as both a police officer and Long Beach police chief. At one point, Villanueva seemed to accuse Luna of shooting someone in the line of duty. A dumbfounded Luna said the shooter in the incident was his old partner, and repeatedly accused the sheriff of lying.

"It's embarrassing," Luna said. "He’s making up information right here in front of all of you."

The two disagreed on policy issues too. Luna took a hard line on deputy gangs — cliques within the department, where members get tattoos, bully other officers and, at times, inflict abuse on the public. Luna called for "federal and state intervention" to address the issue.

"A noble concept here: cooperate with oversight," he said. "If you get subpoena, go wherever you’re subpoenaed," he added, alluding to Villanueva's habit of dodging subpoenas.

Villanueva suggested he had dealt with problematic officers, but also seemed to say that deputy gangs were a myth. "Name one," he said at one point. "Name a single deputy gang member."

Luna also expressed his willingness to reform the county's troubled jail system, calling for better health care in the jails, less overcrowding and the need to "hold employees accountable."

As for Villanueva, he blamed most of the department's problems on funding, which he blamed the board of supervisors for cutting.

The tense event ended with a surprising moment of harmony. When asked by moderator Elex Michaelson, a local TV host, what their favorite TV show was, Villanueva responded: "The Big Bang Theory." Luna's face, expressionless throughout the night, appeared to light up. He agreed: "Big Bang Theory!" He walked over and gave a high-five to his adversary.

Voters will vote for the next mayor and sheriff, along with national offices and local ballot measures, on Nov. 8, or before then by mail.

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