U.S. Representative Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso accused each other of misconduct and inauthenticity during an hour-long debate on Wednesday, the latest rhetorical escalation in the once relatively genteel campaign for Los Angeles mayor.
The veteran Washington lawmaker pilloried the businessman as out of touch with Democratic-majority LA, due to his previous Republican registration and financial contributions to anti-abortion politicians.
Caruso, in turn, portrayed Bass as a hidden member of a failing political class that has failed to curb homelessness and crime in the city — the two issues voters see as their top concerns.
The resentful exchanges during the debate, televised live from the Skirball cultural center in Sepulveda Pass, leaned on the cruder tone the campaign has taken in recent weeks. It represented a stark departure from previous proclamations of mutual respect between the two future mayors, including a moment three years ago when the duo sat side by side as dignitaries at a graduation ceremony for the USC.
Bass tried to consolidate a lead she had taken in the June primary, beating Caruso by 7 percentage points and extended to 12 points in polls conducted over the summer. Caruso still hopes to win over nearly a quarter of voters who remain undecided, a group that could change the race before voting ends Nov. 8.
Most of Wednesday’s disagreements centered on USC, the university both candidates attended and which has been at the center of repeated scandals in recent years.
Bass attacked Caruso for his tenure as chairman of the university’s board of trustees. She reiterated previous reports from The Times about how Caruso reneged on his promise to publish a report on an investigation into a gynecologist accused of sexual misconduct.
“The gynecologist’s victims, literally hundreds of students at USC, asked you to release the report,” Bass said. “As chairman of the board, he undertook to do an investigation, to do a report, and then he decided that he was not going to publish it, when the victims asked for it to be published .”
Caruso helped USC reach $1.1 billion in legal settlements with former patients of gynecologist George Tyndall and overhauled the university’s leadership and governance structure. But in recent years he has backtracked on the release of the report, saying USC attorneys only gave oral briefs to administrators and there was no report to release.
Caruso said her opponent’s attack was meant to distract from her own misbehavior when she received a nearly $100,000 scholarship, “without applying,” to receive a master’s degree from USC’s School of Social Work.
“She got a $95,000 scholarship. She failed to report it in … the documents where it should be reported,” Caruso said. “She graduated taking fewer courses than her peers and then worked with the Dean [of the School of Social Work] to shape legislation and get it through Congress, so that taxpayers’ money goes back to that same school.
Bass retorted that she had worked hard for her degree. “I don’t think that’s bad judgment at all,” she told Caruso. “I have spent the past three decades working for our country’s most vulnerable, children in the child welfare system.”
The exchange ended abruptly when Caruso asked if Bass was “saying prosecutors were lying” when mentioning her in a parallel corruption investigation, involving now-suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. “No,” Bass replied “I say you are.”
Ridley-Thomas was accused of providing contracts to USC in exchange for a scholarship and a job for his son. He pleaded not guilty. His trial is scheduled for November 15.
Former USC dean Marilyn Flynn, who provided Bass with the scholarship, pleaded guilty on Monday to one count of corruption in the Ridley-Thomas case. The U.S. Attorney’s Office told The Times earlier this month that “at this time” Bass was “not a target or subject of our office’s investigation.”
Although the Los Angeles mayoral race is technically nonpartisan, the issue of party affiliation has been brought to the fore by Bass and his campaign.
In response to a question, the congresswoman said Caruso had been a Republican for decades, then an independent, then a Republican again. He registered early in the current campaign as a Democrat.
“That’s the problem,” Bass said. “You keep going back and forth like that.”
Bass sought to draw this distinction from the outset of the debate. Asked about the biggest difference between her and Caruso, she described herself as “a lifelong pro-choice Democrat.”
Caruso acknowledged that he returned to the Republican Party in 2016 to support former Ohio Governor John Kasich, whom he considered the only viable Republican capable of preventing Donald Trump from winning the party’s presidential nomination. .
“I never supported Trump. I never gave him a dime,” Caruso said. He also noted that he had contributed to many Democrats, including Bass herself. He said the congresswoman had unfairly compared him to Trump in the past.
“When you asked me for donations, I supported you,” Caruso said. “And did you think I was Donald Trump when I wrote you a check?”
Caruso also hit out at Bass for an incident earlier this month when burglars broke into his Baldwin Vista home and stole two .38 caliber revolvers. He asked a series of questions, wondering if the weapons were safely stored, as Bass said they were
“Now there are two guns on the street. And we have terrible gun violence in the city of Los Angeles,” Caruso said, demanding more answers from Bass on the incident.
Bass retorted that she was stunned that Caruso blamed her despite having been the victim of a crime and having already called him to express her concern about a burglary at the Grove, the high-rise shopping center range it has.
“I think it’s an act of desperation, Rick,” Bass said.
Candidates also addressed political issues that voters believe are most important to them.
On public safety, Bass reiterated her intention to bring the LAPD back to its previously authorized strength of 9,700 officers and said she would move more police officers to the streets by removing them from office jobs.
Caruso called for a larger buildup, to 11,000 officers, which would be an all-time high for the force. It would be a costly and difficult task, as the force has shrunk to just 9,200 officers, a drop of 800 officers in recent years.
On homelessness, Caruso and Bass reiterated their previous plans – his to create 15,000 homes and his to provide 30,000 homes for the homeless within 300 days of taking office.
Check out LA politics
In this pivotal election year, we’ll break down the ballot and tell you why it matters in our LA on the Record newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
It would build new shelter beds to accommodate about 1,000 people, expand the use of housing vouchers, rent and buy motels and hotels, and try other approaches. The price tag in the first year would be $292 million, including construction costs and operating expenses for the shelter beds.
Caruso’s plan would cost about $843 million in the first year, to build or acquire the housing and prepare it for occupancy. He declined to estimate running costs to house 30,000 people, but a previous Times analysis of city documents found it would cost about $660 million a year, or about $22,000 per person.
Caruso said Bass’ plan appeared to be more or less the same. “The population grew 80% during Karen Bass’ tenure,” Caruso said.
Caruso said he would use his knowledge as a developer to help streamline the city’s bureaucracy and make it easier to build new housing. He said he would focus on temporary and permanent structures, after declaring a state of emergency for homelessness.
Caruso has also repeatedly suggested that his business experience would be crucial in addressing homelessness and other issues. When Bass said she would hire a deputy mayor for business, he replied, “I don’t need a deputy mayor for business, I know business.”
Given the Supreme Court ruling banning abortions, candidates were asked if this should be an issue in the campaign.
Bass said yes. Even though the city isn’t directly involved in administering health care, she said the issue is “a question of values.”
Caruso – whose past donations to anti-abortion politicians have come under frequent attack during the race – insisted: “I’m pro-choice, always have been.”