By ERIC HE | City News Service
UNIVERSAL CITY — Los Angeles mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso are part of the growing movement calling for the resignation of three members of the City Council after racist comments and backdoor deals were exposed in a leaked recording, and the scandal was one of the topics of the final mayoral debate.
The hourlong debate, hosted by NBC 4 and Telemundo 52 at the Brokaw News Center in Universal City, took place two days after an October 2021 conversation involving three City Council members — Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo — and former L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera that included racial slurs and discussions on how to redraw council district boundaries in the council members’ favor was leaked.
Herrera was the only one to have resigned as of Tuesday evening, though Martinez took a leave of absence from the council after resigning her post as council president.
Both Bass and Caruso called for all the council members to resign, and both believed they could provide the fresh leadership Los Angeles needs.
“We need a new direction in L.A. and new leadership,” Bass said. “I want to make sure we reject the politics of divide and conquer.”
Caruso, as he has talked about throughout his campaign, connected the redistricting controversy to claims that the system is broken — exacerbating issues such as homelessness and crime. He painted himself as the candidate of change, blaming a failure of leadership for the City Hall scandal.
“People are spending more time protecting themselves and protecting their jobs than working for the residents of city,” said Caruso, a billionaire developer. “This is why we have crime out of control.”
Caruso has previously accused Bass of corruption in connection with accepting a $95,000 scholarship at USC’s School of Social Work, but he did not mention it during this debate.
Unlike the first two debates, which featured feisty exchanges and back-and-forth allegations connecting each other to scandals, Tuesday’s debate took a more civil tone — perhaps with the City Hall scandal in mind. Both candidates even agreed with and complimented each other’s responses several times, a rarity during the first two debates.
“I think anybody who is under a cloud of corruption should not be qualified to be in a leadership position, especially now,” Caruso said. “Because the mayor has to stand for what is right for the residents of the city, period, and not be looking over their back to see what’s happening.”
Both candidates said they would support a potential 2024 ballot measure that would create an independent redistricting commission. The City Council will vote Wednesday on whether to send the issue to the ballot. Currently, the redistricting commission members are appointed by the council.
Bass said she would address the racial divide brought on by the racism from the officials in the leaked recording by using her experience as founder of the South Los Angeles nonprofit organization Community Coalition, which she started in the 1990s. In the leaked tape, Martinez directed racial slurs at the 2-year-old Black son of Councilman Mike Bonin.
“To me trust comes from and relationships come from work, doing things together,” Bass said. “When we knocked on doors, it didn’t matter if it was an African American or a Latino.
“When we brought people together at the coalition, they had problems. They had conflicts. But we talked about it. We put it out in the open, and we resolved it.”
Bass said the two generations of people she helped raise at the coalition will “come to the forefront in this city to deal with the crisis we’re dealing with now.”
Caruso pointed to his work with pulling together communities to fight crime while on the city’s Police Commission two decades ago, and also said he and his wife have provided scholarships and health care in Black and brown communities.
“We believe that all of us that are more fortunate need to give back and actually help,” Caruso said. “Not just with money, but with our time and our love and our passion.”
Caruso also blamed elected officials for committing to themselves over their communities.
“That’s why there’s tension throughout this city,” Caruso said. “It’s because of the failure of leadership.”
The second half of the debate was spent on homelessness, crime and drug use, with the candidates mostly repeating their talking points from previous debates.
Neither supported a 2024 ballot measure that would require hotels to provide vacant rooms to unhoused people, though Caruso didn’t seem to be aware that it was a citizen-driven initiative when he blamed the City Council for “allowing it go on the ballot” and was corrected by a moderator. The council’s two options were to either adopt the measure or send it to voters.
The two candidates differed on whether they would seek a tax increase to address homelessness, with Caruso pledging to not raise taxes while Bass did not.
Caruso took the opportunity to create a soundbite.
“Congresswoman Bass will raise your taxes in order to get things done in the city of Los Angeles, and Rick Caruso will not,” Caruso said.
When Bass pushed back, Caruso accused her of doing “political speech.”
Bass responded: “If people are dying on our streets, and it is necessary, I might do (raise taxes). I think there’s a lot of things to do before that. But to stand here and lie and pledge that I’m going to do something when five people are not going to wake up on those streets tomorrow — I’m going to do whatever it takes to solve this problem.”
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When the candidates were asked if they might seek the assistance of their opponent if they became mayor, the responses were cordial.
Bass said she has asked Caruso for help before with her Republican colleagues when she was pushing a police reform bill in Congress, while Caruso said he’s going to need “a lot of smart, talented people to make this city work.”
“And after what we just saw over the last couple of days, the only option for the city is working together, and being united,” Caruso said. “As much as Karen and I may disagree on policies, what we will never do is anything that’s going to harm this city in any way.”