Five candidates took to the stage at Loyola Marymount University on Tuesday night, taking questions from Fernando Guerra, political science professor and Director of the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at LMU. The issues of crime and homelessness dominated the evening, as did several vocal interruptions by members of a group called “The People’s City Council of Los Angeles,” which boasts more than 31,000 followers on Twitter (including, for news and statement gathering purposes, this publication).
The constant outbursts by activist twice prompted Councilmember Joe Buscaino, a former cop, to abdicate his spot behind the podium on the far right of the stage and get in front fellow candidates, as if to protect them of any danger perceived as headed their way. He was also overheard saying “Get ‘em outta here,” and “I think we should pay our security guards extra tonight.” Congressmember Karen Bass was more casual in her response, joking, “I was on the METRO Board. We get this all the time. Don’t be so shocked.”
Media sponsor Spectrum, who featured the debate exclusively on their Spectrum News 1 cable channel, made note of one attendee not in attendance, wealthy developer and former police commissioner Rick Caruso. Spectrum anchor Giselle Fernandez simply stating, “He declined his invitation.” That left Bass, Buscaino, Councilmember Kevin de Leon, City Attorney Mike Feuer, and realtor Mel Wilson.
The homeless crisis quickly took center stage, with Guerra quickly polling the candidates individually on what they see as the number one issue. Four of five said homelessness, the only hold out being Wilson, who complained “there’s been no focus on the middle class.” Councilmember de Leon shared he’s the only candidate to have experienced being unhoused, and Congressmember Bass called the situation a state of emergency. “It is inhumane that Angelinos are living in encampments,” she said, while at the same time cautioning, “I don’t believe poverty should be criminalized.” This clarification may be a response to a ballot initiative being sponsored by Mr. Buscaino – “Safer Streets L.A.” – that would bar any homeless encampments in public areas. But when it comes to housing folks currently living on the streets, Buscaino himself said, “We’ve said yes to all solutions.” City Attorney Feuer declared that unhoused residents should first be offered shelter, but agreed a ban on encampments should be enforced.
When Guerra guided the candidates to public safety, he once again polled them individually on whether the LAPD should be cut or increased from the current number of about 9,700 uniformed officers. All said they supported an increase, with differing specifics. Bass specified the department should increase by 200 officers, and suggested L.A. needs more “guardian style versus warrior style” policing. She was also quick to state that city leaders can’t use an increase in crime to avoid needed reforms to law enforcement.
Buscaino called the LAPD the “finest police department in the country” and advocated for a 1,300 officer increase, to 11,000. Buscaino also recommended the cops should spend five-year stints on a particular neighborhood beat to get to know residents and build relationships. Wilson went even further to a 1,500 increase in personnel, but also specified the need for an increase of 350 social and other case workers who can respond to non-violent incidents or needs such as mental health breakdowns. At another point in the debate, Feuer hit the absent Caruso, a former Board Member of the University of Southern California, for problems of safety for female students at the school.
When Guerra asked the candidates what other issues they deem important, Bass and de Leon said housing affordability was a priority, with de Leon adding that he would also like to see the City of Los Angeles form its own Department of Health, a point with which Buscaino agreed.
Business friendliness was also in question when the candidates were asked about economic development, Wilson complained that L.A. is the least business friendly city in the nation, with he and Feuer suggesting the city eliminate the gross receipts tax for businesses. Bass said the gross receipts tax should be suspended for one year, while de Leon said he would consider eliminating it.
All told, the debate was kept to a tight one-hour, between roughly 6:00 – 7:00 p.m.