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97% in poll want Villaraigosa to debate, but he still refuses

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The question I put to readers last week was clear and direct:

Should Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa debate his most prominent challenger, attorney Walter Moore?

The response was swift and one-sided.

Yes: 4,728

No: 118

No opinion: 26

This, my friends, is known as a landslide.

"I'm all for a debate between Villaraigosa and any other candidates," a reader named Brian wrote in a typical e-mail. "Maybe we'll end up with a mayor who has failed the California Bar Exam fewer than 4 times. There are too many pressing issues facing L.A. to be complacent about this contest, and the current mayor is far too narcissistic and interested in politics for its own sake to be a true agent of change."

Leslie and Marion had this to say in a joint e-mail:

"We may not vote for either one of them, but the debate forum is essential to our democracy, local and national . . . Please pass our views along to the Powers That Be."

There was even an offer from Telemundo, KVEA-TV Channel 52, to host the debate with me as the moderator.

Things were really falling into place, and so I called Villaraigosa's handlers with the news. Sure, they'd said no to a debate the last time I brought it up, but now that the people had spoken, how could they refuse?

My call to City Hall was bounced over to Ace Smith, the mayor's campaign guy.

And the verdict?

"We're not going to change our minds," Smith insisted without any hint of flexibility.

Wait a minute. Had Smith seen our poll?

Yes, he said, but he questioned its validity.

"If you ask the question, 'Do you like ice cream,' everyone is going to say 'yes.' If you ask, 'Do you like ice cream with sand in it,' you get a different answer."

How much is Villaraigosa paying this guy?

Smith's inference was that if people knew Moore a little better, they might not have supported a debate.

He specifically referred to www.waltermooreformayor.com, where the candidate says, "L.A. is turning into a Third World dump."

But I included that line in the first column, and I didn't suggest that Moore came without warts or that I'd even vote for him. He makes me a little nervous when he talks about immigration, and he has little or no experience on many of the issues he'd confront as mayor.

Moore did, however, raise enough money from individual donors to qualify for matching public funds, which often is the cutoff for inclusion in debates. Villaraigosa, who's rolling in dough, turned down matching funds this time, which Moore sees as a strategy for avoiding debate.

"If you can't defend your record or your policies, you have to marginalize the other guy," snapped Moore, a two-time candidate who said he's not surprised that he's being treated as if he were some kind of kook. "It's what you do when you've been in office 3 1/2 years, you show up for work 11% of the time and all you do is raise money from people whom you award lucrative contracts."

Yo, Tony, are you going to let him take shots like that without defending yourself?

Smith points out that Villaraigosa the candidate set an extremely high bar for himself four years ago on transportation, education and the hiring of more cops, and Smith says there's been progress in every field.

OK, let's debate it.

On transportation, I give Villaraigosa a D-plus. His major accomplishment was a half-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects, but I'm likely to be in my crypt in the Cathedral before the "Subway to the Sea" is underground. I might have given Villaraigosa a C-plus or even a B-minus despite a lack of creativity and leadership in other areas of transportation, but D -- as in "De la Vega," or "dunce" -- is the highest I can go for someone whose deputy mayor for transportation drives a Hummer.

Education? I'm going to be generous and give him another D-plus. The mayor's ham-fisted Los Angeles Unified School District takeover bid was an embarrassing debacle, but he eventually did get control of the school board and may have played a roll in sinking superintendent and former Navy Rear Adm. David Brewer.

More cops? I give him a C-plus. He's still way short of his goal of 1,000 new police officers, but he's much closer to that promise than to his promise of 1 million new trees. And despite budget constraints, crime is down for the most part.

As for the explosion of digital billboards and buildings draped in vinyl ads, I sometimes wonder if the invisible Villaraigosa has been bound and gagged. And my colleague David Zahniser's exposes on the way in which Villaraigosa helped rush a solar energy plan onto the March 3 ballot to the delight of the electrical workers union, despite concerns about feasibility and cost to Los Angeles Department of Water and Power customers, scream out for answers from the mayor.

You got problems with any of this, Mr. Mayor? If so, Telemundo and I have an invitation for you.

"You're not talking about a debate, you're talking about a charade," Smith said, insisting that neither Moore nor the other candidates are serious enough to deserve a forum with the mayor.

I'd like stronger candidates, sure. I'd like Derek Jeter to play shortstop for the Dodgers too. But we've got the lineup we've got.

Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies said he couldn't think of a recent mayoral election without any debates.

There might have been some during the Tom Bradley era, he said, but he couldn't recall for sure. It's not surprising that as an obvious front-runner and practical shoo-in, Villaraigosa sees no reason to risk a debate, Stern said. "But they're not even doing any joint events," he said, "and that's just unbelievable."

I'll tell you what's unbelievable:

With 4,872 votes cast, no fewer than 4,728 readers would like a debate.

I'm wondering what it would cost to make one of those vinyl ads and wrap a giant "97%" around City Hall.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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