In the first major debate of the campaign, four of the candidates vying to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors faced off Thursday in a debate that focused mostly on fundraising.
It was an opportunity for key contenders to begin shaping their messages and distinguishing themselves from rivals before an audience on the UCLA campus. And they didn't hold back.
The candidates discussed how best to work with a new sheriff to fix the county's crowded jails and how they plan to appeal to voters in the San Fernando Valley, where half the votes lie.
But the most heated exchange came as they discussed the effect of money in the campaign, and how dollars are being raised. Moderator Warren Olney from radio station KCRW-FM (89.9) asked former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver if he had effectively opened the door to a costly campaign by rejecting voluntary spending limits.
Shriver said "it was always going to be an expensive race" because of the possibility that independent groups could pump money to support favored candidates. To be competitive against his main rival, former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, he was required to reach into his own pocket, Shriver said.
"I chose to defend myself," Shriver said. "Voters don't really care what's in my pocket. They care what's in their pocket."
Kuehl pounced on Shriver's stance, saying that she was unaware of any independent groups that have organized to support her run. By contrast, an independent group backing Shriver has already been formed, she said.
Alluding to Shriver's wealth as a member of the Kennedy family, Kuehl said she respected his family members' willingness to throw themselves into public service. But self-funding a run is not healthy public policy, she said.
"I have nothing against inherited wealth,'' she said. "I just think that funding a political campaign must be more spread out and not just funded by someone who can write himself a personal check."
Also competing in the race are former Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich and West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran. Ulich said she would mount a people-powered campaign aimed at opening up county government to ordinary citizens.
Duran portrayed himself as the "solid center" of the debate participants, a candidate who is more pro-business than the others. If no one wins more than 50% in the June 3 primary, the top two finishers will advance to a Nov. 4 runoff.
Yaroslavsky is leaving after 20 years in office because of term limits, producing one of the most competitive county government elections in decades. His district, stretching from Santa Monica and Hollywood into the San Fernando Valley, includes neighborhoods with some of the county's highest voter participation rates.
Term limits are also pushing Gloria Molina out of her Eastside supervisors seat after 24 years, followed in two years by supervisors Mike Antonivch and Don Knabe.
The changing face of one of the most powerful local government bodies in the nation is attracting attention. The supervisors represent 10 million residents and provide millions of dollars in services in the areas of healthcare, social services, foster care and environmental programs. They also play a role in setting regional transportation goals, running county libraries and operating special education schools. The board has an indirect hand in running the county's jails.
Candidates are expected to spend many millions of dollars by the time voters go the polls. Kuehl this week said she had raised $700,000 from a series of fundraisers and expects to spend $1.7 million by June.
Shriver, nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy and a successful nonprofit founder, said he was willing to personally finance much of his run and has put $300,000 into a campaign account.
Duran, a 14-year member of the West Hollywood City Council, claims to have raised about $130,000, and has hired a campaign manager and pollsters in a push to widen his name recognition. Ulich, who served on the Malibu City Council and was elected mayor, said she will raise a nominal amount but is primarily running a grass-roots campaign supported by volunteers and social media.
Times staff writer Laura J. Nelson contributed to this report.