The candidates seeking an Eastside seat on the Los Angeles City Council fired off accusations Wednesday night about honesty, morality and even sexism during what was the nastiest forum in the campaign so far.
Appearing onstage at Cal State, Los Angeles, four of the five contenders running in the March 3 election were initially low-key as they fielded questions on homelessness, alleged police abuse and management of the Department of Water and Power. But they turned more aggressive once they were asked whether council salaries -- currently $184,610 per year -- are too high.
Former county Supervisor Gloria Molina promised to give up much of her council salary, saying she would rely heavily on her county retirement income instead. She also took a shot at her opponent, Councilman Jose Huizar, saying he had failed to earn his keep.
"We have a councilman who hasn't been working every single day on behalf of the residents of the district," she said.
Social worker Nadine Momoyo Diaz used the pay question to go after Huizar over his recent legal woes, pointing out that the City Council spent $185,000 last year to settle a lawsuit filed after Huizar rear-ended another car. The council also agreed last year to spend up to $200,000 to cover Huizar's legal bills after one of his aides filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him.
Once Huizar's salary is factored in, "that's already more than half a million, which equals two or three salaries," Diaz said.
Huizar, who represents a district stretching from Boyle Heights to Eagle Rock, did not respond directly to Diaz's assertions. In previous statements, he denied the sexual harassment allegations while saying he had a consensual relationship with the aide, former deputy chief of staff Francine Godoy. Her lawsuit was settled last fall at no additional cost to the city.
Moments after Diaz hit him on legal costs, Huizar took aim at Molina, calling her pay-cut promise a "political gimmick." Molina initially told voters she would receive a $90,000 yearly pension and therefore would accept only half her salary, Huizar said. Two days later, she was forced to reveal that it was actually $124,000, he added.
"There's a lot to say about credibility and honesty with the public," he said.
"Now that I've been called a fibber by the councilman, I think we'll try and straighten something out," Molina shot back. "We need to recognize and understand that whatever the salary is, you need to work for it. You're the councilman who hasn't worked for it, and instead cost [taxpayers] money."
"The worst part about it is, I didn't ask him to cut his salary, but the press did," Molina went on. "And then he turned around and said that he couldn't afford to cut his salary because he had a family to raise. Well, that's a sexist comment. I don't appreciate it. We as women are entitled to the same pay because we do do the same work, sometimes more than that."
After the debate, Huizar said he had no interest in responding to Molina's sexism allegation. "I don't even want to go there," he said.
Wednesday's debate was sponsored by the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles Education Fund, KABC Channel 7 and Cal State Los Angeles. Huizar, who is seeking a third and final term, has been pushing hard to get more than 50% of the vote in the primary election, which would allow him to avoid a runoff in May.
Huizar has raised more than $820,000 for his campaign, four times the amount raised by his other opponents combined, according to reports filed last month. For much of the night, he found himself target of the other three candidates.
Boyle Heights community activist Mario Chavez said the city has done too little to repair broken sidewalks and construct affordable housing. Molina claimed that one family in the district had so much trouble getting the city's attention that they painted their own crosswalk. Diaz said she was running to restore the district's "moral compass."
Huizar said he has a lengthy list of accomplishments, from adding more sidewalk space on downtown's Broadway corridor to the addition of a new park on York Boulevard in Highland Park. He also touted his work fighting for bicycle lanes and against a 24-home subdivision in El Sereno. "I'm very proud of what we've delivered," he said.
At one point, Chavez said he was troubled that outdoor advertising company Lamar spent $26,000 on 100 pro-Huizar billboards. Huizar currently heads the committee that will decide to whether to legalize hundreds of signs that don't have a permit on file at City Hall.
"How would he hold an objective position, considering [he's] gotten $26,000 in free advertising?" Chavez asked.
Molina said Lamar's billboard contributions pose a conflict of interest for Huizar. "Very frankly, he should recuse himself from making those decisions," she said.
Huizar portrayed himself as a fighter on sign issues, saying the proposal would ensure that two billboards come down for every new one permitted. That formula, he said, would result in a net reduction in outdoor signs.
"I stood up to the billboard industry by pushing for this ordinance," he said.