Fighting for reelection in the first debate of the mayoral campaign, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn faced sustained criticism Thursday from four challengers over alleged corruption in his administration as he sought to keep the focus on the city’s declining crime rate.
Seated on stage at the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles, the mayor used the one-hour televised event to highlight what he called his impressive record of making Los Angeles a safer city with the help of the police chief he hired.
“Results are clear. Crime is down,” the mayor said as he repeatedly linked himself to Chief William J. Bratton and repeated his call for a sales tax increase next year to expand the Police Department. “We’re going to keep moving in that direction because that’s what the people of this city want.”
But Hahn’s rivals -- state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley), former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, and Councilmen Bernard C. Parks and Antonio Villaraigosa -- brushed past the mayor’s claims as they sought to portray the reserved former city attorney as a lackluster leader who has allowed corruption to thrive in his administration.
“I believe in Los Angeles, and I believe in its future, but under Mayor Hahn, our city is paralyzed by scandal,” said Villaraigosa, whom Hahn defeated in the 2001 mayoral election. “We are a city adrift. And it’s time for a change.”
At the same time, Hahn’s four opponents jostled to differentiate themselves with an array of proposals that included breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District and a ballot initiative to ban campaign contributions from city contractors and developers.
The five candidates, veteran politicians with significant financial backing, answered questions from three journalists as they sat at a long table before an invited audience and viewers who tuned in on KNBC-TV Channel 4 in English and KWHY-TV Channel 22 in Spanish.
Fifteen less prominent candidates were not invited to the debate.
The sometimes testy exchanges among the major candidates provided an early indication of the strikingly different approach Hahn and his challengers will take to define the race in the months leading up to the March 8 election.
Hahn is the son of one of Los Angeles’ most beloved politicians, the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and has never lost an election. And although he is under siege from well-funded opponents and criminal investigations into city contracting, Hahn has made it clear that he is confident voters will reward him for hiring Bratton and presiding over an 18% drop in violent crime over the last two years.
From his opening statement Thursday night, the mayor, who initially rejected the invitation to debate, wasted little time in making that case.
“We’re ... working to make this a better city by making it a safer city because that’s doing wonders to revitalize our neighborhoods,” Hahn said, adding that the city should build on the positive momentum by increasing the sales tax, a move that he has said would allow the Police Department to hire more than 1,500 officers.
With a force of 9,100, Los Angeles is one of the most under-policed major cities in the country. Cities such as New York and Chicago have far more officers relative to their population.
Most of Hahn’s opponents do not support the tax increase. Many business groups, civic leaders and one of the region’s leading economists believe businesses could be harmed if taxes in the city were to be higher than those in surrounding communities.
But with the exception of Parks, the other candidates praised Bratton.
Parks, whom Hahn forced out as police chief two years ago, said he could not evaluate Bratton because Hahn has politicized the LAPD. “The Police Department has become an instrument of the mayor’s office,” said Parks, who represents a South Los Angeles district.
For the most part, Hahn’s opponents sought to focus on corruption investigations by local and federal prosecutors and Hahn’s responsibility for creating a “pay-to-play” environment in City Hall.
Hahn has spent much of the last year defending his administration as prosecutors have subpoenaed e-mail from his office and contracting documents from the airport, port and water and power departments.
At the debate, Hahn’s opponents accused him of allowing campaign contributors to get preference in receiving city contracts and of steering a multimillion-dollar contract to Fleishman-Hillard. The public relations firm worked closely with Hahn’s office and is now being sued for alleged overbilling.
The mayor said Thursday that he has “always been about honesty and integrity.”
But his opponents stressed that he bore the ultimate responsibility for the ethical cloud over City Hall.
“The environment for corruption was caused by this mayor and this administration,” said Parks, who noted that he never heard the term “pay-to-play” until he became a councilman. “This starts and ends in the mayor’s office.”
Before the debate Thursday, Parks released a report he called “L.A.: Going in Reverse,” in which he highlighted Hahn’s spotty attendance record at Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meetings and accused the mayor of failing to deal with the city’s pressing transportation needs. At the debate, Parks said that to help alleviate traffic he would consolidate four city agencies that deal with transportation.
Other measures proposed Thursday included a plan by Alarcon for a ballot initiative to ban city contractors and developers from contributing to local political campaigns, a proposal similar to one that Hahn has urged the City Council to pass.
Villaraigosa, who represents an East Los Angeles council district, said he would extend the Red Line subway to the beach.
Hertzberg said he would end the city’s gross receipts tax on businesses “as we know it” and would sign an executive order on his first day in office to end street construction during rush hour.
Hertzberg focused most frequently on the controversial proposal he announced Wednesday to break the Los Angeles Unified School District into smaller neighborhood units. “This is our future, and I’m not walking away from it,” he said.
None of his opponents favor the idea. And Hahn noted Thursday that Hertzberg had opposed an earlier breakup plan while he represented the San Fernando Valley in the Assembly.
Thursday’s debate in many ways followed the story line from the 2001 mayoral campaign in which Hahn, considered the front-runner for much of the race, came under repeated attack for his political record.
That campaign featured more than 75 sometimes heated debates. During one, Hahn and mayoral candidate Steve Soboroff got in a shouting match backstage.
After finishing second in the first round of the 2001 election, Hahn, who had served one term as city controller and four terms as city attorney, won the runoff handily, beating Villaraigosa by 8 points after an extremely acrimonious two-month campaign.
This time around, Hahn is still considered by many to be the front-runner, even though he alienated some black voters by ousting Parks and some Valley voters by successfully fighting secession.
No incumbent Los Angeles mayor has lost since Sam Yorty was unseated by Tom Bradley in a 1973 rematch.
The next debate, organized by the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters, is scheduled for Dec. 21.
It will be televised live by the city’s public-access channel and broadcast later on KABC-TV Channel 7 and KCET-TV Channel 28.