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It’s Back to Schools for Candidates

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn traded jabs with City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa during a mayoral forum in Koreatown on Tuesday night, with each accusing the other of failed leadership on issues from public safety to school reform.

Although many questions addressed issues important to the Korean community, Hahn used the joint appearance to attack Villaraigosa for initially opposing gang injunctions and accuse him of not doing enough to help L.A. schools as a state assemblyman.

“There is a real choice in this election: the difference between results and rhetoric,” Hahn said during the hourlong event hosted by the Korean American Political Empowerment Movement, a coalition of political and community organizations.

Villaraigosa said he would deliver 1,000 more police officers, noting that Hahn failed to fulfill a similar promise he made during the 2001 campaign. And he accused Hahn of distorting his record in Sacramento.

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“We need a leader who can measure up, not someone who will stoop so low to the ground that all he could do is throw mud as if he was some kind of kid on a playground,” Villaraigosa told the audience of 100 at the Wilshire Radisson Hotel.

Villaraigosa on Tuesday launched the mayoral runoff’s first television advertising, a spot that questions Hahn’s record on education.

In addition, sources familiar with Villaraigosa’s campaign said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president last year, would be in Los Angeles on Saturday to endorse his former national campaign co-chairman.

The campaign announced an endorsement rally with a “national political figure,” but declined to comment further.

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Kerry’s endorsement would show Los Angeles voters that the councilman is a figure of “national status,” said Richard Lichtenstein, a campaign consultant not involved in the race.

The Koreatown event, the last scheduled mayoral forum, almost didn’t happen. After initially agreeing months ago to appear, Villaraigosa subsequently declined to participate.

His refusal, however, turned into a liability after it became an issue in the Korean-language media.

At a few points Tuesday night, the moderator had to urge the candidates not to attack each other.

Villaraigosa told the audience he supports “inclusionary” zoning, a policy that would require a percentage of all new housing to be affordable. But he said he does not support an ordinance pending in the City Council because it is not flexible enough.

Hahn said he opposes the proposal because it would prompt contractors to build housing in cities without such restrictions.

When Hahn said Villaraigosa’s answer was not clear, Villaraigosa retorted, “I think they asked you what your position was.” To which Hahn replied, “I didn’t interrupt you, Mr. Villaraigosa.”

With the May 17 runoff election three weeks away, the rhetoric from the campaigns has become increasingly acerbic.

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Earlier Tuesday, Hahn took a swipe at Villaraigosa’s record on consumer protection, highlighting the former assemblyman’s support for a 1996 bill that he charged allowed for the proliferation of “payday loan” companies that charge steep interest rates in working-class neighborhoods.

Villaraigosa was on the defensive over the bill, which allowed check-cashing companies to provide advance money to customers at high interest rates. Supporters say the companies help Californians who lack access to traditional lenders, but critics compare the companies to loan sharks.

Speaking at a news conference at his Wilshire Boulevard campaign headquarters, Hahn said the bill has allowed more than 250 payday loan companies in Los Angeles. The mayor called the industry “one of the worst blights on our community.”

Hahn contrasted his work as a former city attorney “fighting against people who are engaged in rip-offs” with Villaraigosa’s vote for the bill.

“That’s not the kind of leadership we need in a mayor,” he said. “We expect someone who will stand up for the little guy, stand up for the person who’s going to be victimized, and not stand up for the businesses that are up there victimizing.”

A spokesman for Villaraigosa said the bill imposed additional regulations on the payday loan industry, which had grown without many restrictions.

The bill limited the number of consecutive loans a firm could make to the same person and set civil penalties for violators, said spokesman Nathan James.

Hahn said he would ask the city planning director to prepare an ordinance that would restrict the number and operation of payday loan companies as “nuisance activities.”

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Villaraigosa said he could not comment on the ordinance without first reviewing it, but he noted that consumer groups have supported him based on his voting record.

“I had a great record in the six years I was in the state Assembly with consumer rights bills,” Villaraigosa said. “Jim Hahn is taking another bill out of context.”

Villaraigosa’s 30-second TV commercial highlights his efforts to improve the Los Angeles school system and charges that Hahn has been “on the sidelines.”

The advertisement is part of what one campaign official described as a “significant” buy that will keep Villaraigosa ads on broadcast television until the election. The ad is running on all English-language broadcast stations in Los Angeles, said James.

Featuring scenes of Villaraigosa with his family, a teacher who was a mentor and in a classroom, the ad begins with a narrator saying: “For 20 years, his wife Corina has been a teacher, helping shape young lives. His own life was changed by one caring teacher who paid for him to take his college entrance exams. He knows what a good education can mean.”

The ad cuts to Villaraigosa, who says: “For four years now, my opponent sat on the sidelines. But education is so important, a mayor has to get involved. I’ll work for smaller classes, expanded pre-school and more parental involvement.”

The ad concludes with the narrator saying: “Antonio Villaraigosa, endorsed by classroom teachers, hands-on leadership, straight from the heart.”

Hahn countered the criticism Tuesday, citing expansion of after-school programs, enhanced cooperation between the city and school district on sites for new schools, and efforts to protect children from violence on their way to school.

“I have been involved in the trenches on education,” Hahn said. “Mr. Villaraigosa has had two years on the City Council. He’s failed to show any leadership on any issue, let alone education.”

Although the City Charter does not give the mayor direct power over Los Angeles schools, both Villaraigosa and Hahn have seized on education as an issue and have said the mayor should have some control over the Los Angeles Unified School District.

San Fernando Valley political strategist Garrett Biggs said he isn’t surprised that Villaraigosa’s first ad would be on education. “It’s a huge concern, and if you talk about it you get points from the voters,” he said.

What is surprising to Biggs is that Hahn, who was 18 points behind in a recent Times poll, has not hit the airwaves yet.

“Hahn can’t wait any longer,” Biggs said. “People are already voting by absentee.”

Hahn said his campaign would roll out new TV ads “when we think that voters are going to be paying the most attention.”

The mayor, however, might not have the money to run ads from now until the election, some observers said.

As required of the candidates, Villaraigosa disclosed April 19 that he had reached the initial fundraising threshold of $1.8 million. Hahn has yet to give notice that he has raised that amount.


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