Debate takeaways: With a billionaire onstage, the talk turns to yachts and taxes
For the first time since the field in the Los Angeles mayor’s race was set, all of the major candidates faced off Tuesday night in a debate at USC’s Bovard Auditorium. The forum was the first featuring Rick Caruso, the developer and philanthropist who is a first-time candidate for public office. Here are six takeaways from the debate:
Who’s going to show their taxes?
About halfway through the 90-minute debate, City Atty. Mike Feuer produced perhaps the evening’s most provocative moment, when he challenged Caruso to release his taxes. Debate moderator Elex Michaelson of Fox 11 turned the moment into a challenge to all of the candidates, one that is likely to remain in the news in the coming days.
It happened as Feuer was responding to a question about Mayor Eric Garcetti’s record. The city attorney quickly pivoted to say the public deserved to know more about the billionaire developer’s finances — including on his 215-foot yacht, Invictus.
“I think you have a $100-million yacht that is registered under the flag of the Cayman Islands,” Feuer said. “I think people here ought to be concerned about whether people are paying their fair share of taxes. I am prepared to release my taxes for the last five years tomorrow. Are you?”
After quipping about what a “great question” his opponent had asked, Caruso said: “I will release everything that I’ve paid in taxes, including the taxes on that boat, which I paid.” He added: “Believe me, I pay my fair share.”
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Before he let the topic go, the businessman added a qualifier or two. He made it clear he would release what he “paid” in taxes, saying nothing about releasing his entire returns, as Feuer seemed to suggest. And he said he would show his ... when everyone else showed theirs.
Michaelson tried to get the three other candidates to go along with the pledge. Councilman Joe Buscaino and Rep. Karen Bass both said they would release their taxes.
But Councilman Kevin de León objected, saying, “I think the city attorney challenged Mr. Caruso.” After the debate, he again demurred, calling the question a “political spat” between Feuer and Caruso. He then seemed to concede that he would release his taxes if everyone else did, saying, “If we’re all going to do it, we’ll do it.”
In the spin room afterward, the city attorney seemed pleased with what he had wrought. “I’m not an expert on yacht tax law,” Feuer said, “but I do know that registering in the Cayman Islands is done for a reason.”
Karen Bass, flying above the shrapnel
As predicted, Caruso’s first debate appearance of the campaign — and his deep campaign war chest, with attendant TV ad campaign — made him a magnet for attacks from most of those onstage. With one key exception.
While the three men jabbed and parried with Caruso and he counterattacked with apparent enthusiasm — accusing the longtime politicians of failing at their jobs — Bass mostly remained outside the fracas.
She didn’t wade into fights about Caruso’s yacht or about alleged corruption in the city attorney’s office. The effect at some points was that the audience heard less from her than the other candidates. She also seemed calmer as her fellow candidates duked it out around her.
Her most critical response was relatively mild, answering Caruso’s repeated slams on “career politicians.”
Second Los Angeles mayoral debate held at USC
“It is important not to denigrate people who are in public service,” Bass said, her voice not even moderately raised, “and all of us who have done different things in our lives and have managed programs or organizations.”
Bass has been leading in early polls well before the June 7 primary. Her above-the-fray approach is a time-honored one among political front-runners.
Bass wasn’t available after the debate to talk about her approach, but her spokeswoman weighed in.
“I think that the congresswoman made her position very clear tonight,” said Anna Bahr, “which is that of everyone on that stage, she is the leader who will govern with decisiveness, compassion, and who will deliver a more affordable, safer and more equal city for Los Angeles.”
With all the bashing, Caruso gets a bonus: Airtime
The debate had barely begun when Buscaino threw a relatively mild dig Caruso’s way, riffing that it was great to “finally” see the developer on the debate stage.
It was the sort of light ribbing that typically wouldn’t elicit a response. But Caruso immediately jumped on it and calmly said the magic words: “It felt like an attack.”
By debate rules, Caruso was then entitled to a 30-second response. And in a debate where the other candidates had been widely expected to try to cast the billionaire developer as a shared villain, Caruso made clear he wouldn’t be letting any attacks go unanswered.
Throughout the 90-minute debate, Caruso was targeted many times, but he seemed mostly unfazed. And the incoming fire also brought a kind of bonus.
With every insult came time for a response, giving Caruso the lion’s share of the attention and, seemingly, a bigger chunk of airtime. (No small advantage, given that several of the other candidates were essentially introducing themselves to viewers and Caruso is already dominating the airwaves with paid ads.)
Caruso had a special barb for each of those who came after him.
After fending off an attack from Feuer, Caruso said: “Mike, I’m sorry that you opened this door.” He went on to describe a raid on the city attorney’s office, connected to a scandal about overbilling at the Department of Water and Power.
Feuer responded that he welcomed a chance to talk about the topic. The audience laughed.
No interruptions this time
It was a debate notable for what didn’t happen as well as what did. There were none of the disruptive protests that have characterized recent debates and forums and led to one this week having to end prematurely.
In February, demonstrators shouted down the candidates a few minutes into a debate at Loyola Marymount University. They accused the candidates of enforcing the status quo, doing too little for unhoused people and offering too much support to the Los Angeles Police Department.
On Monday night, the protests at a candidates’ forum became so loud and sustained that organizers shut the event down. The homelessness activists who stopped the debate at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village said they were upset, among other things, by the city’s anti-encampment ordinance. The law allows council members to establish certain areas — like public schools and day-care centers — that cannot be surrounded by tents or encampments.
Tuesday’s debate included stringent security and was invite-only. The result? No disruptions during the event — and no protesters outside.
Gascón was the biggest figure not onstage
The most important figure who was not present was Dist. Atty. George Gascón, the prosecutor whose criminal justice reform measures have been heralded by the left but blamed by others for driving up crime.
The candidates went to varying lengths to demonstrate their skepticism about Gascón, a onetime top official at the LAPD.
De León and Bass both said they opposed recalls, on principle, and believe that Gascón should be pressured to make change and held accountable when he runs for reelection.
Gascón “is going to have to do a hell of a lot better job to keep that job,” De León said.
Bass said she favors restoring bail in some misdemeanor cases, including domestic violence. And she said she disagreed with Gascón’s decision, later reversed, to allow a 26-year-old woman to plead guilty in a juvenile court for a sexual assault on a 10-year-old.
“No reform should be so rigid that it can’t be flexible and maybe amended or adjusted,” Bass said.
“I do think that if you want to change an elected official, pressure them to change,” she added. “There is an election in a few years and he is beginning to change somewhat.”
Many of the candidates talked about an uptick in crime during Tuesday’s debate.
Caruso suggested that his view of Gascón had evolved, partly because he said the prosecutor holds different views today than he did when he first met him when he was an employee of the LAPD.
He said he had lunch with Gascón a few months ago and sent a clear message that he needed to change his direction.
“I mentioned to him that his policies were hurting Los Angeles and making us unsafe, and that wasn’t a fair thing to do,” Caruso said.
He said he asked the county prosecutor to review his policies and added: “Change your policies or you need to step down, and if you don’t do that, you need to be recalled, because people are dying, and people are feeling unsafe.”
Both Bass and Caruso were challenged, though, for their past support of the D.A. De León said they couldn’t so easily distance themselves from the county prosecutor, noting that Caruso had contributed to his campaign and that Gascón had appeared at the event launching Bass’ mayoral campaign.
“You can’t run away from who you were with on Day One,” De León said.
Buscaino also took a dig at Bass and Caruso, saying he remained unclear on where they stood on Gascón, even after their explanations. He then touted himself as the first mayoral candidate to come out for the D.A.’s recall.
“George Gascón has got to go,” Buscaino said. “When you elect a prosecutor to prosecute crimes and he’s not doing it, he’s got to go.”
It actually seemed like they were having a little fun
Much more than in their other recent encounters, the candidates seemed mostly to be enjoying themselves onstage.
Buscaino laughed, along with the audience, and corrected himself when he mistakenly said he favored “defunding” the police. The former LAPD cop is actually for expanding the force at least as much, if not more, than any of the others.
Asked in a debate-ending “lightning round” to name the TV show he binged recently, Caruso pleaded that he was not a “good TV guy.” Smiling, he squinted out at the audience and called to his wife: “Tina, what was the last thing we binged?” (If she had an answer, the audience didn’t hear it.)
Asked by Michaelson to name her favorite musician, Bass quipped: “Stevie Wonder. Same thing I told you last week.”
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The candidates even seemed amused as they verbally mauled one another.
A discussion about the size of the LAPD created what sounded like an attack by De León on Caruso. But the councilman said he was actually pointing his finger at Feuer.
At that moment, as the crowd laughed, Feuer walked across the stage and shook De Leon’s hand. When the city attorney returned to his podium, Caruso had a wry inquiry: “You shake hands when someone gives you the finger?”
De León joked: “This is the newer, friendlier L.A.” And, to smiles all around, Feuer agreed: “Leadership means finding the common ground, Rick.”
Times staff writers Jeong Park, Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Kevin Rector contributed to this report.
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