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Column: Enough about guns, Scientology and USC. L.A. voters need more on tents from Bass, Caruso

Rick Caruso and Karen Bass shaking hands on a stage
Rick Caruso and Karen Bass at last week’s Los Angeles mayoral debate at the Skirball Cultural Center.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

You might be inclined to call me naive for what I’m about to say, but I’m saying it anyway.

With a mere six weeks to go in the campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, can we please focus on what matters most?

Yes, I know, I know — candidates have claws, and political campaigns tend to go negative sooner or later. That’s just the way it is.

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A Sept. 9 headline in The Times read, “Bass and Caruso trade insults as L.A. mayor race turns ugly.” The story was about the candidates beating each other up over their relationships to scandals at USC.

On Monday morning, the Rick Caruso campaign sent notice that it’s running two new ads called “Church of Karen,” in which U.S. Rep. Karen Bass is shown delivering remarks at a Church of Scientology event.

I watched both of them, one 30 seconds long and the other 60 seconds, and my only response was a shrug.

Sure, it was a bit weird to see Bass tell several thousand Scientologists that “your creed is a universal creed and one that speaks to all people everywhere.” Scientology, in the words of the Caruso campaign, has a “reputation for intolerance, abuse, and fraud,” among other things.

L.A. mayoral candidate Rick Caruso has called on Bass to prove she was a responsible gun owner. But voters could very well see it as sexism or racism.

But this happened 12 years ago, in 2010, and unless Bass has been bankrolled by Scientology, it looked like nothing more than a standard political appearance. The event got some news attention in 2020, when Bass was considered a candidate to be Joe Biden’s running mate.

So did her visits to Cuba in the 1970s and her comments in 2016 when she called Castro’s death “a great loss to the people of Cuba.” I heard from one local Cuban American who was appalled by Bass’ Cuba connection, and I respect that.

But for me, it’s a bigger deal that Bass got a full scholarship from USC in a social work master’s program while making a handsome salary as a member of Congress, even as students without her connections took on crushing student loan debt.

And sure, it’s fair to ask whether Caruso did enough, quickly enough, about various scandals while he was on the board at USC. I also would like to point out, again, that as a developer of malls, housing and hotels, Caruso didn’t step up and build any of the affordable housing that’s so badly needed.

So let’s agree to stipulate that each candidate has a wart or two. We know that Caruso, a longtime Republican, conveniently switched to Democrat before running, and that he has supported candidates on both sides of the abortion issue. And we know that Bass, who once said she felt safe in L.A., had two guns stolen from her home recently.

But these are the two choices for L.A. voters, and the city could have done worse.

I’m not saying there was no substance in last week’s debate, but voters deserve more. Lots more.

In a city draped in blue tarp, there ought to be an entire debate on the interrelated subjects of housing, homelessness and crime.

And I wouldn’t mind seeing a forum in which a handful of in-the-trenches housing and homeless services providers parry with the candidates on what’s working, what isn’t working, what there’s too much of and what there’s not enough of.

Rick Caruso and Karen Bass are running for Los Angeles mayor. Here is your guide to the race.

Two headlines in recent days certainly screamed out for more attention.

One, by my colleague Doug Smith, suggested that in the latest count of homeless people, the numbers in Venice were so implausibly low, it was clear that there’d been a mistake in the tally by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. And in the west San Fernando Valley, Councilman Bob Blumenfield was mystified by a reported increase, and said, “We are simply not getting answers that add up.”

The numbers were so suspect, City Council President Nury Martinez called for an audit.

This happens as the role of LAHSA, and the entire city-county response to homelessness, is ripe for review, and we ought to be hearing more about this from candidates for city and county office.

The other story, by my colleague Connor Sheets, reported that $150 million worth of federal grants aimed at reducing homelessness in Greater Los Angeles went unspent between 2015 and 2020, when the homeless population exploded.

The explanation, as laid out by Sheets, will give you a migraine. To sum it up in a word, “bureaucracy” fits the bill, although the lack of an effective strategy and capable leadership are also to blame.

Bass and Caruso have each laid out plans for addressing homelessness and offered up some big goals. But Bass is putting a lot of emphasis on simply doing a better job of shepherding existing resources, while Caruso would go big on temporary housing. And the first-year promises from both candidates — especially Caruso — are unrealistic.

Caruso says he’ll house 30,000 people in his first year at City Hall, half of them in “sleeping pods” and half of them in tiny homes. Even if he could magically produce the small fortune and the battalions of staffers it would take to accomplish that, it would be a short-term fix at best.

Managing the lives of 30,000 people — many with mental health and addiction issues — is a massive undertaking. And as we’ve seen time and again, such as with the tiny home villages I just wrote about in Highland Park and Eagle Rock, there isn’t enough permanent housing or mental health and addiction service for the existing population in temporary housing, let alone 30,000 more people.

No doubt, a lot of votes are already locked in for the Nov. 8 election.

But the race could swing on currently undecided voters.

For their sake, and the sake of the entire housed and unhoused population, it’s time for the candidates to let go of the peripheral distractions and make a winning pitch on what really matters.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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