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Column: Only Karen Bass knew Rule No. 1 in the mayoral debate: Don’t help Rick Caruso steal the show

Rick Caruso gestures with open arms while speaking in the mayoral debate at USC on Tuesday.
Rick Caruso was the target of competitors’ attacks during the mayoral debate Tuesday, but that only gave him more time in the spotlight.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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It took only a few minutes for Tuesday night’s Los Angeles mayoral debate to turn into the Rick Caruso show, and Caruso didn’t have to do a thing to make that happen. Councilmen Kevin de León and Joe Buscaino and City Atty. Mike Feuer did it for him.

Moderator and L.A. Times columnist Erika D. Smith was very clear about the rules — one minute to answer each question and 30 seconds to mount a rebuttal if a candidate was “attacked.” But Buscaino couldn’t help himself. He prefaced his first question, which was about homelessness for heaven’s sake, with a snarky reference to the fact that Caruso missed the first debate. “It’s great to see Rick Caruso here finally.”

Laughing but firm, Caruso said, “I think I was attacked,” and claimed a 30-second rebuttal. Which he used to argue that the homelessness they were discussing had increased under Buscaino’s watch.

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Buscaino tried to have the last word, spluttering something about there being no big encampments in his district (um, what?) but the point, and the extra time, went to Caruso.

Rick Caruso joined rivals Karen Bass, Joe Buscaino, Kevin de Leon and Mike Feuer onstage for the first time in Tuesday’s Los Angeles mayoral debate.

Let the games begin.

The questions asked by the moderators — Smith and Fox 11 anchor Elex Michaelson — and several audience members addressed the gritty bottom line of L.A. politics today: homelessness, police funding, crime, the housing crisis, the pandemic and racial equity. There were a few moments of levity — early on, Feuer told Michaelson to thank his mother for the brownies that she apparently baked for the event — and all the candidates were polite and respectful in tone. Unlike Monday night’s forum, which was shut down by protesters, no hecklers interrupted the discourse.

But Buscaino, De León and Feuer were transmitting the same subtext, and that subtext was: Take Caruso down.

City Atty. Mike Feuer speaks at a lectern, with his image projected behind him.
Mayoral candidate Mike Feuer speaks about homelessness during Tuesday’s debate.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
City Councilman Joe Buscaino speaks at a lectern that reads "Los Angeles Mayoral Debate."
Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino came out swinging at Caruso.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The barbs, aimed at Caruso’s wealth, his career in luxury housing, his political donations, his flip-flop on attempts to recall Dist. Atty. George Gascón, flew all evening. Occasionally they landed. When Feuer wondered about Caruso’s multimillion-dollar yacht and whether he would be willing to release his tax returns, Caruso was so patronizing— “you spent some time on that, got a good lead up to it” — that he wound up swaggering himself into a promise that he would release all his tax returns whenever the other candidates agreed to do so.

As one, they did. On the spot. So we’ll see what comes of that.

But mostly they didn’t. Feuer righteously challenged Caruso’s characterization of himself as a builder, arguing that what he built was luxury buildings, not affordable housing, and his opposition to rent control had not helped the L.A. housing situation either. “It’s a great commercial,” he said, taking a swipe at Caruso’s huge investment in campaign ads, “but action speaks louder than commercials.”

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OK, but now for the rebuttal. Caruso came back hard with a reference to an ongoing investigation involving the Department of Water and Power. “Mike, I’m sorry you opened this door. Your office was raided by federal agents, your office is under investigation, and you’ve got a senior person in your office accusing you of perjury.”

Yikes.

Only front-runner Rep. Karen Bass appeared to understand the first rule of a public debate: If you attack another participant in your remarks, then he or she gets extra time to respond. And if three candidates continue to slam a fourth, who gives as good as he gets, that fourth will become, by default, the star of the show.

Perhaps that’s why she is the front-runner. I’m sure Bass has a beef or two with Caruso, but she wasn’t going to use her precious televised time talking about it.

Rep. Karen Bass speaks as Rick Caruso listens.
Rep. Karen Bass speaks Tuesday during the debate, with Rick Caruso in the foreground.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Indeed, somewhere after the hour mark, when Caruso was taking up yet another 30 precious seconds in rebuttal, you could practically feel Bass sigh, just a little.

Until Caruso criticized, for the 87th time, all the “career politicians” with him on the stage at USC; then Bass jumped in with both feet.

“Wait a minute,” she said, demanding her rebuttal time for once. “Rick, you’re my friend. Stop denigrating quote-unquote career politicians, people who have devoted their life to public service. Any of us who become mayor will have to work with City Council. Some people have dedicated their lives to not making money but doing public service, and they shouldn’t be denigrated for it.”

If this were a scripted show, that would have been a great way to end the event — a reminder that the mayor is a public servant no matter what his tax return might say — and redirect the limelight back to the job rather than the personalities.

Many of the candidates talked about an uptick in crime during Tuesday’s debate.

Instead, De León took it in another direction, informing Caruso that “I have a body of work that you can only dream of having.” De León claimed seemingly sole credit for making California a sanctuary state and “the largest economy on planet Earth to legally commit itself to clean and renewable energy.”

Furthermore, “during the last two years of pandemic you were concerned with the rents at your mall and $14,000 nights at your hotel while I was out there knocking on doors, giving out PP equipment, vaccinations and hot meals to everyday Angelenos.”

City Councilman Kevin de León at a lectern that says  "Los Angeles Mayoral Debate."
Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León addresses a question during the debate.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

So yeah, it got personal in a way that debates seldom do, which made it much better television than one might reasonably expect from a mayoral campaign.

The problem for at least three of the five candidates is that for all their attempts to take the new guy down to size, the person in the middle of all that personal, the person around which much of the debate revolved was — Rick Caruso.


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