Debate splits candidates into insider and outsider camps

L.A. mayoral candidates from left, Kevin James, Jan Perry and Emanuel Pleitez react to a question during a debate at Loyola Marymount University Tuesday night.
(Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times)

The top contenders to be Los Angeles’ next mayor divided into two neatly aligned camps at a debate Tuesday night, with the elected officials touting their records and the City Hall outsiders questioning why voters ought to trust them to solve the city’s problems if they have failed to during their combined decades in office.

Attorney Kevin James and former technology executive Emanuel Pleitez hammered City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti throughout the two-hour forum. James, as he has in recent meetings, repeatedly honed in on Greuel.


“Ms. Greuel always makes the point that she knows where the bodies are buried. That’s because she buried the bodies,” he said when she advised him to “loosen up” after making a joke during a discussion of city hiring practices.

With vote-by-mail just underway in the March 5 primary, the mayoral candidates are increasingly showing friction and are sprinting through a series of debates this week, trying to leave their mark on an electorate that includes large numbers of undecided voters.

With the forum at Loyola Marymount University taking place minutes from Los Angeles International Airport, the spotlight turned to a controversial plan to separate the two northern runways by 260 feet. The proposal was endorsed by airport commissioners Tuesday. Proponents say such a move would give large airplanes more room to take off and land, and would increase safety. Opponents worry that such a move would add to noise and air pollution, and increase congestion at LAX rather than spreading commercial air traffic among the region’s airports.

James announced that he opposed the runway expansion, drawing applause from the crowd. Perry said if she were mayor now, she would veto it if it came to her desk — but since she is not, she needs to visit the site to fully understand the potential noise and air-quality issues before she takes a position. Garcetti and Greuel said they were undecided and pledged to talk to the community. Pleitez said those positions showed what was wrong with city government.

“These are our elected officials. They’ve been in elected office 10 years. They’ve had enough time to study, to talk to the community, to go to the site,” he said. “They need to make decisions.”

James and Pleitez need to make the biggest marks in such forums because they are both long-shot candidates without the fundraising coffers of the elected officials. Garcetti, Greuel and Perry largely stayed positive, touting their records.

When asked about specific cures for the city’s structural budget deficit, Garcetti said the city’s deficit was once projected to be $1 billion, but is now $200 million because of negotiations he led with city employee unions that resulted in pension reform, reducing the number of workers and reducing healthcare costs.

“I don’t need to propose solutions. I have enacted solutions,” he said. “I leapt into that fire and did the hard work, which is why I think some of the public sector unions haven’t lined up behind my campaign.”

But all present said those cuts are not enough. Of the elected officials, Perry was the most sober in her assessment of the city’s finances, answering “yes” when asked whether the city was close to bankruptcy.

“Let me cut directly to the chase. The hardest part of dealing with our structural deficit is to get our employees back to the table and ask them to give back more on their pensions and on their healthcare costs,” she said. “Everything else is just window dressing.”

Greuel, who has received many labor endorsements, pushed back at the notion raised by James and implied by Garcetti that she would be beholden to city workers. She cited her work as controller auditing city agencies such as the Department of Water and Power and the Department of Transportation as proof.

“Every single day I make someone mad with the audits I do,” she said. “I have demonstrated a history of standing up and being transparent and holding people accountable, no matter who supports me.”

Greuel, who has faced mounting criticism for repeatedly saying on the campaign trail and in her television advertising that she found $160 million in waste and fraud at City Hall, did not mention the figure during the debate Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, Greuel outlined her plans to increase the number of police officers and firefighters by 20%. None of the other candidates supported this move, favoring keeping the police force at about 10,000, with James chiding her for being unrealistic in how she would pay for such an increase.

The scrapping between James and Greuel is a continuation of recent appearances on the campaign trail, as both vie for fiscally conservative voters such as those in the San Fernando Valley. Tuesday morning, James held a news conference and attacked Greuel, Garcetti and Perry as being part of a corrupt culture at City Hall, personified by the controversial “Gold Card Desk,” a disbanded parking-ticket review program.

James called for a criminal probe of the program and an expanded audit by Greuel of tickets that were voided by city officials. He first raised the “Gold Card Desk,” which fast-tracked review of parking citations for the mayor, City Council members and others, during a debate Monday night. The practice first came to light in an audit Greuel conducted in 2011, placing James in an awkward position Tuesday as he simultaneously sought to castigate Greuel and repeatedly cited facts her office uncovered in its audit of the program. Greuel’s review found that over a two-year period, 43% of the 1,026 tickets cancelled by the program lacked sufficient documentation to justify the dismissals.

Greuel’s campaign said James missed the point of the audit.

“First things first — Wendy is the one who uncovered and put an end to the Gold Card scandal,” said Greuel spokeswoman Shannon Murphy. "…. Kevin James is grasping at straws here. If he would have actually read the audit and paid attention to Wendy’s audit findings, he would be aware the city attorney was forwarded this more than a year and a half ago.”