Los Angeles may be the second-most-populous city in the country and a 21st century communications hub, but many of the early months of the race for mayor have felt like a nostalgia ride.
The reason? Much of the candidates’ time has been spent talking to voters in a rite of the horse-and-buggy era — a ceaseless string of debates. There have been about 30, starting last year. The hopefuls had debates scheduled every day this week, and have two on Sunday.
Though the leading contenders to replace Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would never insult their hosts by saying so publicly, their handlers believe the endless string of face-offs has sometimes diverted attention to parochial issues while doing little to draw distinctions on the biggest challenges facing Los Angeles.
“I hate them. There are way too many of them,” a consultant to one mayoral aspirant said this week of the debate-a-thon. “They take way too much time away from other ways that we could be communicating with voters. And most of them are not particularly enlightening.”
Operatives insist that their names not be linked to such sentiments, lest they insult the array of homeowners organizations, business associations, political clubs and interest groups that have hosted the forums. Every sliver of the electorate could be crucial heading into a March 5 primary that experts expect to be close.
The participants’ ambivalence about the debates stands in stark contrast to the feelings of the hosts, who see the forums as a venue for neighborhoods and interest groups to finally put their priorities front and center.
Many manage to get commitments, which they intend to hold the candidates to, should they win office. In Los Feliz, top contenders Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel pledged to push a long-stalled General Plan for Griffith Park. In Westchester, most of the field said they would proceed with caution on moving a runway at Los Angeles International Airport, something administrators want to better accommodate bigger jets.
The hopefuls may be growing weary, but they wouldn’t dare miss a debate where their rivals will be appearing. On rare occasions, the candidates have joined together to put the brakes on the debate express. San Fernando Valley dentists wanted a forum of their own but were told, with love, that they didn’t make the cut.
Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said the debates have succeeded in giving a wide range of groups an up-close look at the candidates, but not without a cost.
“We saw this at the presidential level both for the Republicans last year and for the Democrats in 2008,” Schnur said. “You reach a point where there are so many debates they begin to blur and none of them have the type of impact either the candidate or voters would want.”
Only two debates thus far have been televised, a Dec. 15 forum sponsored by the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters in Little Tokyo and a Jan. 28 debate at UCLA, with a variety of sponsors. Those debates were seen by 105,000 and 62,000 viewers, respectively, according to KABC-TV Channel 7 and KNBC-TV Channel 4, which broadcast them. This week’s debate broadcast on KPCC-FM (89.3) also promised a mass audience.
In many of their other stops, the candidates are pressed to satisfy local concerns. In South Los Angeles, the contenders tried to outdo each other in how far they would go to support a light-rail stop in Leimert Park. The potentially high cost of some versions of the station got no mention. In Los Feliz this week, each would-be mayor seemed intent on being more opposed to electronic billboards than the one who spoke before.
The job of mayor sometimes demands putting neighborhood concerns behind those of the city as a whole. But this crop of candidates tends not to buck the will of the locals. Case in point: At the UCLA debate, a panelist suggested that a mayor needed to look out for economic growth for the whole city and thus should get behind the plan to bring bigger jets to LAX. But the candidates said then (and reiterated this week in a debate at Loyola Marymount University) that they would not proceed with a controversial runway reconfiguration without heeding Westchester residents’ concerns about noise and safety.
Chris Laib, acting president of the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., said it’s important for neighborhoods that sometimes feel ignored at City Hall to get the candidates on the record. His group felt it won by obtaining candidate commitments to push ahead the Griffith Park plan and to limit electronic billboards, like one recently installed in front of the Los Angeles Zoo.
Still, roughly 30 debates have produced a mind-numbing repetitiousness. Audiences can expect Greuel, the city controller, to talk about the “waste, fraud and abuse” she has rooted out. City Councilman Garcetti will say he deserves credit for helping knock the city’s budget deficit down from about $1 billion to about $220 million. Former tech executive Emanuel Pleitez will tell about growing up poor and “moving 10 times before I was 10 years old.”
The candidates rarely let the wear show, though it does happen. When a moderator at the League of Conservation Voters debate asked “paper or plastic,” regarding the contenders’ choice of shopping bag, entertainment lawyer Kevin James sardonically countered with “boxers.”
“Why are we talking about this when we have a deficit of $200 million plus and we are raiding special funds and can’t fix potholes?” James’ campaign manager, Jeff Corless, protested later. “You hear some of these questions and you think, ‘Really?’ ”
The debate schedule in coming weeks may be tapering a bit. But only a bit. One reason: At the conclusion of many debates, the sponsors ask the candidates to come back if they make it into the expected May 21 runoff.
They could say “no.” But so far, none of the would-be mayors has found a way.