Contrasting approaches to paying for their campaigns emerged as an issue Thursday as four candidates to replace Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky faced off in their first major debate.
The debate offered an opportunity for key contenders to begin shaping their messages and distinguishing themselves from rivals before an audience at UCLA.
The candidates said the election offered an opportunity to forge a cooperative relationship with a new county sheriff and fix a range of problems facing the scandal-plagued county jail system. They also stressed the need for improved transportation and more job creation in the San Fernando Valley, which anchors the northern end of the Yaroslavsky’s district.
But one of the most heated exchanges in the 90-minute debate came after moderator Warren Olney asked former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver if he had opened the door to a costly campaign by rejecting voluntary spending limits.
Shriver, the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, recently triggered a removal of spending limits when he declared that he would contribute $300,000 of his own money to his campaign.
“It was always going to be an expensive race,” he said, citing the possibility that independent groups could pump unlimited amounts of money into the contest to support favored candidates. To be competitive against his main rival, former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, he said, he needed to reach into his own pocket.
“I chose to defend myself,’’ Shriver said. “Voters don’t really care what’s in my pocket. They care what’s in their pocket.”
Kuehl pounced on the remarks, saying that she was unaware of any independent groups that have organized to support her run. But she said an independent group already was backing Shriver.
Alluding to Shriver’s family wealth, Kuehl said she respected the Kennedys’ willingness to engage in public service, but that self-funding campaigns is not healthy public policy.
“I have nothing against inherited wealth,’’ she said. “I just think the funding of a political campaign must be more spread out and not just funded by someone who can write himself a personal check.” Both argued they had many small donors supporting their campaigns.
Also competing in the race are former Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich and West Hollywood council member John Duran. Ulich said she would mount a people-powered campaign aimed at opening up county government to ordinary people.
Duran portrayed himself as the “solid center” of the debate participants, and more pro-business than his opponents.
If no one wins more than 50% in the June 3 primary, the top two finishers will advance to a Nov. 4 runoff. Yaroslavsky is leaving after 20 years in office because of term limits, opening they way for one of the most competitive county government elections in decades. Term limits are also pushing Gloria Molina out of her Eastside seat after 24 years.
The candidates for Yaroslavsky’s seat are expected to spend many millions of dollars by the time voters go the polls. Kuehl this week said she has raised $700,000 from a series of fundraisers and expects to spend $1.7 million by June.
Shriver’s campaign advisor Bill Carrick has said that a competitive campaign could cost millions.
Duran said he has raised about $200,000. Ulich said she will raise a nominal amount and is running a grass-roots campaign supported by volunteers and social media.
Four other lesser-known candidates are also running.