US Representative Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso attacked each other Wednesday with allegations of misconduct and forgery during an hour-long debate, the latest rhetorical escalation in the once relatively genteel campaign for mayor of Los Angeles.
The veteran Washington lawmaker pilloried the businessman for out of touch with predominantly Democratic LA, over his previous Republican registration and financial contributions to anti-abortion politicians.
Caruso, in turn, portrayed Bass as a reclusive member of a failed political class that has failed to curb the city’s homelessness and crime — the two issues voters say are their top concerns.
The rancorous exchanges during the debate, broadcast live from the Skirball Cultural Center in the Sepulveda Pass, built on the harsher tone the campaign has taken in recent weeks. That marked a stark departure from previous declarations of mutual respect between the two future mayors, including a moment three years ago when the duo sat side by side as dignitaries at a USC graduation.
Bass has tried to consolidate a lead she took in the June primaries, beating Caruso by 7 percentage points and extending it to 12 points in polls held over the summer. Caruso still hopes to convince the nearly a quarter of voters who remain undecided, a group that could shift the race before the vote ends on Nov. 8.
Much of the disagreement Wednesday centered on USC, the university both candidates attended and which has been the center of repeated scandals in recent years.
Bass attacked Caruso for his time as chairman of the university’s board of trustees. She echoed previous reports in The Times of how Caruso backtracked on a promise to release a report on an investigation into a gynecologist accused of sexual misconduct.
“The gynecologist’s victims, literally hundreds of USC students, have asked you to release the report,” Bass said. “As chairman of the board of trustees, he promised to investigate, to prepare a report, and then he decided he would not release it when the victims asked for it to be released.”
Caruso helped USC reach $1.1 billion in legal settlements with former gynecologist patients, George Tyndall, and overhauled the university’s leadership and governance structure. But in recent years, he reneged on publishing the report, saying USC attorneys only gave oral briefings to trustees and there was no report to release.
Caruso said his opponent’s attack was intended to divert her own misconduct when she received a nearly $100,000 scholarship, “without applying,” to earn a master’s degree from USC’s School of Social Work.
“She was awarded a $95,000 scholarship. She failed to report it in….paperwork where it was supposed to be reported,” said Caruso. “She graduated, took fewer classes than her fellow students and then worked with the dean [of the School of Social Work] to legislate and push through Congress, to put taxpayer money back into that same school.”
Bass replied that she had worked hard for her degree. “I don’t think it was a bad judgment,” she told Caruso. “I have spent the past three decades working for the most vulnerable in our country, children in the child welfare system.”
The exchange ended abruptly when Caruso asked if Bass “told prosecutors are lying” when he named her in a parallel corruption investigation involving now-suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. “No,” replied Bass, “I say so.”
Ridley-Thomas has been accused of providing contracts to USC in exchange for a scholarship and a job for his son. He has pleaded not guilty. His trial is scheduled for November 15.
Former USC dean Marilyn Flynn, who provided the scholarship to Bass, pleaded guilty Monday to a bribery charge in the Ridley-Thomas case. The US law firm told The Times earlier this month that Bass was not “currently” a target or subject of our firm’s investigation.
While the Los Angeles mayor’s race is technically impartial, the issue of party membership has been brought to the fore by Bass and her campaign.
In response to a question, the congressman said that Caruso had been a Republican for decades, then an Independent, then a Republican again. He registered as a Democrat at the start of the current campaign.
“That’s the problem,” Bass said. “You keep going back and forth like this.”
Bass tried to make that distinction from the start of the debate. When asked about the biggest difference between her and Caruso, she described herself as “a lifelong pro-choice Democrat.”
Caruso acknowledged that he had returned to the Republican Party in 2016 to support former Ohio Governor John Kasich, whom he believed to be the only viable Republican who could stop Donald Trump from winning the party’s presidential nomination.
“I have never supported Trump. I never gave him a dime,” said Caruso. He also noted that he had contributed to many Democrats, including Bass himself. He said the congressman had unfairly compared him to Trump in the past.
“When you asked me for donations, I supported you,” said Caruso. “And did you think I was Donald Trump when I wrote you a check?”
Caruso also punched Bass for an incident earlier this month when burglars broke into her Baldwin Vista home and stole two .38-caliber revolvers. He asked a series of questions, wondering if the guns had been stored safely, the way Bass said they were
“There are now two guns on the street. And we have terrible gun violence in the city of Los Angeles,” said Caruso, who demanded more answers from Bass about the incident.
Bass replied that she was stunned that Caruso would blame her when she was the victim of a crime and when she had called him earlier to express her concern about a break-in at the Grove, the luxury shopping center he owns.
“I think this is a desperate act, Rick,” Bass said.
The candidates also addressed policy issues that voters say are most important.
As for public safety, Bass reiterated her intention to reduce the LAPD to its previously authorized workforce of 9,700 officers and said she would send more police to the streets by taking them out of desk jobs.
Caruso has called for a larger build-up, up to 11,000 officers, which would be a record high for the force. That would be an expensive and difficult task, as the Corps has dwindled to just 9,200 officers, down from 800 officers in recent years.
As for homelessness, Caruso and Bass reiterated their earlier plans: hers to create 15,000 homes and his to deliver 30,000 homes to the unhomed within 300 days of taking office.
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She would build new shelters for about 1,000 people, expand the use of housing vouchers, lease and buy motels and hotels, and try other approaches. The price tag in the first year would be $292 million, including construction costs and operating costs for shelter beds.
Caruso’s plan would cost an estimated $843 million in its first year to build or acquire the homes and prepare them for occupancy. He declined to estimate the operating costs of housing 30,000 people, but a previous analysis of city documents by the Times found it would cost about $660 million a year, or about $22,000 per person.
Caruso said Bass’s plan seemed more of the same. “The population has grown 80% during Karen Bass’ tenure,” Caruso said.
Caruso said he would use his knowledge as a developer to streamline the city’s bureaucracy and make building new homes easier. He said he would focus on both temporary and permanent structures after he declared a state of emergency for homelessness.
Caruso also repeatedly suggested that his business experience would be crucial in solving homelessness and other problems. When Bass said she would hire a deputy mayor for business, he replied, “I don’t need a deputy mayor for business, I know business.”
Given the Supreme Court’s ruling banning abortions, the candidates were asked whether that should be a problem in the campaign.
Bas said it had to be. Even if the city is not directly involved in health care management, she said the issue is “a matter of values.”
Caruso — whose previous donations to anti-abortion politicians have been the subject of frequent attacks during the race — insisted, “I’m pro-choice, I always have been.”