Los Angeles mayoral candidates Rick Caruso and Karen Bass tangled for nearly an hour Wednesday night in their first debate ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
Both Caruso and Bass laid out their plans on homelessness while castigating their opponent for not doing enough or thinking ambitiously enough to address the crisis.
Their respective ties to USC and a recent burglary at Bass’ home produced some of the debate’s most contentious moments, with Bass saying Caruso had allowed sexual abuse to run rampant on campus. In turn, Caruso criticized Bass for taking a nearly $100,000 scholarship from the dean of the university’s School of Social Work, who this week pleaded guilty in a federal bribery case.
There was also lots of talk of housing affordability and even street vending.
The debate concluded with several quick-fire questions, including: In one word, what is the state of Los Angeles?
Bass and Caruso both responded by saying, “Crisis.”
After that sober moment, things lightened up for the mayoral rivals.
Asked by Fox 11 anchor Elex Michaelson if the Dodgers would win the World Series, both agreed that they would.
Asked their favorite spot to take visitors in L.A., Bass replied, “the beach.” Caruso said, “the beach, with Karen.”
Caruso promised to show “zero tolerance” on corruption at City Hall, while also attempting to tie Bass to the corruption cases that have ensnared three council members.
“The system quite frankly is corrupt, and with all due respect to my opponent, she’s part of that system,” he said.
Bass disputed that idea, while also promising to create an ethics czar and institute an ethics pledge in her administration. And she argued that Caruso’s business had put him at the heart of that system.
“If you look at the corruption at City Hall, it’s been around developers,” she said.
Caruso quickly shot back: “Name one time that I have been named in any scandal at all in my career in my life.”
On Caruso’s party affiliation
A question from Times columnist Erika D. Smith about party affiliation spurred a heated exchange, with both Bass and Caruso landing a number of zingers.
Speaking about his past as a Republican, Caruso — who was last registered as a Republican in 2019 — said he “left the Republican Party a long time ago” because it didn’t reflect his values.
Caruso switched his party registration to “decline to state” in 2011 while considering a bid for L.A. mayor. He re-registered as a Republican in March 2016, staying with the GOP until November 2019, when he went back to “no party preference.” Caruso changed his party affiliation to Democratic in late January, less than a month before filing to run for mayor.
“I’ve always been socially liberal,” Caruso said, citing his support for former Gov. Jerry Brown and current Gov. Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, and noting that he is “close” to both of them.
When it was her turn to speak, Bass knocked Caruso for having previously said he would prefer an earlier, more middle-of-the-road version of the Democratic Party.
“I like the Democratic Party of 10 years ago and the Democratic Party of today,” she said, characterizing the party of today as more diverse and accepting.
“Doesn’t seem to be accepting me,” Caruso said with a bashful smile, spurring laughter in the room. It was a rare acknowledgement from the candidate of how he has been all but shut out from formal party support during the election.
Bass and Caruso had an interesting back-and-forth over their respective ties to USC.
Bass’ involvement with USC is potentially embarrassing, given that she accepted a $95,000 scholarship to get a master’s degree in social work from Marilyn Flynn, the dean of the school, who this week pleaded guilty in a separate corruption case.
After beginning her tuition-free studies in 2012, Bass advanced legislation that would have resulted in more federal funding for USC and other private universities.
Federal prosecutors indicated that Bass’ scholarship was a “critical” piece of evidence in their criminal allegations against Flynn and City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. But the U.S. attorney’s office told The Times earlier this month that “at this time,” Bass “is not a target or a subject of our office’s investigation.”
Bass got clearance from the Office of Congressional Ethics to take the scholarship for studies that she said benefitted her constituents by enhancing her knowledge of child welfare policy.
Caruso has pilloried his opponent in recent weeks over the scholarship.
“She received a free scholarship simply because she was a powerful member of Congress,” he said at a recent news conference. “This is corruption. This is dishonest, plain and simple.”
Bass failed to list the full value of her scholarship, which she sought in 2011, on congressional disclosure forms until 2019, when forms from several years were amended and a total of more than $80,000 in free tuition was added to her gift disclosures. Bass attributed the errors to her former chief of staff, noting they were discovered in an audit by her lawyer.
Bass went after Caruso’s time as chair of the USC Board of Trustees.
She said he refused to release the results of an investigation of the behavior of a campus gynecologist who was accused of misconduct: “He committed to do an investigation, to do a report, and then he decided afterwards that he wasn’t going to release it when the victims asked for it to be released.”
Caruso invoked reporting in The Times and spoke of his ties to USC as a positive, particularly his work as chair of the university’s board following the allegations against the campus gynecologist, George Tyndall.
Caruso helped USC reach $1.1 billion in legal settlements with Tyndall’s alleged victims and helped overhaul the university’s leadership and governing structure. But in recent years, he backtracked on the release of an internal report on Tyndall, saying USC’s lawyers gave only oral briefings to trustees and that there was no report to release.
USC did publish on its website a trove of internal records related to Tyndall after The Times petitioned a federal court to unseal documents showing complaints about the gynecologist.
Those files make no mention of Caruso, nor did a U.S. Department of Education report on the case.
Caruso served as one of about 55 board members overseeing USC before he became chair in 2018, in the days after the Tyndall revelations rocked the campus — opening himself up to questions about why he and others hadn’t taken a more active role in oversight of the scandal-plagued university.
A 30-second video advertisement accuses Caruso of “covering up” misconduct and depriving Tyndall’s victims of transparency.
Bass said at a recent news conference that “the USC scandal we need to talk about is how he failed to protect these young women.”
On the gun theft at Bass’ home
Discussion of a recent burglary at Bass’ home brought one of the most contentious moments of the debate yet, as Bass calmly but forcefully told Caruso she was disappointed with his campaign’s attacks after her home was burglarized.
Bass accused Caruso of “an act of desperation,” referencing a letter that Caruso ally and City Councilman Joe Buscaino sent to Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore asking for an “investigation” into the circumstances surrounding the gun theft, including whether the guns were registered.
Two men were charged last week with burglarizing Bass’ Baldwin Vista home on Sept. 9 and taking two .38-caliber revolvers belonging to the congresswoman. Bass has said the firearms were “safely and securely stored” in a closet. The intruders didn’t take cash, electronics or other valuables, Bass said.
The Times reported that the guns were stored in a Brink’s lockbox. Bass has said she had the guns for her protection.
Bass said the burglary “shattered” her sense of safety, a stark departure from earlier comments she made about feeling very safe in her neighborhood.
At a debate earlier this year, Bass was asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how safe she feels walking around her neighborhood. She rated her sense of safety as a 10 during that debate, but said Wednesday that she would now “grade it at a 5.”
Caruso and Bass found one area of agreement on Wednesday night — the need to produce more housing. Both said the process for approving new homes needs to be streamlined.
Caruso, who has built shopping malls and residential buildings, said housing construction has become “overregulated” in L.A.
“It’s so expensive to build in this city, people aren’t building. That’s why affordability is so upside down,” he said.
Bass said the city needs more “decent-paying jobs” to ensure Angelenos can afford to pay their rent. She said the approval process needs to be streamlined at City Hall — and called for more housing overall.
“The way we deal with affordability is to increase the supply,” she said.
On public safety
Caruso has said he wants to grow the LAPD to 11,000 officers. The force is currently at about 9,226 officers. Bass says she wants the department to be at 9,700 officers, which is what the City Council has authorized.
During this back-and-forth, Caruso invoked his time as the president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. He said that during his tenure he improved the LAPD, and claimed that it was removed from the oversight of a federal judge that had been imposed in 2001 because of civil rights abuses.
LAPD observers of that era say the Caruso-led commission and a new police chief did pursue reforms more assiduously than in the past. But the federal judge monitoring the department rebuked the LAPD for moving too slowly on reform and did not hand oversight of the LAPD back to the police commission until 2009, four years after Caruso left.
End the eviction moratorium?
Bass and Caruso were asked whether the city’s eviction moratorium should be extended. The businessman said yes, but added that he wants more verification that people who are not paying rent lack the ability to do so.
Bass said that she would extend the moratorium and that the city should also extend other programs — like Project Roomkey — that came about during the COVID-19 pandemic. She added that landlords should receive help, too.
Abortion — an issue that typically gets little play in local L.A. elections — has cast a long shadow over the race since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade was leaked just before the primary.
Bass invoked abortion rights, and the specter of Caruso’s Republican past, when she described herself as “a lifelong pro-choice Democrat” in her opening answer.
Asked about the role that reproductive rights would play for L.A.’s mayor, Bass described the matter as “a question of values,” regardless of whether the city is involved in administering healthcare.
Caruso — whose past donations to antiabortion politicians have been a subject of frequent attacks during the race — hit back hard.First, he clarified his position for voters, saying, “I am pro-choice; I always have been.”
Then he said the “same standards” being used against him should also apply to Bass. Caruso said Bass had “supported a congressman in Georgia — [who is] anti-abortion, supported the Hyde Amendment with Obama healthcare that prevented federal funds to be used.”
The Hyde Amendment — a decades-long ban on federal funding of abortion was passed in 1976 — is often used as a synonym for such a ban.
According to a Caruso spokesperson, the congressman in question is Rep. Sanford Bishop, who represents Georgia’s 2nd District. Bishop’s district is “heavily rural” and the congressman is a “conservative Democrat,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“While I believe abortion should be rare, it should be legal, safe, and an available choice in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life or health of a woman,” Bishop said in a June 2022 statement decrying the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs. Wade.
It’s accurate that in 2009, Bishop voted in favor of a compromise amendment to the landmark healthcare bill that, as The Times put it at the time, “in effect bans abortion coverage by all plans that are purchased using taxpayer dollars.” It’s also accurate that Bass has donated to Bishop through her campaign committee.
Caruso’s insistence that Bass be held “the same standards that are used against me” in this situation rings a bit false. He’s making something of an apples-to-oranges comparison, equating Bass’ donations to a single Democratic congressperson who now has an “F” rating from SBA Pro-Life America’s “National Pro-Life Scorecard” with his long history of donations to anti-abortion conservatives.
Caruso has been outspoken about his support for abortion rights on the campaign trail, but his past donations include more than $240,000 to a super PAC supporting John Kasich’s GOP presidential run in 2016; $100,000 to a PAC supporting President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004; $50,000 to a PAC supporting Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) in 2017; and $4,300 to a committee supporting Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2007. Caruso also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican Party committees between 2003 and 2017.
Caruso mentioned his much-repeated promise to build 30,000 housing units in his first year in office. To realize this expensive plan, he wants to build tiny houses for 15,000 people, and temporarily place another 15,000 people in “sleeping pods” in existing structures, such as warehouses and empty buildings.
It would cost an estimated $843 million in the first year to build or acquire the housing and prepare it for occupancy. Caruso declined to estimate the operating expenses for housing 30,000 people, but a Times analysis of city documents found that it would cost about $660 million a year, or about $22,000 per person.
Bass criticized Caruso’s plan, saying that it was exclusively about interim housing and didn’t offer a balanced approach. She has put forward her own plan to bring 15,000 people indoors by trying to wring as much as possible out of the current system in order to expand both interim and permanent housing, though at a far smaller scale than Caruso envisions.
She would build new shelter beds to accommodate 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 an estimated $292 million, including construction costs and operating expenses for shelter beds.
Both candidates talked about how shelters can be problematic.
“The shelters have become so dangerous that people don’t even want to be in the shelters and are choosing to be outside on the street, so we have to have interim housing, but it has to be very limited in time, and we have to put people into permanent supportive housing,” Bass said.
Caruso cited recent research from the Rand Corp. indicating that the congregate shelters are not homeless people’s preferred destination. Fewer than a third of those surveyed in Hollywood, skid row and Venice said “group shelter” was an acceptable housing option.
On their differences
Asked to discuss the biggest differences between herself and Caruso, Bass mentioned homelessness and made clear she is “a lifelong pro-choice Democrat.” She added that she thinks “we can have a city where people are not priced out of housing but actually coming in.”
In Caruso’s answer to this question, he invoked his grandparents being from Boyle Heights, then mentioned homelessness and crime. “L.A. is always the place where big dreams come true.”
Karen Bass and Rick Caruso face off at Skirball
With less than seven weeks until the Nov. 8 election, Rep. Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso are facing off in their first head-to-head debate tonight at Skirball Cultural Center.
Both campaigns have gone into combat mode in recent weeks, with Caruso and Bass attacking each other’s character and ethics. This will be their first time parrying blows without a crowd of other candidates beside them and it’s unclear what their dynamic will look like — or how negative the candidates will be willing to go.
The debate — which is sponsored by The Times, Univision, KPCC, the Skirball Cultural Center, the Los Angeles Urban League and Loyola Marymount University — is being moderated by Times columnist Erika D. Smith and Fox 11 News anchor Elex Michaelson.
The debate was preceded by one featuring the two candidates in the Los Angeles County sheriff’s race, Sheriff Alex Villanueva and retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna. Caruso greeted Villanueva as the sheriff left the stage. “Sounds like you did a good job,” Caruso told him. He also greeted Luna.
About 200 people are inside the venue at Skirball. Those in the audience include city councilman and former mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino and students from Loyola Marymount University, who are visible in their red and white T-shirts.
Bass finished the June primary with a seven-point lead and an August poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by The Times, showed her leading Caruso by 12 percentage points.
But nearly a quarter of Los Angeles voters are still undecided, according to the poll, and Wednesday’s debate offers a potentially decisive opportunity for Caruso and Bass to reintroduce themselves to voters just three weeks before general election ballots are mailed.