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Bass, Caruso focus on how to bridge L.A.’s racial divides in mayoral debate

Two days after racist comments on a secret audio recording rocked Los Angeles’ political leadership, the two candidates for mayor debated Tuesday night in a sober discussion that largely focused on which of them is best positioned to bridge racial divides and bring the city together.

The matchup between U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and developer Rick Caruso at Brokaw News Center in Universal City came hours after a large crowd packed L.A. City Hall chanting “fuera” — “out” in Spanish — and called for the resignations of top city officials, one of several moves Tuesday that left the future of L.A.’s leadership in doubt.

Bass contended that her experience as a lawmaker in Sacramento and Washington and, before that, as an organizer in South Los Angeles, made her uniquely qualified to form coalitions and bring about much-needed changes on racial strife, policing and homelessness.

Businessman Rick Caruso said he was better positioned to be a change agent, stating that the existing political leadership has failed.

The debate was hosted by NBC4 chief political reporter and anchor Conan Nolan, NBC4 anchor Colleen Williams and Noticiero Telemundo52 news anchor Dunia Elvir.

Speaking first, Caruso said he would fight for “a just, equitable and inclusive city.”

“We cannot tolerate hate speech or racism,” he added. “Certainly we can never tolerate it at the leadership level. What’s happened, it’s completely unacceptable and those who did it need to be held accountable.”

The businessman, who builds upscale shopping malls, said he would focus on the needs of the general public, unlike other elected officials at City Hall who he said operated in a “back room” where they “carve up the city for their own special interest for themselves.”

He intimated that Bass was tied to “corruption,” which was a reference to the congresswoman’s ties to USC and a nearly $100,000 scholarship she received to get a master’s degree in social work.

The dean who gave Bass the scholarship pleaded guilty in a federal bribery case in which City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas has also been charged, but federal officials have stated Bass isn’t a target in the investigation.

Caruso said the only positive element of the release of the audio recording that revealed City Council President Nury Martinez demeaning Black people and indigenous Mexican people was that it threw “the doors wide open and a big light came in,” revealing a “broken” system at City Hall.

“The reason homelessness is out of control is because the system is broken. The reason crime is out of control is because the system is broken,” Caruso said. “We need to change the direction. We need to [elect] new leadership that isn’t corrupt. That changes the direction of the city and makes it more livable.”

Bass said that while Caruso could talk about bringing in change and fresh ideas, she had spent decades actually working with a multiracial coalition in South Los Angeles.

She said the furor over the audio recordings of Martinez and fellow council members Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo was just the latest in a string of crises in the city that began with homelessness, housing affordability and public safety.

“Now, in the last 72 hours, another crisis has come to the forefront,” Bass said. “It is important to take stock, but it’s more important to move forward. There needs to be an investigation and those officials must resign. But that’s not enough. We need a new direction in L.A. and new leadership that will make sure we reject the politics of divide and conquer.”

She then pointed to her work as a community organizer, saying she had the credibility to heal the wounds between Latino and Black residents and leaders.

Before winning election to the state Assembly and Congress, Bass’ work in Los Angeles centered on the Community Coalition, a group that fought for economic and political opportunities for the working class.

When the topic turned to crime, Bass also mentioned her work in the 1990s at 85th and Broadway.

“Crips and Bloods, 1,000 homicides that year,” Bass said. ”I quit my job at teaching and went to the heart of the problem to bring communities together to solve crime.”

The debate lacked some of the fiery exchanges seen in last week’s matchup, and at points, the two complimented each other.

The sharpest exchange of the evening came when the moderators asked whether the candidates would pledge not to raise taxes to help homelessness.

Caruso quickly said he would make that pledge, calling Los Angeles one of the highest-taxed cities in the nation. Bass replied: “I would not make that pledge,” later adding that a crisis could develop that would require higher taxes.

“If people are dying on our streets and it is necessary, I might do that. I think there’s a lot of things to do before that,” she said.

Bass also dismissed Caruso’s attack on her for refusing to take a position. “To stand here and lie and pledge that I’m going to do something … I’m going to do whatever it takes to solve this problem.”

Bass said that she would seek to hire more police officers, and also work to get officers who are on desk jobs on the streets. Caruso touted his plan to hire 1,500 officers — although he faces challenges in getting them in quickly — and appeared to allude to past City Hall policy moves, such as cutting the LAPD in 2020 and moving the money to social services.

“The decisions that were made about defunding the police, disrespecting police, and not making sure the police have the support to do their job well — we are paying a price for that,” Caruso said.

Asked about homelessness, Caruso said government had failed businesses and he’d take a firmer line on rules that have to do with where people can sit, sleep or lie.

“At a certain point in time we’re not going to allow encampments on the streets,” he said. Bass was also insistent that streets are not for sleeping, but said the city can’t just jail people, warning it creates a cycle where people spend a few days in jail and go back to the street.

Bass pointed out as well that Caruso had never built a unit of affordable housing, while he lambasted her at various points for not doing enough to address homelessness during her congressional tenure.

Besides homelessness, the issues of the recent audio scandal dominated the debate.

Martinez, who resigned as City Council president on Monday, announced Tuesday that she was taking a leave of absence. De León and Cedillo have both apologized for their roles.

On a question about the racial turmoil in the city, Elvir, the Telemundo52 anchor, pointed out that “the next mayor of Los Angeles will be either an African American woman or a white man.”

Caruso interjected: “I’m Italian,” to smiles and chuckles all around.

Elvir responded: “Italian American.”

Caruso, seeming to suggest a link between his heritage and much of the city’s population, replied with a smile: “That’s Latin, thank you.”

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