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Citing ‘escalating tension in modern politics,’ USC pulled out of hosting mayoral debate

As the Los Angeles mayoral race heads into its frantic final months, debate organizers have been caught up in bickering between the candidates’ camps as well as scheduling snafus and last-minute cancellations.

Two debates — a televised debate Sept. 21 on Fox 11 with The Times, Univision, KPCC and Loyola Marymount University as partners, and a KNX radio debate Oct. 6 — will be the first of the general election season between Rep. Karen Bass and businessman Rick Caruso.

The TV debate, which will also feature a debate between the candidates for L.A. County sheriff beforehand and include a live audience, will take place at the Skirball Cultural Center after the University of Southern California pulled out last month, according to interviews and emails obtained by The Times.

“Senior administrators” put the kibosh on the event, citing the cost of security, a shortage of personnel and the “escalating tension in modern politics especially as the November election approaches,” according to an Aug. 11 email obtained by The Times.

The email came two days after a public speaker at an L.A. City Council meeting climbed over a bench to confront council President Nury Martinez. This prompted police to fill the chamber and an audience member to be arrested. It was the second time in as many weeks that protesters delayed a council vote while expressing anger over the expansion of a city law prohibiting homeless encampments.

The City Council incident was referenced in the Aug. 11 email as one reason why USC couldn’t host the debate.

The decision, which was reached after a “formal threat assessment,” was also motivated by “the desire to keep potential disruptions at bay” with students on campus for the fall semester, said the email from the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, which notified partners of the cancellation.

The email noted that the Dornsife Center “did not make the cancellation decision” but was “bound by it.”

In L.A., protesters angry over the state of the city and elected officials’ policy views have interrupted, and in some cases shut down, numerous candidate forums this past winter and spring. Of the three televised mayoral debates during the primary season, two included disruptions and the removal of people from the audience.

During the primary, the USC Dornsife Center, along with The Times and Fox 11, hosted one of the three televised debates at Bovard Auditorium, where the general election debate was also expected to take place. It included five candidates and went off without a hitch.

Bass came in first in the June 7 primary, besting Caruso by seven percentage points. Recent polling by The Times and UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental found that she has widened her advantage over the businessman to 43%-31% among registered voters, with 24% undecided.

Representatives of the USC administration and the Dornsife Center for the Political Future did not immediately provide comment.

While organizers, who at that point included Fox 11 and The Times, were scrambling to find another location and academic sponsor for the Sept. 21 debate, Univision 34 approached them about joining. The Spanish-language station was having trouble locking down its own debate.

Now, Univision will be televising the Sept. 21 debate, along with Fox 11.

Fox 11 anchor Elex Michaelson — who helped organize the debate and is moderating — said he is excited to have Univision on board to reach Spanish-speaking audiences.

“Univision will have a moderator at the table and input about the questions that will be asked at the first and likely biggest debate of the campaign season,” Michaelson said.

Univision has been trying to organize another debate on Sept. 27. This week, Caruso sent Bass an open letter decrying her apparent unwillingness to show up.

“It is irresponsible that you would pass up the unique opportunity to connect directly with Latino voters,” he wrote.

Sarah Leonard Sheahan, a Bass spokeswoman, couldn’t make that date work because of a previously scheduled event.

Bass was “happy to participate in dozens of forums and debates during the primary season, all of which Rick missed except two,” Sheahan said.

Mayola Delgado, a spokeswoman for Univision 34, told The Times that “the invitation to participate in the debate still stands” and that the station is waiting on a response from Bass.

Several other television stations are working to set up debates, but like this Univision debate, the plans have not been finalized.



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