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LA mayoral race 2013: Candidates on best behavior in Empowerment Congress debate

LA mayoral candidates (from left): Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Kevin James, Emanuel Pleitez, and Jan Perry
LA mayoral candidates (from left): Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Kevin James, Emanuel Pleitez, and Jan Perry
Frank Stotlze/KPCC

The five leading candidates in the L.A. mayoral race were on their best behavior in this morning’s debate sponsored by the Empowerment Congress.

The hour-long forum stood in sharp contrast to a debate three days ago, which was marked by pointed attacks against L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel by her three top opponents. In today’s debate, held at USC’s Bovard Auditorium, the candidates refrained from going after each other.

Members of the Empowerment Congress were selected to ask questions of the candidates. The organization was founded by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to improve life for south Los Angeles communities, and the questions reflected those communities’ priorities.

The candidates were asked how they would use the arts to revitalize the area’s most neglected communities; whether they back “supportive housing” for the mentally ill and homeless; how they would try to get a Metro stop at Leimert Park; how they would reduce the number of gun deaths; how they would engage with neighborhood councils; and how they would add “economic justice” to the economic development agenda.

The candidates – City Councilmembers Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, Greuel, former prosecutor Kevin James, and tech company executive Emanuel Pleitez – largely confined themselves to reiterating their positions on these issues.

In discussing gun violence, James said he supports creating a “school marshal program, so we don’t have to have armed guards in every school.” He said such an approach “provides anonymity and security in a way that’s not intimidating to students.”

Garcetti said that neighborhood councils “have grown up. It’s time for us to start treating [them] as adults.” He suggested giving the councils more of a say over how funds are spent on street and sidewalk repair and maintenance. In discussing his backing of supportive housing for the mentally ill and homeless, Garcetti said "I've been spit in my face in my district by people who call themselves liberals but then say, we don’t want those people here.”

Greuel said the city needs to give neighborhood councils "more power and more attention." She criticized city council members who "don't pay a whole lot of attention to" the  local groups. At city council meetings, neighborhood council representatives "come to the podium and speak for two minutes and that's the interaction that they have," said Greuel.

When asked about how the arts could revitalize blighted areas, Pleitez pivoted to the issue of the city’s huge pension obligations, saying they are “choking the life out of our budget.”

Jan Perry echoed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s call for city pension funds to pull their investments from gun and ammunition manufacturers. 

All five candidates supported putting a Metro stop at Leimert Park. The Metro board has so far balked at the idea, saying it might be too expensive.

After the debate, Ridley-Thomas said the questions asked of the candidates were “not just hypotheticals,” asserting that they “are very significant in terms of the…issues” facing south L.A.

Ridley-Thomas refused to say whether he’s ready to endorse a candidate in the race.

The contest remains fluid with a little more than six weeks to go before the March 5 primary. Garcetti and Greuel have topped recent polls, but this week’s ABC7  poll found that one in five voters is still undecided. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the top two finishers face off in the May 21 general election.