Striking a pugilistic stance in his final encounter with his top four opponents before next week's election, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn on Monday derided them during a 90-minute debate as "Sacramento politicians" and questioned their commitment to public safety.
Hahn, who has been the target of constant jabs by his main challengers for the last two months, punctuated the otherwise congenial forum with several attacks on his rivals. The mayor's aggressive posture came as a new Times poll shows him neck-and-neck with Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg just a week before next Tuesday's election.
"If you want leadership in this city, I'm your guy," Hahn said at the end of the debate, pointing to himself emphatically.
The debate, which was sponsored by KCBS-TV Channel 2, KCAL-TV Channel 9 and the Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, was originally scheduled to air live, but station executives delayed its broadcast for a day. Instead, KCBS aired post-Oscar coverage by "Entertainment Tonight" and plans to broadcast the forum at 6:30 p.m. today.
While his opponents spent previous debates piling on criticism of the Hahn administration, they were more restrained Monday, focusing on their plans for combating crime, improving traffic and strengthening neighborhood councils, among other measures.
But Hahn, resorting to a line he has used frequently, mocked Villaraigosa, Hertzberg and state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) as "Sacramento politicians" and blamed them for the city's budget woes.
"Each year that I've been mayor, we've had upwards of $60 million transferred from your property taxes up to Sacramento to fix their budget mess, and Antonio Villaraigosa and Bob Hertzberg and Richard Alarcon are part of that problem that's causing the problem here," he said, thrusting his finger in their direction.
A few minutes later, Hahn went after Villaraigosa and Councilman Bernard C. Parks for recently voting against placing a measure on the ballot that would have asked voters to increase the city's sales tax to pay for more police officers.
"Let's not kid ourselves," the mayor said. "There's some vicious, violent predators out in our community, and they need to be caught. They need to be arrested and they need to be put in jail."
Villaraigosa shot back at Hahn, recalling the charged campaign the two men waged in the mayor's race four years ago.
"I've been called worse than 'Sacramento politician,' " he said. "In fact, I've been called worse by him. I think what people are looking for is not the blame game, blaming Sacramento politicians for our problems....
"I think what we're looking for is someone that can get the resources from Sacramento and Washington, D.C., here in Los Angeles, to get traffic moving again, to put more cops on the street, instead of the blame game that you have heard for four years now."
Hahn's forceful demeanor was a departure from his mild manner in past debates. It came as the new Times poll showed that Hertzberg has gained support from whites, San Fernando Valley voters, Republicans, conservatives, moderates and Jewish voters -- the same constituencies that helped Hahn win the mayor's office in 2001.
On Monday, Hahn appeared to make a bid for those voters with his tough talk on crime and sharp denunciation of illegal immigration, a topic on which he usually offers a measured assessment.
Saying he does not blame immigrants for seeking a better life, Hahn nevertheless said illegal immigration hurts local workers.
"People are flooding our borders because the federal government won't do its job," the mayor said, his voice rising. "And people are basically being invited here by all the employers who will hire illegal aliens in this country and depress our wages and ruin our economy."
Later, Hahn defended his sharp criticisms of his rivals, saying he has been the subject of relentless attacks.
"They've been throwing more mud at me than we've seen slide down the hillsides of Los Angeles the last two weeks," he said after the debate.
Parks and Villaraigosa said Hahn was bridling from critiques of his record. "I think it's time to take responsibility for it," Villaraigosa said.
The candidates, however, spent most of the evening offering similar responses to queries from the audience of neighborhood council members about how they would deal with the city's trash, housing, homeless and other matters.
Still, each sought to emphasize a distinct style.
For his part, Hertzberg did his best to stress his passion for the city, often gesturing wildly. When asked what he would tell parents whose children were exposed to gangs while walking to school, the Sherman Oaks lawyer sighed, calling it "gut-wrenching."
"You tell them that I'm going to give it everything I've got, that I'm not going to let it go, that I take your life seriously," he said, clenching his fist and waving it in the air.