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Mayoral Candidates Spar on Questions of Character

As rivals debate L.A.'s crime, traffic and schools, they challenge each other's integrity.

March 29, 2005|Michael Finnegan and Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and his challenger, Antonio Villaraigosa, tangled over trust and leadership Monday night in a scrappy debate dominated by the question of which candidate has the integrity to run City Hall.

The mayor and city councilman sparred over crime, traffic and schools. But their tussle over character captured the harsh tone of a mayoral race that pits Hahn and Villaraigosa against each other for the second time in four years.

Hahn sought to raise doubts about Villaraigosa, portraying him as a shifty politician prone to inconsistency. "This is about trust, Antonio, and people don't trust you," said Hahn, who accused his rival of using "double talk."

Villaraigosa, for his part, cited investigations into the mayor's fundraising and city contracting. "We can't afford four more years of corruption probes and stagnation," he said. "We need a mayor who will restore trust and confidence in City Hall again."

The debate at Cal State Northridge was the first of the mayoral runoff campaign, coming seven weeks before the May 17 election. Broadcast live on KNBC-TV (Channel 4) and KWHY-TV (Channel 22), the 60-minute encounter was often bitter -- and at times personal. The mayor repeatedly referred to his opponent as simply "Antonio."

When Villaraigosa acknowledged that his children attend private schools "to give them a good Catholic school education," Hahn went on the attack. "I think you have to put your money where your mouth is," he said.

Villaraigosa, a former Assembly speaker, should have fought harder for state aid to city schools, Hahn said. "Because you failed that test of leadership, you took your kids out of the public school system," he said.

"If Jim Hahn had his facts straight," the councilman shot back, "he'd know that under my speakership there was an unprecedented investment in public schools."

The two candidates, both Democrats, agree broadly on many issues facing Los Angeles. Both advocated driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and would not rule out higher taxes to pay for more police officers.

"There aren't a lot of policy differences between us," Villaraigosa said after the debate. "The biggest difference is the issue of leadership."

Both seemed to bridle at the debate's strict format, wandering repeatedly from behind their respective lecterns, placed a few feet apart. The crowd of about 150 was split, wedding style, between Hahn and Villaraigosa supporters.

When the candidates each got the chance to pose a question, Hahn pounced on Villaraigosa's pledge to build a "world-class transit system" that would extend the subway from North Hollywood to Sylmar.

"We're talking about $300 million a mile to build a subway," Hahn said. "Where can you possibly get the money? Don't you think you need to level with the people?"

Villaraigosa responded by mocking Hahn's efforts to ease traffic at the city's 25 worst intersections. "The question you've got to ask yourself: Is traffic any better in the last four years?" Villaraigosa said. "And I think we all know the answer."

He vowed to lobby aggressively for transit money from Sacramento and Washington, D.C. "We need a mayor that's not just thinking small," Villaraigosa said. "We need a mayor who's thinking big. This is a world-class city."

As for his own record, Villaraigosa took credit for resolving the public transit workers strike that erupted on Hahn's watch. "Mayor Hahn was missing in action -- a million people without a bus," Villaraigosa said. "I jumped in there, rolled up my sleeves, got that traffic moving again, settled that strike. That's why I'm running for mayor."

Villaraigosa used his chance to question Hahn to take a dig at the mayor on the criminal investigation that has buffeted his administration for months. He asked whether it had been a good idea to name his chief fundraiser in the 2001 campaign as deputy mayor overseeing the city's airports, harbor, and water and power systems. The former deputy mayor, Troy Edwards, resigned amid allegations that city contracts were steered to Hahn donors.

"I don't know that anybody's shown that anybody's done anything wrong yet," Hahn said. "And certainly somebody who used to be the president of the American Civil Liberties Union wouldn't want people convicted before any evidence was in, Antonio."

Villaraigosa, a former president of the ACLU of Southern California, returned repeatedly to the investigation.

"Make no mistake, this is the most investigated administration in Los Angeles history since the 1930s," he said, rattling off inquiries by the city Ethics Commission, the county district attorney's office, two grand juries, the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

"Look," Hahn responded, "if anybody shows me that I condoned, allowed, suggested, directed or encouraged anybody to act unethically or to break any law, I will certainly hold myself accountable for that. Nobody's shown me that yet."

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