In the first debate of the mayoral runoff campaign, the most striking difference between Mayor James K. Hahn and Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa (besides the color of their ties) was their assessments of how Los Angeles is doing.
Hahn's Los Angeles is on a roll, making progress in solving its crime, traffic and housing problems. That's not surprising coming from the incumbent, and he urged voters to reelect him so as not to "lose this kind of momentum." By contrast, Villaraigosa's L.A. is stagnating and in dire need of new energy and leadership.
According to a Times poll last month, voters aren't buying Hahn's view. Two-thirds of those polled believed L.A. needed a new direction. Hahn's approval rating was a dismal 43% going into the primary election, and he barely won a slot in the runoff.
It's going to be a long seven weeks until election day. The only way for an unpopular incumbent to survive is to portray his challenger as a reckless alternative. On Monday evening, Hahn tried to paint Villaraigosa as untrustworthy, saying he had tailored his message to different audiences in the 2001 race and noting that he broke a promise to finish his four-year council term before running for mayor again.
There is a problem with Hahn's efforts to claim the moral high ground -- the fact that key members of his administration are under criminal investigation for allegedly awarding city contracts to campaign contributors.
Villaraigosa, for his part, is living up to his vow to hit back early and hard after not doing so in the 2001 mayoral race when Hahn pummeled him. Personal nastiness is bound to play a larger role in any rematch, and especially in a nonpartisan election in which the candidates, both Democrats, have virtually identical answers to questions on education, immigration and crime. Even Villaraigosa believes that Police Chief William J. Bratton, who was Hahn's hire and is now the human embodiment of his reelection platform, is the best thing since bottled water, which makes you wonder why the Northeast transplant isn't running for mayor himself.
Still, instead of hearing what's best for the city, voters get an earful about who would be worse. Just think what that will do to turnout, a dismal 26% in the primary. This debate made us miss Bob Hertzberg and his outsized ideas, as well as question the wisdom of such a protracted runoff campaign. Can't we all just vote already?