The four candidates competing to replace outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa squared off in South Los Angeles on Friday, debating the respective roles that housing, education, city services and budget cuts play in the lives of area residents.
The forum at the St. John's Well Child and Family Center was intended to focus on health issues in an area of the city where political power has moved steadily from black to Latino voters. However, the candidates' comments were wide-ranging.
Councilman Eric Garcetti, who holds a sizable lead among Latino voters, sought to reinforce that lead. Switching frequently between English and Spanish, Garcetti mentioned his father's Mexican American roots and spoke of the need to provide social services that allow immigrants to "come out of the shadows."
The audience of roughly 150 people was racially diverse, but Garcetti's campaign staff hopes that a strong Latino turnout at the polls next year will propel him to victory.
All three Democratic candidates already hold elected positions and spoke of their efforts in office.
City Controller Wendy Greuel said she was outraged by finding more than $160 million of wasteful spending throughout the city, and outlined steps to curb it. Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose 9th District hosted the debate, highlighted her efforts to improve substandard housing and fight crime.
The lone Republican challenger, Kevin James, stressed his credentials as an outsider. The city's current fiscal woes were due to his opponents' misplaced priorities, he said.
"The reason this conference exists is because of a failure in leadership," said James, a lawyer and talk-show host.
Greuel, who is neck and neck with Garcetti in the polls, stressed the need to improve education and safety throughout Los Angeles. She said she would work with the Los Angeles Police Department to spend more money on crime-prevention services. She, like Garcetti, also pledged to end homelessness if elected.
"Together we can solve this" Greuel said. "We can no longer say that it's OK for anyone to live on the streets of Los Angeles."
Asked about how she would boost employment in the city, Perry said that area residents should be given the opportunity to work on public construction projects. She also stressed the need for low-cost housing and access to social services.
"This is a combined effort to restore a community. We need to be strategic and work together to make sure that no one gets left behind," Perry said.
The candidates' responses varied when asked what they would do if they lost the election. Perry noted that, in her fantasy, she would be a Pilates instructor. Garcetti and Greuel noted their previous experience with advocacy groups and said they would probably return to another form of public service.
James said he would be back on the ballot in 2017.
"If I'm not elected, we know that one of my opponents will be," James said. "We know what their record has been, and it's been … a decade of decline."