Mayoral candidates Jan Perry, left, Wendy Greuel, second from right, and… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
A few minutes into the first major debate of the Los Angeles mayor's race, candidate Kevin James gestured to his rivals.
"City Hall is broken," he said. "And they broke it."
A former federal prosecutor who is trailing far behind City Controller Wendy Greuel and council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti in fundraising, James set the tone for Wednesday night's forum with accusations that his opponents have done too little to cut city costs and have let Los Angeles earn "a national reputation for corruption."
At times on the defensive, the top-tier candidates answered the criticism in exchanges that highlighted their contrasting styles, if not always contrasting views.
Garcetti responded to one attack with what is becoming his campaign's mantra of optimism with a philosophical bent. "We are so good in Los Angeles at saying what we are against, and we are not so good at saying what we are for," he said, adding that the challenge for the next mayor would be "to get to yes in this city."
Repeating a campaign theme, Greuel tersely told James she has been fighting corruption as City Hall's financial auditor and watchdog, adding it was time for city leaders to "make the hard choices to cut our deficit now."
Perry, who lags behind Greuel and Garcetti in fundraising, greeted some of James' attacks with smiles, at one point appearing to congratulate him with a pat on the arm. She launched her own line of attack, saying that unlike some candidates in the race, union leaders don't have her on speed dial.
The candidates lined up before an audience of 200 at Hollywood's Taglyan Cultural Complex. Sponsored by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, questions focused on local issues, including ways to prevent the film business from leaving the region and a controversial zoning plan that will allow more intense development near subway stations.
James criticized officials for not evaluating the effects of the plan more carefully and drew cheers from some neighborhood activists when he said he would have voted against it.
Garcetti, who represents much of Hollywood and who was the plan's major City Hall backer, said the area's zoning guidelines had not been updated in more than 20 years, and added that more than 100 community meetings were held on the proposal. Calling Hollywood "both a place and a metaphor," he took credit for the economic revitalization of the area in recent years.
Garcetti and Greuel said jobs need to be the next mayor's priority and said the city should offer more incentives to the film industry. Taking a swipe at Garcetti, Greuel said her ideas "may not sound sexy or slick or even visionary to some" and said the election is about getting back to basics.
Turning to James, Greuel said she has uncovered $130 million in misspent dollars since taking office.
"I've peered into the deepest and darkest corners of our city departments," she said.
When James complained that employee costs have skyrocketed, Perry said she regretted her 2007 vote for raises for city workers, which budget officials have since said the city can't afford. Garcetti and Greuel, then a council member, also voted for the contract.
James suggested that lawmakers approved rate hikes at the Department of Water and Power because they are afraid to stand up to utility employee unions.
Perry sought to distance herself from Greuel and Garcetti, who have benefited from past campaign spending by the DWP electrical workers' union.
"Just for the record, my number is not on speed dial for Brian D'Arcy," she said, alluding to the leader of the powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union local representing city workers. "He doesn't even like me."