Bass, Caruso spar over Scientology, policing, homelessness

Rep. Karen Bass and Rick Caruso both found themselves on the defensive Thursday night as a quintet of presenters pressed them on a number of pain points during an hour-long live debate.

If one of the candidates had a wish-list of awkward issues that they hoped their opponent might be able to push further, they likely saw it fulfilled – although they parried their own laundry list of attacking questions.

The rhetorical daggers flew fast and furiously between the candidates, with Bass attempting to portray the real estate developer as a shape-shifting opportunist who voters cannot fully trust. Caruso, in turn, aimed to characterize the congresswoman as unjudgmental and unpresentable for her time in Washington, DC

The debate – broadcast live on radio from KNX News’ Studio Miracle Mile – comes at a crucial time in the election cycle. The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk began mailing ballots to voters Thursday morning, and Nov. 8 is less than five weeks away.

USC, the candidates’ joint alma mater, has become something of a dual-purpose battering ram in the mayoral race, and both candidates fended off questions about their ties to scandals at the university.

Seth Lemon, digital editor-in-chief of KNX News, asked Bass if she regretted accepting a $95,000 grant for a master’s degree in social work from Marilyn Flynn, the school’s dean, which took place last month pleaded guilty in a separate corruption case.

The congresswoman said she had no regrets and reiterated points she had previously made about how the social work degree helped her “protect the nation’s most vulnerable children.”

Lemon then asked Caruso why he backed out on a promise to release an internal report into an investigation into a USC gynecologist accused of sexual misconduct.

“The reason we didn’t release the report: We spoke to experts, many of whom said that releasing information will only bring more excruciating pain to those who have been horribly, terribly wounded,” Caruso said.

Bass cheered on Caruso and asked, “What about the victims? If that’s what they wanted, they should have had it,” Bass said.

Spectrum News anchor Giselle Fernandez pressed Caruso on his previous position on abortion rights, citing a 2007 article from Los Angeles Magazinej which paraphrased his views on the subject as saying that he “opposes abortion in most cases but would support some stem cell research”.

Caruso seemed to claim the article was inaccurate, saying he was talking about stem cell research and citing another quote from the article in which he talked about the government staying out of people’s private lives.

“Los Angeles Magazine conducted a very rigorous fact-checking process now and then,” Ed Leibowitz, the article’s author, told the Times Thursday night. “Everything in the article has been fact checked, including that.”

Leibowitz also said he spoke to Caruso after the article was published, and Caruso never raised an issue with the categorization, nor has Caruso or anyone in his organization challenged it with Leibowitz in the 15 years since publication.

KNX presenter Charles Feldman brought up Bass’ 2010 speech praising Scientology – a clip Caruso ran as a TV ad – and asked why she was unaware of the controversies surrounding the church.

Bass said that in hindsight she would not have gone to the event.

“I was certainly aware of some abuses by Scientology. I didn’t know her depth. I learned later,” she said.

Caruso countered that Bass’s decision to deliver the Scientology speech reflects badly on her integrity as a leader.

“It’s about credibility. It’s about character. It’s about judgement,” Caruso said.

Shar Jossell of Channel Q, an LA-based LGBTQ network, asked both candidates pointed questions about why they hadn’t done more — Caruso as a contractor and Bass as a federal and state legislator — to bring housing to the city .

Jossell said Caruso only built one apartment complex and the rent for a one-bedroom unit, $6,300, is more than double the average one-bedroom rent in the city. Caruso said his business had focused on building retail centers, but he will now focus full-time on residential construction.

He turned the question back to Bass and asked why she hadn’t passed legislation to bring more housing to LA. She countered, “You’re a developer, but you still haven’t built an affordable housing unit.”

On homelessness, Bass said the city needs to “get people off the streets immediately,” but warned that unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, people will slide back into homelessness. She also drew attention to Caruso’s plans to build 30,000 temporary housing units, accusing him of “essentially rounding up people and storing them in makeshift shelters.”

Pressed by moderators, Bass said the federal government needs to relax some of the housing requirements to accommodate more people. The Times recently reported that local housing agencies returned $150 million to the federal government because it couldn’t be spent quickly enough.

Bass’ comments prompted Caruso to blame her for not doing more about homelessness during her time in Congress.

“She said the federal government really should take down all regulations. You are a powerful woman in Congress. Why didn’t you do that?” Caruso said, speaking directly to Bass.

Karen Bass speaks as developer Rick Caruso listens at Thursday's mayoral debate.

Karen Bass speaks as developer Rick Caruso listens at Thursday’s mayoral debate.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

When asked, neither Bass nor Caruso would rate Police Chief Michel Moore’s performance. Instead, they squabbled over the best strategy for expanding the LAPD, which has lost about 8% of its officers since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Bass said she would work to move officers from desk jobs to patrols. She slapped Caruso over his promise to expand the department to 11,000 officers.

“My opponent says he wants to hire 1,500 cops if he knows that [police] The academy can’t even fill a class now,” she said.

Caruso pushed back, saying it wasn’t possible to get 300 officers out on the street behind desks, saying that 80% or more of officers “are behind desks because they’re injured, so that can’t happen.” — a claim Bass has denied.

A particularly controversial moment came after Caruso announced his support of the Avance Democratic Club, a progressive group focused on building Latino political power. Bass then suggested buying the support.

“How much did you pay for this?” said Bass, prompting Caruso to reply that she had insulted the group.

Avance President Nilza Serrano gasped when the Times called and repeated what Bass had said at the debate.

“It’s unfortunate that she would make such a comment,” Serrano said. Caruso made efforts to contact members ahead of their support, but Bass “hasn’t activated their base within our organization,” Serrano said.

“It’s a clear sign that she takes Latinos for granted. You really need to work on your base for us to show up. They can’t just take us for granted,” Serrano said. She said about 85% of members supported Caruso at their endorsement meeting last month.

When asked if Caruso gave money to her club, Serrano said Avance hosted an event on Sept. 22 honoring Los Angeles County Democratic Party leader Mark Gonzalez and California Labor Federation executive secretary and treasurer Lorena Gonzalez , held.

She said she asked several political candidates, including Caruso and Bass, and unions to sponsor the event. Serrano initially said Caruso gave $2,500, then corrected the figure to $5,000 after checking with the group’s treasurer — an amount that matches the campaign’s financial disclosure records. Bass provided no sponsorship money.

“She’s banging,” Serrano said of Bass’ comments about Caruso buying the club’s backing. “We’re just a small club.”

When asked for clarification on Bass’ allegation, campaign spokeswoman Sarah Leonard Sheahan said, “Your statement is a reference to his campaign being based on money.”

Times editors Benjamin Oreskes and Libor Jany contributed to this report. Bass, Caruso spar over Scientology, policing, homelessness

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