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Bass, Caruso clash on ethics, crime and ties to USC

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U.S. Rep Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso battered each other with charges of misbehavior and inauthenticity during an hourlong debate Wednesday, the latest rhetorical escalation in the once relatively genteel campaign for mayor of Los Angeles.

The veteran Washington lawmaker pilloried the businessman as being out of touch with overwhelmingly Democratic L.A., because of his previous Republican registration and financial contributions to anti-abortion politicians.

Caruso, in turn, depicted Bass as a hidebound member of a failed political class that has been ineffectual at curbing the city’s homelessness and crime — the two issues voters say are their top worries.

The rancorous exchanges during the debate, televised live from the Skirball Cultural Center in the Sepulveda Pass, built on the coarser tone the campaign has taken in recent weeks. That represented a stark departure from previous proclamations of mutual respect between the two would-be mayors, including a moment three years ago when the duo sat side by side as dignitaries at a USC graduation.

Bass has been trying to consolidate a lead she took in the June primary, beating Caruso by 7 percentage points, and extended to 12 points in polls conducted over the summer. Caruso still hopes to persuade the nearly one-quarter of voters who remain undecided, a group that could shift the race before voting concludes on Nov. 8.

Many of the disagreements Wednesday centered on USC, the university that both candidates attended and that has been the center of repeated scandals in recent years.

Bass attacked Caruso for his time as the chair of the university’s Board of Trustees. She reiterated previous reports in The Times about how Caruso backtracked on a pledge to release a report about an investigation of a gynecologist accused of sexual misconduct.

“The victims of the gynecologist, literally hundreds of students at USC, asked you to release the report,” Bass said. “As chair of the Board of Trustees, he committed to do an investigation, to do a report, and then he decided that he wasn’t going to release it, when the victims asked for it to be released.”

Caruso helped USC reach $1.1 billion in legal settlements with former patients of the gynecologist, George Tyndall, and overhauled the university’s leadership and governing structure. But in recent years, he backtracked on the release of the report, saying USC’s lawyers gave only oral briefings to trustees and that there was no report to release.

Caruso said that his opponent’s attack was intended to distract from her own misbehavior when she received a scholarship for nearly $100,000, “without applying,” to receive a master’s degree from USC’s School of Social Work.

“She got a $95,000 scholarship. She failed to report it in …. paperwork where it had to be reported,” Caruso said. “She got her degree, taking less classes than her fellow students and then worked with the dean [of the School of Social Work] to fashion legislation and push it through Congress, to have taxpayer dollars go back to that same school.”

Bass retorted that she had worked hard for her degree. “I don’t think it was bad judgment at all,” she told Caruso. “I have spent the last three decades working for the most vulnerable in our country, children in the child welfare system.”

Former USC dean Marilyn Flynn, who provided the scholarship to Bass, pleaded guilty on Monday to one count of bribery in the Ridley-Thomas case. The U.S. attorney’s office told The Times earlier this month that, “at this time,” Bass was “not a target or a subject of our office’s investigation.”

The exchange ended tartly when Caruso asked if Bass was “saying prosecutors are lying” when mentioning her in a parallel corruption investigation, involving now-suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. “No,” Bass replied “I am saying you are.”

Ridley-Thomas has been accused of providing contracts to USC in exchange for a scholarship and job for his son. He has pleaded not guilty. His trial is set for Nov. 15.

Though the Los Angeles mayor’s race is technically nonpartisan, the issue of party affiliation has been pushed to the forefront by Bass and her campaign.

In response to a question, the congresswoman said Caruso had been a Republican for decades, then an independent, and then a Republican again. He registered near the outset of the current campaign as a Democrat.

“That’s the problem,” Bass said. “You just keep going back and forth like that.”

Bass sought to draw that distinction from the very outset of the debate. Asked about the biggest difference between her and Caruso, she described herself as “a lifelong pro-choice Democrat.”

Caruso acknowledged that he had shifted back to the Republican party in 2016 to support former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whom he viewed as the only viable Republican who could stop Donald Trump from winning the party’s presidential nomination.

“I never supported Trump. I never gave him a dime,” Caruso said. He also noted that he had contributed to many Democrats, including Bass herself. He said the congresswoman had unfairly compared him to Trump in the past.

“When you asked me for donations, I supported you,” Caruso said. “And did you think I was Donald Trump when I was writing you a check?”

Caruso also hit Bass for an incident earlier this month when burglars broke into her Baldwin Vista home and stole two .38-caliber revolvers. He asked a series of questions, implying that the guns may not have been safely stored, as Bass said they were.

“There are two guns on the street now. And we have terrible gun violence in the city of Los Angeles,” Caruso said, demanding more answers from Bass about the incident.

Bass retorted that she was stunned that Caruso would lay blame on her when she had been the victim of a crime and when she had previously called him to offer her concern about a crime committed at the Grove, the upscale shopping center he owns.

“I think this is an act of desperation, Rick,” Bass said.

The candidates also addressed policy issues that voters say they care most about.

On public safety, Bass reiterated her intention to bring the LAPD back to its previously authorized staffing of 9,700 officers and said she would move more police into the streets by getting them out of desk jobs.

Caruso has called for a bigger buildup, to 11,000 officers, which would be an all-time high for the force. That would be an expensive and difficult task, as the force has slipped to just 9,200 officers, a dip of 800 officers in the past few years.

On homelessness, Caruso and Bass reiterated their previous plans — hers to create 15,000 units of housing and his to supply 30,000 units for the unhoused within 300 days of taking office.

She would build new shelter beds to accommodate about 1,000 people, expand use of housing vouchers, lease and buy motels and hotels and try other approaches. The price tag in the first year would be $292 million, including construction costs and operating expenses for shelter beds.

Caruso said Bass’s plan seemed to be more of the same. “The population has grown 80% during Karen Bass’ term in office,” Caruso said.

Caruso said he would use his knowledge as a developer to help streamline the city’s bureaucracy and make it easier to build new housing. He said he would focus on both temporary and permanent structures, after declaring a state of emergency on homelessness.

Given the Supreme Court’s ruling outlawing abortions, the candidates were asked if that should be an issue in the campaign.

Bass said it should. Even if the city is not directly involved in administering healthcare, she said that the issue is “a question of values.”

Caruso — whose past donations to anti-abortion politicians have been a subject of frequent attacks during the race — insisted: “I am pro-choice, I always have been.”

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