Tuesday night‘s mayoral debate, the first of five between City Attorney James Hahn and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, was notable for — well, not a hell of a lot. The candidates repeatedly pitched their answers to swing voters, attacked each other only delicately and sporadically, and took refuge — particularly early on, in a mutual effort to overcome debaters’ stage fright — in wonk-speech.
In the category of industrial-strength blithering, the debate reached its high point right at the start, when moderator Warren Olney asked Hahn whom he‘d appoint to the board of the MTA. Hahn told Olney he wanted to put a transit rider onto the board, and then zoomed into rhetorical overdrive. “I want forward thinkers,” he said, “who’ll favor common-sense solutions, to get more bang for the buck.”
As Old Mayor Daley once said, “We will rise to higher and higher platitudes of achievement.”
For his part, Villaraigosa went out of his way to say something nice about Steve Soboroff and Dick Riordan, whose endorsements he‘s seeking. Under the heading of “It Shouldn’t Be a Total Loss,” he attacked Hahn for supporting the 3-12 work schedule (three 12-hour shifts weekly) for police officers, a change in Hahn‘s position that enabled the city attorney to pick up the support of the Police Protective League’s board. This was a twofer for Villaraigosa: He could indignantly oppose this erosion of public-safety standards, while publicizing the fact that he‘d said “No” to a union.
The candidates actually spent much of the time agreeing — on the need for diversity, affordable housing (though only Villaraigosa advocated a linkage fee on developers) and the merits of state Treasurer Phil Angelides’ efforts to direct more capital to the inner cities. (Note to Gray Davis: Both candidates speak glowingly of a statewide official these days, and it ain‘t you.) a
At the close, Olney asked the candidates for their vision for Los Angeles. When it comes to matters personal (like his own life) and matters cosmic (like the destiny of the city), Villaraigosa’s plainly the more compelling speaker, and Tuesday night was no exception. His own life, he said, illustrated the opportunities that L.A. at its best affords its residents; the mayor‘s task is to help the city do a better job of providing those opportunities for all Angelenos. Hahn followed, agreeing that L.A. must be a place where no barriers of birth or station should stand athwart what citizens can achieve. It sounded, for a moment, like an argument for his rival, but by then, it didn’t seem that anyone was listening.