Rampart Scandal Dominates 1st Mayoral Debate

Friday, March 31, 2000 – LA Times
Politics: Hahn, Villaraigosa and Wachs repeat calls for independent panel. Soboroff, in a shift, appears to agree.

By JIM NEWTON, Times Staff Writer

Sharing the same stage for the first time in the 2001 Los Angeles mayoral campaign, four influential politicians and one well-connected outsider maneuvered Thursday to establish their own credentials, platforms and identities while subtly challenging each other in a debate dominated by the Rampart police scandal.
The debate, held before an overflow audience at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, displayed early glimpses of what each of the five candidates is attempting to accomplish in the early stages of a campaign whose election day does not roll around for more than a year.
City Atty. James K. Hahn, by most accounts the front-runner, avoided any direct clashes and seemed almost physically disengaged. Several times, he delivered his assessment of a divided city that needs to do more for its poor and its children, then retreated into silence, often watching the other contestants with his arms crossed and brow furrowed.
U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra was methodical and deliberate, arguing in a legalistic style for his vision of Los Angeles at a precipice–either the edge of greatness or dissolution, depending on the leadership it receives in the next few years.
Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa drew heavily on his life story–his rise from troubled youngster to arguably the second most powerful elected post in California–to advance his program of improved schools, better housing and a more inclusive economy.
Commercial real estate broker Steve Soboroff offered a wide variety of detailed, point-by-point plans that ranged from installing special traffic lanes to breaking up the school district. The recitation began with a reform of Los Angeles schools and ended with his ideal first day in office, including dinner with his children on the Venice boardwalk. As Soboroff ran through that list and exceeded his allotted time, Hahn looked at his watch.
And City Councilman Joel Wachs, by far the most combative panelist, trumpeted his three decades of public service and vowed to protect taxpayers from the likes of Soboroff, who serves as president of the Recreation and Parks Commission but who first caught the attention of many City Hall insiders during the debate over whether and how to build Staples Center.
Wachs’ determination to make an issue of Soboroff, specifically Soboroff’s support for taxpayers’ subsidies of Staples Center, provided by far the evening’s most contentious moments. The councilman, a pugnacious and focused debater, repeatedly accused his rival of ignoring the city’s best interests during the debate over the center, in which Soboroff acted as Mayor Richard Riordan’s advisor and emissary.
Although Wachs did not name Soboroff, he proudly reminded the audience that during the debate over that facility, he had stood against public subsidies, favoring, as he said, books for children over “sky boxes and billionaire team owners.”
At one point during the debate, Wachs took issue with another of Soboroff’s comments, saying: “I think I have a fundamental disagreement with Steve.”
Grimacing, Soboroff retorted: “That’s news?”
The testiness between the two is partly political and partly personal. Both need to appeal to some of the same voters–especially those in the San Fernando Valley, where Wachs has long been a councilman and where Soboroff’s Republican Party affiliation and endorsement from Riordan could give him early entree. That gives them plenty to fight over, but their disagreement runs deeper than that.
The Staples debate put Soboroff and Wachs squarely on opposite sides, and as tensions deepened, the two ended up genuinely disliking each other. Years later, that animus has not subsided much, and has spilled over to their followers: Each time Wachs spoke Thursday, a knot of Soboroff supporters murmured disapproval. One hissed.
Although their clashes offered the event’s theatrical highlight, debate over the Rampart scandal occupied most of the discussion.
Hahn was the most vocal on that subject. “The cloud of the Rampart scandal,” he said at the outset, “hangs over this city.”
The city attorney argued that the scandal has illustrated a litany of failures: of individual officers, of supervision, of the lack of reforms recommended after the LAPD’s last wrenching debacle, the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King. Those reforms, proposed by a commission headed by Warren Christopher, who went on to serve as secretary of state, must now be implemented in their entirety, Hahn said: “They’ve got to be our top priority.”
Villaraigosa agreed, citing the city’s failures to create a system to psychologically test police officers and to install a fully functional officer-tracking system for detecting those who may pose risks.
“I don’t think it’s just a failure of individuals,” Villaraigosa said of the scandal. “It’s a system gone awry.”
Those two and Wachs all have called for the creation of an independent commission to analyze the allegations that Los Angeles police officers shot unarmed suspects, stole drugs, framed suspects and administered jailhouse beatings, among other things. All three repeated that call Thursday.
Until Thursday, Becerra and Soboroff had opposed that course, and Becerra continued to argue that other remedies needed to be pursued. The congressman noted that the Justice Department has an inquiry underway, and reminded the audience that he is pressing for answers about the status of that probe. Without endorsing creation of yet another investigative body for a case already being examined by the federal government, Police Commission and others, Becerra argued that calls for such a panel have multiplied because the Police Commission’s independence is so widely questioned.
That commission’s members are appointed by Riordan, whose handling of the scandal and failure to force implementation of the Christopher reforms both have come under attack–and both were challenged again during the debate.
“Now we see the consequences of the complacency that was allowed to develop,” Becerra said.
In a Becerra administration, he said, officials would have three options: “Move swiftly, move decisively. And if you can’t do either, move aside.”
Soboroff’s position on the Rampart case was harder to discern. In the past, he has sided with Riordan in opposing appointment of an independent commission. On Thursday, however, he spoke after Hahn, Villaraigosa and Wachs each had enthusiastically endorsed the notion, and opened his comments by saying: “I generally agree with everything everyone has said. It’s hard not to.”
He did not elaborate on the independent commission, but added that he believed more needed to be done to help police officer morale. He also said there was too little effective communication between top city officials on the police scandal.
At the moment, no other debates are planned that all five candidates have agreed to attend. There is, however, a year until the April 2001 election.
Several others also are considering a run for the office, and there remains time for others to join the race. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and State Controller Kathleen Connell both are continuing to weigh the possibility of running.

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