Four candidates running for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors faced each other Thursday evening in their first debate leading up to the June 3 primary election, but there were few fireworks, mostly revolving around campaign finance issues in what is expected to be a high-spending race.
The candidates called for budget-driven reforms in the Sheriff's Department and argued about who has the most suitable experience. The debate was sponsored by the L.A. chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
The race for a rare open supervisor seat pits 14-year state legislator Sheila Kuehl against Kennedy clan heir and onetime Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver as the expected heavyweights. Also running are West Hollywood Councilman John Duran and former Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich.
The Third District is huge, with more than 2 million residents and a million voters. It includes parts of the city of Los Angeles, and extends to the San Fernando Valley, Calabasas, Malibu, West L.A., Santa Monica and north to Glendale.
Much is at stake for county residents outside the district. The five supervisors, whom debate moderator Warren Olney described as "kings and queens of the county," govern a $25 billion budget and oversee important quality of life services including health care, jails, sheriff's services, mental health, foster care and transportation.
Kuehl and Shriver sat next to each other, separated by debate moderator Warren Olney of public radio station KCRW, with Duran and Ulich next to each other on his other side. During introductory remarks, Shriver mugged for his friends in the audience, while Kuehl nodded sedately at her supporters.
This year's election to replace the Third and First district supervisors marks the first in decades to replace supervisors who have reached the end of the county's 12-year term limits.
In his opening statement, Shriver stressed his persistence working to solve problems like homelessness as a city official. He called himself a progressive problem solver. He touted his philanthropic work overcoming barriers in getting medications to people with AIDS in Africa.
Kuehl made it clear she will be campaigning on her experience in state government. She said all her fellow candidates were city council members, but that she had headed up the state Health and Human Services Committee which sets policy and allocates billions of dollars in federal and state funds for the county to spend on issues like foster children, mental health and homelessness.
"My colleagues have done great service in city councils," she said. "But what the county does is essentially to carry out what the state tells them to do."
Duran countered saying the supervisor job was essentially one of local government and described Sacramento state government as a place consumed by party politics. He touted his 14 years in West Hollywood as a business-oriented moderate Democrat exercising careful planning for the fiscal security of his city, building a new library and getting the city through the recession with a $100 million reserve fund.
Ulich's supporters in the audience wore "Team Love" t-shirts depicting a stars and stripes patterned heart. She has taught labor law at Pepperdine Law school.
One of the key differences between Kuehl and Shriver came out in their discussion of what they will spend on their respective campaigns.
Shriver announced last week he would not observe the county's voluntary spending limit of $1.4 million for the primary election. He said that amount was too low for a race in which he expected huge expenditures from independent political committees against him and for Kuehl.
"It was already going to be an expensive race because of the influence of what's called IEs," Shriver said, referencing independent expenditures. "If you want to compete with the IEs that can be run for or against you, you can't accept a spending limit."
"In this race, they will spend a lot of money and therefore I chose to be able to defend myself," Shriver said. "but more broadly than that, voters don't care what's in my pocket, they care about what's in their pocket."
He said voters could be confident the only money supporting him was his own, and the small donations of others.
"Any excessive money that is spent in my race will be spent by me, and I owe myself, I don't owe anybody else," Shriver said.
In rejecting the spending limit, county law permits Kuehl and the other candidates to raise and spend unlimited amounts, and he is restricted to collecting donations no larger than $300.
Kuehl said Shriver had told others he planned to put "a couple million dollars" into his campaign, something that Shriver disputed.
"I've nothing against inherited wealth. I think the funding of politics should be much more spread out and not just belong to people who can write themselves a check," Kuehl said.
Law enforcement, L.A.'s sheriff and the jails
Kuehl said she wanted the board to approve a citizens oversight commission for the Sheriff's Department. The Sheriff's Department has seen some 19 deputies indicted for various corruption and other crimes.
All four candidates said they would use the Board of Supervisors' financial control over the Sheriff's Department to push the next sheriff to do their bidding, even though they don't actually have supervisory power over the independently elected official.
Shriver said one-third of county jail inmates were suffering mental illness. He said the county shouldn't spend a billion dollars on a proposed new jail, but spend the money instead on a mental health facility for treating mentally ill inmates.
Duran, a defense attorney, criticized conditions in L.A. County jails. He called for the county to reallocate jail dollars for drug and alcohol treatment for those convicted of substance abuse offenses.
"Everything needs an overhaul," Duran said. He wants to separate the sheriff's jailor functions from the street patrol deputy work.
Ulich said reforming the Sheriff's Department might be costly, but it would ultimately save taxpayers millions of dollars in settlements for wrongful death and abuse of power lawsuits.
Foster care and social services
The county manages a foster care system that has been plagued by problems including large caseloads.
Kuehl called foster care system's problems intractable, saying the county dragged its feet canceling a contract with an ineffective foster care agency. She said contracting out services to nonprofits wasn't the right approach.
Duran said that rather than add more county caseworkers, he would rather fund local nonprofit agencies to provide caseworker services. Ulich said foster children should be able to find peer assistance and mentoring groups at local libraries to help improve their now-low graduation rates.
San Fernando Valley
Moderator Olney asked how they would serve the needs of the San Fernando Valley.
Kuehl and Ulich called for better transit. Shriver said more manufacturing jobs could be developed. Duran said he would focus on economic development and working with the county's 88 cities to help adapt the workforce to today's non-manufacturing jobs base.
Ulich, whose campaign headquarters is in the valley, said a county of 10 million people was too big for five supervisors to run. If elected, she said she would call for the board to be expanded to nine or 11 supervisors.