We've elected an "Education President." Now, get ready to choose the "Education Mayor."
That seemed to be the prospect facing a packed chapel of some 300 souls braving one of the winter's worst storms this week to attend Debate No. 40-something by five of the city's six leading mayoral candidates. Here at the Westside campus of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, voters found themselves treated to an amusing spectacle as each mayoral wannabe declared improved education as his single highest priority.
Never mind, as moderator Val Zavala of KCET's "Life & Times Tonight" correctly observed, that this was not a run for the school board and that the mayor of Los Angeles has about as much direct jurisdiction over the school system as the current governor of Texas.
I am, admittedly, a newcomer to the ongoing debates between the hopefuls. Up front, what immediately struck me as odd among the strong Jewish and Latino candidates was the apparent absence of any overt ethnic or religious divisions that exist within the city. In fact, there was more chemistry between some of the Latino and Jewish candidates than among the Jewsih candidates themselves. (State Controller Kathleen Connell, also a candidate, was unable to attend due to the weather).
That's not to say there were no subtle protestations of Jewish identity, fealty or affiliation. Former State Assembly speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who isn't Jewish, indicated that he enjoyed a certain facility with Yiddish -- or enough, anyway, to know when his fellow candidates were having him on. Nor was he loath, on repeated occasions, to laud the efforts of a former Jewish public school teacher, or to extol those halcyon days of his childhood, when Jews, blacks and Latinos broke bread while working on Boyle Heights coops.
Businessman Steve Soboroff may have trumped him on this count, although opinion was divided on whether he managed this by impugning the light rail nexus running through the Orthodox community along Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood or by letting folks know that he was married in Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Once the matter of bona fides had been settled, it once more became apparent, as Rabbi Harvey Fields declared in his introduction, that this year's run of candidates was probably of the finest fettle in city history. Whoever wins, he said, "this city will have a superb mayor."
Rep. Xavier Becerra presented well as a soft-spoken young husband and father who, when not walking two of his three children to their neighborhood school -- how he does this from Washington I'm still not clear -- displayed a propensity for scoring bucks in the nation's capital. For Becerra, whose parents immigrated from Mexico, it's payback time -- payback for a city he says gave him and his parents the chance to work hard, educate their children and take their places as productive members of their community. I found his quiet self-effacement quite the antidote to Villaraigosa, who though slick, charming and eager, proved a tad too quick on the "I" word -- as in "I did this and I did that" -- for my own comfort.
Looking a tad tired and perhaps even distracted, L.A. City Attorney James K. Hahn nevertheless mustered sufficient energy to recall his early days as a surfer which, he indicated, afforded him with the requisite concern for imperiled wetlands and other at-risk segments of the environment. Still a favorite in this race, Hahn professed his continued predilection for extreme sports, though now it manifests as boxing bouts with the purveyors of guns and tobacco. Hahn declared that if elected, he will put sufficient after-school programs in place to keep enough kids off the streets. He will do this to make room, presumably, for the thousand new cops he said he intends to hire.
Soboroff offered up an "I love this city and I want this job" as if it were ample, indeed, self-evident reason for running? -- I could occasionally close my eyes and picture Soboroff in denim overalls, a Mr. Fix-it eager to show the unwashed pols of City Hall how to run the city efficiently without running up the budget.
A self-proclaimed pragmatist, Soboroff projects a certain bulldozer-in-button-down quality. He was certainly the only candidate to offer quick answers to pressing problems. The city, he said, is like the newspaper dispenser that grabbed his son's quarters at LAX the other day. When something doesn't work, he says, "you kick it."
On the other end of the spectrum -- or at least two seats down -- sat L.A. City Councilman Joel Wachs, who did not seem like the kind of guy who goes around kicking newspaper boxes. This is not to say he lacks passion -- if anything, he may be the most deeply impassioned of the candidates. His speeches start slowly, but even with 90 seconds at his disposal he can work himself into an impressive froth, railing over the misguided values and priorities that result in misspent money and misused public goodwill.
Having read about some of the personal animus in the relations of some of the candidates, I was heartened, for the most part, by the civil, even warm tenor of their interactions. It was neat, for instance, to see Villaraigosa and Wachs confer and fuss in one corner, while Soboroff and Wachs kept the long knives sheathed even as they dared each other to a public swap of respective real estate contributors.
Of course, a total of 80 planned appearances is quite a stretch for any dog-and-pony show, never mind a round-robin debate. Halfway through their debate schedule, the candidates still find much to bicker about, even as they all seem to agree on such big-ticket priorities as opposing secessionist tendencies (however justified) and preserving the police department while the chief struggles to implement consent decree reforms.
Heady stuff, and none of it likely to get tired in the time remaining before the April election and June runoff. Whoever wins, moreover, we'll be left with some primo candidates for the next LAUSD elections.