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L.A. mayor candidates spar in first televised debate

December 15, 2012 | 10:31 pm

City Controller Wendy Greuel sought to discredit rival Kevin James at the first televised debate of candidates for mayor of Los Angeles on Saturday night, saying his former radio show was a “radical right-wing” program.

Greuel’s attack demonstrated the threat that James could pose to her candidacy if he succeeds in drawing support from conservative white voters in the San Fernando Valley, a key part of her political base.

“How can you possibly expect to be a credible or effective mayor, asking President Obama for help, when you spent years on a radio show, a radical right-wing radio show, talking and demonizing the president, calling him names, and even going on national television, comparing him to Neville Chamberlain?” Greuel asked James, alluding to the British prime minister known for appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

James, a former federal prosecutor who used to host an AM-radio talk show on KRLA, is the least well-known of the four mayoral candidates who debated downtown at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center on Saturday. 

But Fred Davis, a prominent Republican ad consultant, has organized an independent committee that could spend heavily on James’ candidacy in the March 5 mayoral primary, elevating his stature in the race against Greuel and City Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry.

In a city as strongly Democratic as Los Angeles, a serious challenge for James will be to minimize the impact of a YouTube video that shows him railing against Obama in a televised clash with MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews during the 2008 presidential campaign.

At the time, Obama was facing criticism for his willingness to meet with foreign adversaries. As a guest on Matthews’ show, James voiced support for President George W. Bush’s comment that negotiating with terrorists and radicals was akin to Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis.

“I don't know who he was talking about for sure, Chris, but if he wasn't talking about Barack Obama, he should have been talking about Barack Obama,” James said. “I hope he was talking about Barack Obama.”

Responding to Greuel at the debate, James expressed regret for shouting at Matthews.

“The comparison with Neville Chamberlain was not a comparison that I made,” he said. “It wasn’t a great day at the office for me on national television, but it wasn’t a comparison I made.”

James also said he disagreed with Greuel’s description of his KRLA radio show.

Both candidates hope to make history in the election. Greuel, a former City Council member, would be the first woman to be mayor of Los Angeles. James, the lone Republican in the race, would be the city’s first openly gay mayor.

The debate, broadcast live on KABC and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters, came as the four candidates are starting to introduce themselves to the many Los Angeles voters who know little or nothing about them. Voting by mail begins in just over seven weeks.

Garcetti, who represents the Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park areas, used the debate to outline a plan to create 20,000 green jobs in Los Angeles.

“We don’t have to choose between jobs and the environment,” he said.

Perry, whose district includes parts of downtown where new development has flourished in recent years, cast herself as a champion of job growth. “We have to make this city more business-friendly,” she said.

But both stayed above the fray as Greuel and James opened the more confrontational phase of a campaign that so far has illuminated few contrasts between the candidates.

The debate focused mainly on the environment, with candidates taking turns describing themselves as champions of increasing public transit, fighting air pollution at Los Angeles Harbor, expanding the city’s network of parks and taking steps to address climate change.

A group of student demonstrators briefly interrupted the debate to protest the exclusion of Emanuel Pleitez, one of the mayoral candidates whose names will appear on the ballot but have not raised enough money to meet the conditions set by the sponsors for participating in the debate.

After panelist Susana Reyes asked the candidates their proudest accomplishment on the environment, about a dozen students stood and chanted: “Let Pleitez debate!”

Security officers escorted the protesters out of the theater. They were not arrested.

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-- Michael Finnegan and James Rainey

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