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Some ins and outs of L.A.'s mayoral campaign debates

January 12, 2013 |  7:00 am

Rainey logoWith less than two months to go before the March 5 Los Angeles mayoral election, the candidates have already participated in about a dozen debates -- although the terms “candidates” and “debates” come with  caveats.

Not every candidate has been invited to every event. And not every event qualifies as a “debate.”

The Southern California Assn. of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH) hosted an event Friday night that it more accurately defined as a “forum.” The candidates were not allowed to directly address one another. They also responded to questions they received in advance.

The organization, which advocates for more housing for the poor, set an unusually high threshold for participation in the forum. Only candidates who had gathered $1 million in campaign contributions by a September deadline got a place on the stage at the Catholic cathedral in downtown Los Angeles.

That meant City Controller Wendy Greuel and Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry got to have their say on their work to build affordable housing and to prevent homelessness. But entertainment attorney and former prosecutor Kevin James and businessman Emanuel Pleitez did not.

James and Pleitez protested and the executive director of the housing trade organization conceded in an interview that there was no particular magic to the $1-million threshold. But the event organizers declined to back down, so James ($316,766 raised by the end of 2012) and Pleitez ($212,954 raised) remained on the outs.

Pleitez, 30, found his exclusion particularly ironic, because he grew up poor in El Sereno on the city’s Eastside.  He said his family, headed by a single mother, had to move 10 times by the time he was 10 years old. They applied for subsidized housing but never received it because of a shortage of units, he said.

James, 49, said he had been invited to every other debate and forum in the campaign. The only Republican running for mayor, he called his exclusion “unfortunate.”

"You’ve got three elected officials who are generally going to say the same thing in three different ways,” James said.  “How about having an alternative point of view?”

The housing group's executive director, Alan Greenlee, said the debate participation criteria were set months ago and the $1-million threshold had no special significance.

“As to where the number should be exactly, I am not sure,” Greenlee said. “I am sympathetic to the discussion that we might have missed the number, but the number is what it is and we have chosen to stick with it.”

When Pleitez was excluded from other candidate events, his supporters protested. Student activists interrupted the first televised debate last month by rising and chanting “Let Pleitez debate!”

There were no interruptions of Friday night’s housing forum.

One of the co-chairs of the event, Tony Salazar, stressed that the forum was designed for an audience of people -- developers, nonprofits, bankers and others -- who work on the low-cost housing issue. As to giving the candidates the questions in advance, Salazar said: "This is about how we provide more affordable housing. It's not about a gotcha here and a gotcha there."


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--James Rainey

Times political writer James Rainey will be filing dispatches from the campaign trail during the 2013 Los Angeles elections season. You can follow him on Twitter: @LATimesrainey