For the second time in five days, most of the candidates running for the 33rd District congressional seat traded jabs and ideas in a debate at Temple Emmanuel of Beverly Hills. This time, Green Party candidate Michael Ian Sachs was the only one not to participate.
The debate was moderated by Carl Thurmond, a leader of the synagogue and a “superlawyer,” who kept the pace of the debate fluid as he asked sharp questions of each of the candidates. Mr. Thurmond began by outlining the format of the debate: each candidate got a two-minute opening statement, then the moderator called up three groups of five candidates at a time and asked each candidate in the group one question. After they gave their responses, the moderator called on each candidate and asked them to agree or disagree with what their competitors had just said. After the mini-group debates were completed, each candidate got two minutes for closing statements.
The moderator began by introducing the candidates, appearing to go in order from the left to the right of the stage. However, when he got to Marianne Williamson, he passed her over. The audience thought a mistake had been made, but the moderator picked up on it and noted he was introducing the candidates alphabetically. When Williamson’s name was called last, she got the loudest applause of all.
Like last week’s debate, the gloves came off during the opening statements. Democrat Vince Flaherty slammed fellow Democrat Matt Miller in the first ten seconds of his opening remarks, saying Miller, as economic adviser in the Clinton White House, presided over the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the collapse of the secondary mortgage market.
However, most candidates just introduced themselves and explained why they were running. Libertarian candidate Mark Matthew Herd jokingly thanked all the Williamson supporters who came to fill the seats saying, “I’m gonna be honest with you, politics is a hobby for me.” Democrat Kristie Holmes cited her experience as a social worker. She said the District was badly missing out on technology and explained that her overall focus was on the economy. Democrat Zein Obagi good-naturedly ribbed the L.A. Times, who were in attendance, and claimed to understand the needs of young people in the district.
However, Democrat state Sen. Ted Lieu and Independent Marianne Williamson appeared to have the strongest opening statements. Lieu explained that he was the only person on stage with a real legislative record, and cited his immigrant background along with his time in the U.S. Air Force. Williamson noted her 30-year career in “crisis management,” her desire to “disrupt” the status quo, and said money in politics is a “cancer eating at our society.” Again, the crowd went wild for Williamson.
The first group of candidates called for the debate’s next segment were Lieu, Williamson, Republican Lilli Gilani, and Democrats Vince Flaherty and Barbara Mulvaney. The moderator asked the group the following question: “If Israel were to initiate a military strike against Iran, would you publicly support that decision?”
Lieu got to answer first: “Absolutely,” he said without hesitation. He said America has to support Israel unequivocally, and referred to his strong legislative experience in support of Israel. Mulvaney said she gained a “healthy respect” for rocket fire during her time working in Baghdad, and said she believed the Israeli government would only strike militarily if it had to. Williamson said she was uncomfortable with the question, along with the notion that any politician running for office has to include public support for Israel as part of their platform, while Gilani agreed with Williamson’s assertion that “peace is the best solution.” Gilani also noted her Iranian heritage saying, “We must dismantle regimes that don’t respect international law.” Flaherty, as at the last debate, said he would need to be “briefed” on the matter first.
In the follow-ups, Williamson was asked to agree or disagree with Flaherty. She said that in reality, most Congressmen probably do not get briefed about every subject, even though she wished they did. Mulvaney and Gilani both reiterated that military options should be considered last, while Lieu came out strongly in support of Israel, saying America’s national security is inextricably linked with Israel’s, and that Iran’s nuclear program represents an “existential threat to the whole world.”
The second group of candidates consisted of Democrats David Kanuth, Kristie Holmes, and Zein Obagi; the Republican Elan Carr; and the Independent Tom Fox. The moderator asked them: “The L.A. Unified School District is the second largest in the country. Should we focus on federal, state, or local standards to improve the district?”
Kanuth went first, saying the issue of improving schools is “inherently local,” before noting that 10% of the school district’s funding comes from the government. He said “we can do better,” and warned that increasing teacher salaries would not fix the problem on its own. Homes challenged the premise of the question, saying any time standards are followed, problems can arise. She said before the school district can face its problems, the disparities between children attending the schools would need to be evaluated. Obagi was confident and assured in his response: he said he does not understand why the best teachers in the district are allowed to move into administrative positions for higher pay. “We’re losing our best teachers,” he said, before proposing changes to both state and local standards. “That’s why I’ll never get elected,” Obagi joked. “Teachers unions hate me.” Next was Carr, who referred to his experience as a gang prosecutor to explain the failings of the district’s school system. He said he has put teenagers in jail for longer than most have been alive, and asked when the district’s school system would start “nurturing these kids.” Tom Fox closed the group by saying that the United States ranks 1st in money spent per child educated, while ranking only 17th in the world in education. Fox said education standards should be focused on the local level, and agreed with Kanuth’s assertion that more money is not the answer.
The last group featured the remaining candidates: Democrats Matt Miller and Wendy Greuel, Republican Kevin Mottus, Libertarian Mark Matthew Herd, and two recent entrants into the race, Michael Shapiro and Theo Menonopolous. The question for the final group: “What is your position on the regulation of schools, businesses, and charitable organizations?”
The audience at the synagogue groaned at the broad nature of the question. One of the candidates asked Mr. Thurmond to repeat it. After he did, Miller answered first.
Miller explained that he views regulation as essential, saying a totally free market would exacerbate the problem of income inequality in the country. He said Wall Street has been under-regulated for years, before finishing with an emphasis on the district’s need to “strike the right balance.” Kevin Mottus unapologetically deflected the question and instead railed against campaign finance reform and the poison of money in politics. Interestingly, Mottus seemed to steal a little bit of Williamson’s thunder on campaign finance reform, drawing loud cheers in the middle of his statements while Williamson did not discuss much of what has been her top campaign platform so far. Herd articulated the Libertarian position that government should get out of the way and regulate as little as necessary, while both Shapiro and Greuel proposed that some regulation is always necessary. Theo Menonopolous, the write-in candidate, said he would focus regulation efforts on two areas. First, he argued, higher education needs to be regulated – specifically, the problems of student debt. Second, he said, LGBT rights needed to be protected. “As the race’s only openly gay candidate, I will be the LGBT warrior in this race,” he concluded.
The candidates were initially allotted two minutes for closing statements, but as the debate dragged past its two-hour time frame, the moderator cut the statements to one minute.
Williamson went first. She said politics should be “real,” and that young people are “disenfranchised and disengaged.” She finished by pledging she would bring the necessary change to Washington. Obagi hit Lieu briefly, before reiterating his commitment to immigration reform and better use of state transportation funds. Mottus asked the audience to vote for him if they “want someone who cares about people,” and he brought up the hazards of wireless technology, one of his campaign’s key messages. Menonopolous may have taken a small swipe at Williamson when he said he wants to bring a “new era” to Congress, not a “new aura.” Kanuth and Miller both claimed to have the leadership skills necessary to take on the job, while Shapiro promised to “fight to make changes in the state and across America.” Greuel and Holmes talked about women’s issues, and Gilani expressed the need for “better schools, a better business environment, and a safer world.” Carr said he could “fashion real solutions for real problems,” while Tom Fox lamented, “We’ve lost our way. Our democracy has been purchased.”
The California primary will be held on June 3rd.