Bass, Caruso prepare for last debate amid chaos at LA City Hall

Against the backdrop of one of the biggest scandals to hit City Hall, Los Angeles mayoral candidates Rep. Karen Bass and developer Rick Caruso will debate each other for the final time Tuesday evening with Election Day four weeks away.

Bass and Caruso will take the stage two days after audio leaked of a conversation between three City Council members — Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo — and L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera that included racial slurs and discussions on how to redraw council district boundaries in the council members' favor.

The recent developments are likely to reframe the debate's main topic to political corruption, and how the candidates would solve the problem should they become mayor. Both Bass and Caruso have called on all three council members to resign.

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Caruso, trailing in the most recent UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll by 15 percentage points among likely voters, has already attempted to connect Bass to the scandal.

"Most of the people involved in this episode have endorsed Karen Bass, I hope she'll do the right thing and demand for their accountability and renounce the endorsement of those who used hate speech," Caruso said on Sunday.

Martinez endorsed Bass in the mayoral race, while Cedillo endorsed Caruso. Neither de León nor Herrera have made endorsements.

Bob Shrum, director of the Center of Political Future at USC, told KNX that the leaked tapes could impact the race either way.

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"The real question here is whether or not this episode pushes African American turnout in a way that helps Karen Bass, or whether it reinforces Rick Caruso's characterization of City Hall as a kind of political cesspool," Shrum said.

Caruso's initial statement was likely an attempt to tie Bass in with the political establishment, according to Mindy Romero, director of USC's Center for Inclusive Democracy.

"By targeting that topic, he's likely going to get some soundbites," Romero said to City News Service.

Bass, in a statement, said she will use the final debate to share her plans to move Los Angeles in a new direction, noting that it was "time we start solving homelessness and build a city that is safer and more affordable for all."

"To move forward as a city, we must move past the politics of divide and conquer," Bass said. "There is no place for division and hate in Los Angeles. The challenges we face in our city affect us all — and we must unite around our shared values if we are to overcome them and achieve the common dreams we all have for our families."

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Romero said Bass should get out in front of any potential attempts by Caruso to connect her to the City Hall scandal, such as renouncing Martinez's endorsement. Caruso has renounced Cedillo's endorsement.

"She's going to want to get ahead of that and sound like she's kind of leading on that topic," Romero said.

Romero was unsure how much the scandal would impact the race, though she noted neighborhood groups could become more aggressive in turning out voters because the issue is "really salient to people."

"It is an issue to mobilize really easily within communities because it's really clear cut," Romero said. "Look, we have a recording, we're talking about racism, we're talking about bias, we're talking about political manipulation of districts."

The hour-long debate from the Brokaw News Center in Universal City will air commercial-free on NBC 4 and Telemundo 52 beginning at 7 p.m.