Only someone intrigued by the finer points of the politics of education could have figured out the differences between the overly cautious mayoral candidates Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel at their debate Tuesday.
The debate, at the Petersen Automotive Museum in mid-Wilshire, was presented by public radio station KCRW and Zocalo, the non-profit group that, among other projects, encourages discussion of public policy matters. Moderator Warren Olney of KCRW did a fine job of moving the debate along and keeping the competitors on point.
Education was a top issue on the agenda. As Olney pointed out, neither the mayor nor the city council have jurisdiction over the public schools. That task belongs to the Los Angeles Unified School District and its elected board. But there are few matters more important to L.A. Mayors Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa tried to shape policy by raising money to elect school board candidates who favor charter schools, making public teacher evaluations and relaxing teacher seniority protections. They considered themselves reformers, a description denounced by the teachers union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Each of them found themselves deeply involved in public school controversy.
Greuel said she endorsed Antonio Sanchez, Villaraigosa’s choice, for the school board on Election Day, May 21. Garcetti said he hasn’t endorsed and won’t until he talks to the candidates. Assuming Sanchez favors the Villaraigosa agenda, Greuel has put herself in the so-called reform camp. But as Hillel Aaron wrote on the LA School Report website, “in general, both candidates sounded closer to the ‘school reform’ end of the ideological spectrum. Garcetti, who has been endorsed by UTLA, came out perhaps a millimeter or so more towards the pro-teacher end of the spectrum, if only in tone.”
The afternoon seemed to leave spectators unsatisfied. The reporters, after covering so many of these debates, seem sick of them. But I, as an occasional visitor, remain intrigued by this face-to-face part of the contest.
It was interesting, for example, to see how Greuel has improved. She speaks with more clarity and force than when she started her campaign for mayor and has ditched her city hall jargon. Garcetti is even smoother than when he began, more practiced, better able to insert at least a small amount of humor. On the down side, both of them annoyingly talk about their kids at great length as if they think parenthood makes them more human and appealing to voters.
Talking about their kids also gives them cover to duck tough questions about education. Still unknown is whether they will take the political risks and forcefully inject themselves in the controversial details of the debate over L.A. schools as did Riordan and Villaraigosa. That’s high-risk behavior, foreign to two decidedly low-risk candidates.