The seven Democratic frontrunners greet the crowd in LMU’s Gersten Pavilion at the start of Thursday’s presidential debate
Photo by Scott Varley / Orange County Register via ZUMA Press

Democratic presidential debate put the eyes of the world on LMU, though local issues took a back seat

By Kellie Chudzinski and Joe Piasecki

 

Six million television viewers and eight million others on livestreaming devices tuned in last Thursday to watch the seven Democratic frontrunners attack Donald Trump — and at times each other — during an animated presidential primary debate hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico at Loyola Marymount University’s Gersten Pavilion arena.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and businessman Tom Steyer sparred for three hours on a range of overlapping topics that included impeachment, health care, education and student debt, foreign policy, the economy, racial equity, immigration, climate change and campaign financing.

The most-discussed moments of the evening included a pair of attacks on Buttigieg, thought to be gaining momentum among Midwestern voters ahead of the Feb. 3 caucuses in Iowa.

Warren accused Buttigieg of “selling” his time to moneyed interests at a private Napa Valley “wine cave” fundraiser, saying “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.” Buttigieg shot back by calling Warren out for transferring big-money fundraiser proceeds from her Senate race to her presidential campaign coffers, admonishing that “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.”

Klobuchar, eager to speak throughout the night, needled Buttigieg for previously criticizing his opponents’ Washington experience with a poke in the eye about his failed campaigns for higher office. He countered that winning reelection by a landslide “as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana” was no small feat.

When things got heated, “everyone got excited and I got into it,” said Venice High School sophomore Isaac Ng, who attended a PBS NewsHour watch party on campus for local students.

Biden, who is leading in the polls, kept himself out of the fray of personal attacks except to spar with Sanders that the former VP’s plan to add a public option to Obamacare was more feasible than the Vermont senator’s promise of Medicare for all.

Yang spoke more than in previous debates and earned applause for bringing broader economic context to a question about being the only non-white candidate on stage, and Steyer repeatedly emphasized his commitment to making climate change the White House’s top priority.

To have the eyes of the world witness a healthy debate on the LMU campus was “an incredible honor,” said Provost Thomas Poon.

LOCAL ISSUES TAKE A BACK SEAT

Next door at LMU’s Burns Recreation Center, hundreds of reporters stationed across two floors watched the action on television screens while awaiting the opportunity to grill candidates in the spin room after closing statements. But the first interview subjects to arrive were California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who fielded questions mostly about what candidates hadn’t discussed on stage.

What else did voters in California, the state with the largest share of primary delegates, need to hear?

“Homeless issues, obviously, weren’t brought up. Housing issues, which are becoming a bigger concern across the country. Affordability defined writ large, not just on the issue of housing,” Newsom told The Argonaut. “We talked about [affordability] in terms of education. We talked about it tangentially around childcare. But we didn’t get into, I think, fundamentally some of the deeper issues — particularly, again, the cost of living, notably housing, and the issue we’re dealing with in California disproportionate to any other state in America, and that’s the issue of homelessness.”

Housing and homelessness “was absolutely missing” from the debate, Garcetti lamented. “There are people dying literally on the streets of the city while we’re having this debate, and we’re not talking about it. That’s the only thing I was disappointed in tonight. … [Homelessness] is in red and blue states and cities. It is a crisis in which we need a champion.”

Garcetti , who also lamented the absence of minority candidates —particularly Latino voices — said he had requested that debate moderators include a question about housing policy in homelessness and has discussed the issue privately with most of the Democratic presidential candidates.

“I’m calling on all of them to at least double Section 8 [rental assistance] vouchers in our country. Right now it’s a one out of eight chance in L.A. of getting one when you qualify, unlike food stamps which is 10 out of 10,” Garcetti continued. “Probably the biggest thing we can do to combat poverty in this country is to have a [national] housing policy.”

Venice High School junior Julia Escobar, editor in chief of school paper The Oarsman, noted during a post-debate panel hosted by Univision that the debate also failed to address gun violence — a top priority among students growing up in an era of mass shootings at schools and public events.

IN THE CHAOS OF THE SPIN ROOM

When the first of the candidates entered the media center, the crush of bodies and TV news cameras was so deep it was hard to see who was being mobbed.

Frontrunners Biden and Sanders were no-shows. Prior to the debate, Biden spoke at a rally outside the McDonald’s on La Tijera Boulevard in support of fast-food workers’ rights to unionize. Sanders, who was staying in town for Saturday’s massive campaign rally with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Venice Beach, opted for a quiet dinner at immigrant family-owned Ayara Thai Cuisine in Westchester. (Owner and chef Vanda Asapahu said Sanders ordered pad Thai and tom yum, a coconut-based soup with lemongrass, lime and chili.)

The remaining candidates participated on a CNN panel, but Warren and Buttigieg only gave additional interviews to networks while Klobuchar, Yang and Steyer headed into the scrum.

Most of the questions directed to Steyer dealt with his early advocacy for impeachment, while he asserted himself as the only candidate making climate change his top priority.

He told The Argonaut that climate change and housing police are interrelated and that a Steyer administration would facilitate increased housing density and public transit connectivity
in urban areas.

“We’re millions of housing units short, but we’re going to have to build this country in a climate-smart way. If we allow real estate developers to determine how we build the United States of America, we will just sprawl until we have no open space left. Obviously that can’t work,” Steyer said. “We’re going to have to use federal money and oomph to make sure we build climate-smart communities.”

KLOBUCHAR SPEAKS UP

Several news outlets were quick to name Klobuchar the night’s victor for strong answers on immigration, the new USMCA trade deal and her sparing match with Buttigieg. She attributed her good night to having just over 19 minutes of speaking time, second only to Sanders at LMU and nearly double that of November’s debate.

“The obvious reason: I got to talk. This gave me the ability to go back and forth on a lot of different issues,” said Klobuchar, polling at about 4% before the debate. “And second, this debate was very substantive and I think I excel when that happens.”

Touting electability as a strong point of her campaign, she pointed to a poll that found her beating Trump in her home state of Minnesota (which Clinton carried by a thin 1.4% margin in 2016) by 17 points.

“I think what’s been left out of this discussion, it’s not just about who gives the best 30-second answers or gives the most flowery speeches,” she said. “What should matter is who can win and who has the experience to get the job done. … I am the one who actually put forward a 100-day plan with 137 things that you can do with our Congress.”

An early post-debate poll by FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos found the candidates’ positions largely unchanged, though voter “favorability” ratings dipped for both Buttigieg and Warren but increased for Klobuchar and Yang.

Kennedi Hewitt also contributed to this story.

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