Students at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School had the chance to witness a sliver of the political process last week. At a forum hosted by the school on Thursday evening, March 20, all 10 candidates who hope to become Long Beach’s next mayor gathered together on the auditorium’s stage to voice their opinions on a variety of issues affecting the city. The event was moderated by Bea Antenore of the League of Women Voters.
It wasn’t the first (and certainly wasn’t going to be the last) chance for the mayoral hopefuls to meet with the public, but according to teacher Wendy Salaya, the event was a “first” for her students– her school has never before hosted a mayoral-candidate forum.
Salaya teaches classes in government and macroeconomics at Wilson. In a telephone interview on Wednesday, she described how her students are now very enthusiastic for the municipal election next month.
“They can’t wait to vote,” Salaya said of her students who are over the age of 18 and eligible to cast a ballot. “They’re really excited…to be able to participate and to be able to have an opinion and actually express their opinion by voting.”
She described how, in the days leading up to the forum, the students wrestled over which topics to cover. They eventually developed two questions which would be posed to all of the candidates. Other questions, written down by members of the audience during the event, were handed to the organizers who would, in turn, assign a random question to each of the candidates. Each candidate answered the same number of questions.
The candidates and public safety
The candidates come from a variety of backgrounds, and many have different ideas about how to improve the city. When moderator Antenore asked all of the candidates how they would work with the police department to improve public safety and reduce gang violence, the candidates had the opportunity to set themselves apart from their competitors. The candidates were only allowed about two minutes to answer the question.
Steven Paul Mozena emphasized his ability as a businessman to create jobs and internships to lower the crime rate.
“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” Mozena said, describing how kids need to be productive and make money. “If kids are bored and they have nothing to do, they get into mischief…any Wilson High School student now can have a job or an internship. I can create those jobs.”
Eric Rock said that the police already remove from parks those individuals who look like gang members. He said he is concerned about 22 recent law-enforcement shootings. Rock recommended that police officers should live nearby.
“I would like for the law enforcement of Long Beach to reside within their jurisdiction, to reside within their cities,” Rock said.
Mineo Gonzalez suggested that the next mayor travel with the police chief to the community every time a murder takes place to determine how they can help. He recommended communication with families of kids who are at risk of gang influence.
“But that’s why we need a leader to… call them out on their parenting skills. We need to tell people, ‘This is your problem. This is your fault. This is your child,’” Gonzalez said, adding later, “We need to make sure that the leadership we have is in the community…letting the community know that we’re there for them and we’re not ignoring them.”
Jana Shields said that her high-density neighborhood has dealt with a gang problem. She described how the area became safe again due to a cooperative partnership between the public, the police and other entities.
“That sort of approach can be expanded citywide,” Shields said, “because people in neighborhoods need to take ownership, need to be proactive and need to work in good [relationships] with our public-safety officers.”
Doug Otto lamented that, over the last four years, the City has reduced the number of police officers, a drop from 1,020 to 803.
“As a result,” Otto said, “we can’t do the enforcement that we’ve done before.”
He named areas in the police department that have felt the cuts: a youth-services division, a police-athletic league and a gang-enforcement division. Additionally, he said that there are only 20 officers in the Juvenile Investigations Section, suggesting that no staff are available to follow kids on their walk home after school to ensure their safety and to prevent youth from committing crimes.
Damon Dunn said he agreed with Otto about the concern over the reduced number of police staff, but he challenged Otto’s estimate of the number of officers serving in the police department. Dunn said that the City is budgeted for 803 officers, but it really has only 770 sworn-police officers. He explained the discrepancy has to do with overtime pay. He did agree that the City needs to invest in more cops. Dunn also recommended a different approach to addressing gang activities.
“We have to start figuring out a solution to keep kids [from] going into gangs,” Dunn said, explaining that the City should not only rely on the police. He encouraged partnerships with either faith-based communities or nonprofit organizations to offer mentoring to kids.
Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal praised the partnership between the Long Beach Unified School District and the Long Beach Police Department, explaining how every campus already has security personnel and staff assistance. Lowenthal remembered that there was a time when the police chief had advisory commissions to work with the community and that there were also youth programs. She recommended to restore those programs and to increase the number of law-enforcement personnel.
She described how the department is really struggling without the 200 officers.
“It’s very difficult to keep up the work with such a small force,” Lowenthal said, “and losing the gang unit has been very difficult.”
Councilmember Gerrie Schipske said that neighborhood safety is the City’s first priority. She criticized a Council decision to reduce the police-department budget. She said her opponent, Vice Mayor Garcia, was part of that decision.
“One of the worst votes that was taken at this City Council (and that Mr. Garcia participated in)… was to cut the gang unit, to cut detectives and to cut the…resources we needed to get those police back on the street,” Schipske said.
Garcia said that the City had gone through an economic recession, yet at the same time, it also saw a 40-year low in crime rates. He said that although there is crime, the City is still headed in the right direction. He acknowledged that Long Beach needs more police officers and that the budget will grow.
Like Dunn, Garcia advocated for other ways to address the gang problem. He recommended that the City additionally needs to have parks, activities, an investment in education, after-school programs and ways to identify people who need support and tutoring.
“These are the types of things that get people together,” Garcia said, explaining that these areas are all part of public safety.
Richard Camp suggested that “it’s good for business when the gangs run wild on the north side of town,” especially when eminent domain could be used to take over property. To address public safety, he suggested that the City hire more female officers. He remembered a particular officer in Belmont Shore who was effective at her job.
“She was a very motherly figure with a gun,” Camp said, drawing a few laughs.
There were other questions at the forum. The candidates tackled other topics including the breakwater, the controversy over whether to retrofit or rebuild City Hall, concerns over racial tensions between black and Latino students, the Southern California International Gateway Project and how to make the schools more comfortable.
The event was an eye-opening experience for a few of the students who talked with the Signal Tribune afterwards.
Lukas Howe, a 17-year-old Wilson student and president of the Associated Student Body (ASB), won’t be able to vote in this April’s municipal election, but he does have the ability to talk to his family members who are eligible to cast their ballots. He said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that he took flyers home to share with his family and that he described to them his impressions of the candidates. Howe liked Otto best because of his involvement with the school and the community. He also had positive things to say about Garcia.
Howe was asked to describe how a mayor could really improve the lives of Wilson High School students. He said he hoped that a new mayor will invest in more after-school programs to keep students active. Howe said it is important for students to engage in their community, adding that, although kids already do volunteer now, there is a general understanding that students feel that they must do it to graduate.
“I want to see if we can stimulate the minds of students across the city at a younger age, or even during high school, to make them want to give back and make their community better,” Howe said.
Miko Phillips, an 18-year-old senior at Wilson and part of the ASB, plans to vote in the upcoming election. She still needs to register. She said in an interview with the Signal Tribune that she’s planning to vote for Lowenthal. Phillips said she liked that the candidates were asked about racial tensions between black and Latino students. She explained that Long Beach has a diverse population and that she wanted peace for everyone.
Phillips was one the volunteers at the forum who played host to the candidates. She was assigned to Shields. Phillips described how she familiarized herself with Shields’s campaign and that night assisted her with signs.
Matthew Pearson, another 18-year-old Wilson student, hung around the auditorium just after the forum ended. The event turned out differently than he had anticipated.
“I [expected] a lot of verbal bloodshed from the candidates,” Pearson said in an interview with the Signal Tribune. “I was surprised they kept it very polite and organized.”
He had hoped that the medical-marijuana-tax issue would have been addressed. Pearson also spoke freely about some of his other political ideas not related to the forum. That night, Pearson wore a National Rifle Association badge. He said there is misinformation about guns and automatic weapons in California, a state that is perceived to “not care much about the Second Amendment.” He hopes that a mayor could help gun lobbyists change that.
He said his two favorite candidates from the forum are Camp and Rock.
Sometimes during the interview, he could have been joking, but he never cracked a smile nor broke away from the matter-of-fact tone in his voice. As the interview was about to end, Pearson off-handedly remarked he isn’t going to vote. He was asked why.
“I feel that although they sold me on certain issues,” Pearson said, “all together as a package, I don’t feel like I could throw in my vote with any one of them without feeling irresponsible.”
He wasn’t asked what he meant by “irresponsible.” Blame the reporter.