Photos by Brian Addison

At the first formal public debate since the April primary election, Long Beach mayoral candidates Damon Dunn and Robert Garcia showed that though they agree on many of the issues facing Long Beach, they differ in one major way: leadership style. At the Wednesday evening event—which was hosted by Cal State Long Beach and sponsored by the Press-Telegram, KABC and the school’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication—the candidates fielded questions from both panelists and audience members about a variety of topics ranging from affordable housing to campaign tactics. 

One thing that emerged by the end of the hour-and-a-half-long debate were two opposing visions for the mayorship, with Garcia seeing it as a public service position that requires concensus-building, and Dunn likening the mayor position to an executive leadership role similar to being a CEO of a private sector businesses.

The pair, despite differing on their résumé bullet points, have similar histories: both come from impoverished childhoods—Dunn grew up poor in Texas while Garcia’s family emigrated from Peru to the States—and both have roots in the Republican party.

Dunn ran for Secretary of State in 2010 as a Republican and was at the time touted by supporters like Karl Rove as “the future of the Republican party.” He moved to Long Beach three years ago, however, and switched his affiliation to “decline to state” sometime before announcing his candidacy for mayor last year. 

“I have to take responsibility for being a Republican,” Dunn said. “When you’re younger—I was a pastor—you approach social issues from a religious perspective… Now I’ve learned the separation of church and state… We all mature. Hilary Clinton was a Goldwater girl. Ronald Reagan sounded the trumpet for Harry Truman. We all evolve.”

Garcia, who switched parties in his late twenties after founding the Long Beach Young Republicans, noted that Reagan’s immigration policy—which permitted him and his family to more easily become citizens—was what originally attracted him to the GOP. However, following the presidency of George W. Bush, he switched and has since voted entirely along Democratic lines.

DunnGar02Outside of their leadership perspectives, Dunn and Garcia agreed on a variety of topics ranging from medpot dispensaries to the arts to the Port of Long Beach standing as its own entity.

They even agreed that the controversy surrounding their attack tactics—mailers have gone out with allegations ranging from Garcia’s business tax leins to Dunn’s Tea Party associations, and became a large part of the moderators’ leading of the discussion—are a natural part of the political landscape.

“Let’s start with this: we actually like each other very much,” Garcia said, “We understand that we are in a political arena and at the end of the day, we are both good people… In the primary, I kept it 100% positive—it was always my intention and in the second round, it was still my intention. But unfortunately, my friend decided to start off pretty strongly. The first piece I took lightly. Then the second. Then the third—which is alright, that is the way it works—but you reach a point where you say, ‘Enough is enough.’ And I think if you’re going to be attacked in a certain way, you respond.”

Dunn pushed back, saying that attacks are tit-for-tat: “Let’s not make Robert the victim here… We’re chess players,” he said. “The question is: are you gonna wait until someone smacks you? Do you wanna be the hammer or do you wanna be the nail?”

Reiterating that negative campaigns are his “least favorite part” of politics, Garcia offered Dunn the option to stop all attacks with the shake of a hand. Dunn replied with another tit-for-tat: “I just received another mailer against me today, so if I can get one more out, I’ll shake hands on that,” he said. 

On the issues, Dunn remained topical and broad: arts are good but need to become an economic driver to survive; medpot is fine but dispensaries should be relegated to industrial areas; affordable housing should have a larger presence within the city through adaptive reuse of existing redevelopment properties or untenanted buildings; a living wage is a right, etc.

“How do we get more middle-class jobs with living wages?” Dunn said. “We need a mayor who will look across all sectors to help increase jobs and employment in a very strategic way.”

DunnGar03Dunn’s published 25-point job plan largely revolves around expanding private sectors like trade, transportation and health care while incorporating the talent of local resources such as CSULB and promoting sustainability.

Garcia echoed Dunn’s sentiments but offered some more statistics and facts: 20% of Long Beach’s population lives at the poverty line, hence the need for more affordable housing; CSULB graduates the most arts degrees west of the Mississippi, hence why Long Beach must harness its “creative capital;” jobs are a paramount issue and even with fallouts like Boeing leaving, bringing in Mercedes is a key to success.

“We have to continue to grow the economies that are proving successful: trade, transportation, health care, green economies,” Garcia said. “Those are the jobs of the future. And to keep those, we have to include building entry-level affordable housing for graduate students and teachers and new families so they can afford to live here and boost those economies.”

In the end, both Dunn and Garcia want a better Long Beach, one which revolves around a more equalized population—both financially and socially—a greener cityscape, a higher stature in the tech boom, and a more free and malleable space for art and culture. How they will both get there, however, is at the center of these debates, with Dunn leveraging his business experience and Garcia touting his record of public service, each giving glimpses to what kind of leaders they would be for Long Beach.

Dunn and Garcia will face off in the general election on June 3.