By Brandon Lowrey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles' five mayoral candidates sparred over its ailing economy Monday night, each claiming to be best qualified to reduce a persistent public deficit, reform the public pension system and attract business to the second-largest U.S. city.
The candidates, vying to succeed Antonio Villaraigosa, skirmished in a televised debate at the city's University of California over how best to close an expected $200 million budget shortfall.
"We're talking about bankruptcy in Los Angeles," said candidate Kevin James, a former assistant U.S. attorney and the lone Republican in the race. "That does not instill confidence ...in businesses that are looking at moving to our great city."
The candidates agreed the city must negotiate with its powerful unions to reduce the cost of pensions for city workers that threaten to further deepen its deficit.
"If we don't have a viable pension system in the city of Los Angeles, they don't have a pension later on," City Controller Wendy Greuel said.
City Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry each argued that their years of leadership and experience dealing with unions made them the best suited to deal with budgetary issues.
Garcetti said he negotiated concessions from current and future union workers that have saved the city millions of dollars. "You need the next mayor to have those qualities," he said. "We can't tax and cut our way out of this."
James touted his independence, saying he wouldn't be beholden to unions during pension talks, he said.
Former technology executive Emanuel Pleitez pointed to his successes in the private sector and his experience as an economic adviser to the Obama Administration.
Garcetti and Greuel have raised the most money thus far - about $3.6 million each, according to campaign filings with the city.
A primary election will be held on March 5, with a runoff on May 21 pitting the top two finishers against one another, unless one candidate receives a majority of votes in the March primary. The new mayor will be sworn in on July 1.
This is the race city's first competitive mayoral election since Villaraigosa took office in 2005. He easily won re-election in 2009 but is now restricted from seeking another term.
(Reporting By Ronald Grover; Editing by John Stonestreet)