Acting Chancellor Steve Relyea
California State University
April 21, 2022
We write to you as certified, serious candidates for Mayor of Los Angeles who are being excluded from the May 1, 2022 debate being hosted jointly by Cal State LA, The League of Women Voters, and ABC 7 Los Angeles. It is simply undemocratic, and against the interests of the public, whom Cal State serves, and whose tax dollars fund the system, to conduct a rigged debate that arbitrarily excludes serious and certified by the City of Los Angeles as candidates for Mayor of the second largest city in America.
As you may be aware from recent news coverage, although this debate is nominally a partnership, that’s not actually the truth. By Cal State’s own admission in an undated memo, ABC 7 had no say in who was selected to participate. Similarly, the League of Women Voters confirmed in an email to candidate Craig Greiwe that they, too, did not put together the criteria, but instead wholly deferred to Professor Raphael Sonenshein of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State LA. Sonenshein lied about this collaboration to the Los Angeles Times (4/12/22) in an effort to spread the blame, saying the opposite of a memo he himself had written just days prior.
The Legal Case for Inclusion
At the time the decision to include candidates was made, Sonenshein had zero published criteria for his decision, in direct violation of the constitutional holding of the Supreme Court decision Arkansas Educational Television Corporation v. Forbes (1998). While that decision gives broad leeway in debates, Sonenshein’s blatant and reckless behavior violated even the most basic standards of constitutional law.
In Forbes, Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, stipulated that debates by publicly-funded institutions are subject to First Amendment protections and limitations – they could exclude candidates only based on “reasonable regulations.” Having no written regulations at all in advance would hardly qualify as “reasonable.” And having no regulations can only mean the Sonenshein intended to suppress the distinct and unique political speech and viewpoint of true outsiders, while including only those who have been at the seat of power for 30 years.
Only after the fact did Sonenshein try to cover his tracks by composing an undated memo, with the assent of the League of Women Voters, laying forth criteria to justify inclusion and exclusion of candidates. Creating criteria after the fact does not remedy a constitutional breach. (A professor lying and covering up an unconstitutional action with a fake memo is a separate matter that we encourage you to investigate.)
However, even this after-the-fact cover-up memo was lazy, while also unintentionally revealing the unconstitutional actions Sonenshein took. In it, Sonenshein relied on shifting excuses and falsehoods to justify his choices to select his anointed five candidates and friends and their viewpoints.
First, in this undated memo, Sonenshein explained he had selected candidates with “significant” public support, relying on public polling, fundraising, endorsements, and earned media coverage. “Significant support” absent actual numerical qualification thresholds is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague as a standard in governing free speech, a standard to which Cal State University is legally obligated as a public institution.
Moreover, even were there numerical thresholds, the truth is that Sonenshein was never in possession of the information on which he claims to have made his decisions. Thus, he was lying at every stage.
At the time Sonenshein selected who to include in the debate, the only public polling that was available for a May 1, 2022 debate was an outdated poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times in February 2022 before the race even started and before one of the current candidates had even declared for the office—a poll later acknowledged by the Times’own reporter Ben Oreskes to have breached journalistic ethics.
Similarly, the only fundraising data available publicly for a May 1, 2022 debate was from December 31, 2021 reporting – long before some candidates had even entered the race. There is no public database of endorsements, or earned media. Sonenshein and his team did not request any updated list of endorsements, media coverage, or fundraising numbers from any excluded candidate. Thus, Sonenshein could not have relied on the criteria he claims justified his decisions, because he had no such data.
Second, demonstrating just how flawed Sonenshein’s supposed criteria is, a later April 2022 Los Angeles Times poll was conducted after his debate selection, and revealed that half of the candidates he selected did not meet his own claimed criteria or have “significant support” (all at 2% or less), and two were polling at or below the level of candidates excluded from the debate.
This later Los Angeles Times poll revealed Sonenshein’s tactics for what they really were: fake criteria designed to engineer a debate among people he felt “needed” (Los Angeles Times, 4/12/22) to be on stage, versus those who deserved to be there for a full and fair contest, in the public interest, hosted by a public university. It was a “judgment call” Sonenshein said (LA Daily News, 4/12/22), but that judgment call was not only legally wrong, it was morally wrong.
The Ethical Case for Inclusion
This isn’t a race with 50 candidates, where everyone cannot fit on stage. California and the United States have a track record of being able to handle debates of 90-120 minutes with 10 or more candidates, as happened repeatedly during the 2016 and 2020 Presidential election cycles. To say that the large number of certified candidates precludes the inclusion of all of them is simply a lie; only 10 candidates are waging active campaigns, only 12 are even certified to be on the ballot. All 10 or 12 would fit on stage, and as has happened dozens of times before, there would be room for all of them to speak substantively.
Of course, while democracy would always prefer a flowing, half-hour conversation with each candidate, that’s not what a debate is for. A debate is a debate by and among candidates, on the issues, which provides voters an opportunity to judge each candidate’s points of view. This is about meaningful debate, not meaningful living room conversation. Sonenshein’s exclusion of all but five candidates, and inclusion of only career elected officials or career insiders, is meant to preclude real debate. It is meant to exclude voices and deny voters their right to see all certified candidates.
At a time when almost half of Angelenos are still undecided in the race for Mayor, Cal State Los Angeles has a legal, ethical, and moral obligation to include more voices for those undecided voters to hear from, not fewer. In Sonenshein’s mind it might be “near the end of the campaign” (Los Angeles Times 4/12/22), but that’s not how those hundreds of thousands of likely voters who are undecided feel—voters who have held out on making a decision for months and continue to do so today. The May 1 debate will come at a critical time for them – yet Sonenshein would prefer voters hear only from his preferred candidates and their point of view, most of whom even now fall below his arbitrary threshold, based on fake selection criteria he was never in possession of.
The Only Solution is Inclusion of All 10 Certified Candidates
On a legal level, Sonenshein and Cal State LA are permitted to exclude candidates from a debate in limited cirumstances. However, Sonenshein very clearly did not meet any of the legal criteria required to do so, as demonstrated above. In addition, Sonenshein’s actions after the fact—including lying to the press, an undated cover-up memo, and shifting excuses—have made the process so ethically and legally flawed as to be unsalvageable. It also begs the question, for you to answer, of Sonenshein’s fitness to continue serving has head of the Pat Brown Institute, whose reputation he has now tarnished. The only fair, legal, and constitutional remedy is the inclusion of all 10 candidates waging active, serious campaigns.
On a moral level, the answer is the same. Even candidate Rick Caruso has publicly called on Cal State and Sonenshein to do the “right thing.” While other candidates have demurred out of their own self-interest (one even hinging his support for the “right thing” on an unrelated conditional demand for Caruso to release his tax returns), the ethics and morality of this situation are clear. The public has a right to hear from all legitimate, serious, and certified candidates, especially when that forum is one being organized by a taxpayer-funded public institution, using taxpayer dollars, and subject to all the rights and protections afforded to the public under the Constitution.
At the end of the day, we, the excluded certified candidates, ask you this: do you really want to be on record as saying that, in the most consequential Los Angeles Mayoral election in decades, at a time when this city is in crisis, you would prefer to arbitrarily exclude serious, certified and legitimate candidates from a debate stage simply because Prof. Raphe Sonenshein would like to anoint 5 candidates instead of having 10 candidate debate? Is that really in the public interest? How does that fulfill Cal State LA’s mandate to provide and foster open debate on issues of the day?
The California State University system is supposed to operate by the public, for the public, on the public’s behalf. Is making sure the public never hears from serious and certified candidates really serving that purpose? We think not. Prof. Sonenshein’s lies and conduct have been unbecoming and self-serving. We urge you to intervene and correct the situation. Include all serious, certified candidates on stage on May 1, 2022.
Alex Gruenenfelder Smith
 Mayoral candidate Mel Wilson is a distinguished graduate of the Cal State University system. He was appointed and served on the president advisory boards for CSUN Presidents, James Cleary, Blenda Wilson, Jolene Koester and Diane Harrison. Mr. Wilson is a CSUN Top Fabulous 50 Alumni of the David Nazrian College of Business and Economics. He was inducted into CSUN Athletic Hall of Fame and was selected to the Kodak All-America Football.