Billionaire mayoral candidate Rick Caruso casts himself as LA’s fixer amid unease about homelessness and crime
At a moment when Angelenos are unnerved by the rise in violent crime and eager to reclaim trash-strewn public spaces, the simplicity of that argument has found an audience. Caruso has surged to the top of the polls in the mayoral race by presenting himself as an optimistic Mr. Fix-it.
He quickly caught up with Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, the front-runner, by pouring a stunning $34 million into his bid by mid-May, mostly financed by his loans to his campaign. His ads and mailers have blanketed the city, presenting him as a kind of superman in an impeccably tailored blue suit and striped tie.
“Who can curb crime?” his website blares as huge white letters flash across the screen, “Caruso Can!”
While Bass and other rivals have accused him of trying to “buy” the office — with her campaign putting out a digital ad in the final weekend comparing him to Trump — his outsider argument has proven effective at a time when confidence in elected leaders has plummeted. He and Bass are headed into the city’s mayoral primary on Tuesday as the likely top-two vote getters who would advance to the November ballot if no candidate wins a majority outright. Bass, Caruso and LA City Councilman Kevin de León are the three most prominent candidates vying to replace term-limited Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Despite the city’s political leanings, this moment of collective unease about crime and homelessness “created an opening for somebody who will say that they can turn things around very dramatically,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA.
“His effectiveness is in dominating the scene to where a lot of voters think he’s the only candidate in the race,” Sonenshein said. “They are literally getting so much mail and there’s so many ads — that it really is kind of a shock and awe campaign.”
Caruso derides career politicians as Bass highlights her policy experience
Like former Mayor Tom Bradley, Bass has forged a coalition of White progressives and Black voters. And like former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a close ally who is supporting her, she has sought to expand on that coalition as he did in 2005 by engaging Latino voters and other groups across the city.
As Caruso leans on his business credentials to fashion an image of a swift and efficient decision-maker, Bass has emphasized the depth of her policy experience and her reputation as collaborative listener and legislator.
During a recent roundtable at a community center in central LA, she sought ideas from former foster youth about how to keep young people from falling into homelessness. They told her stories about months-long waits for promised housing units, their struggles with insufficient credit to sign rental leases, and the toll of couch-surfing and living out of cars. One young woman shared her harrowing tale of surviving homelessness at 17 by riding the Hollywood-Crenshaw bus all day and late into the night with her baby daughter, terrified that fellow riders would call police and try to take her child away.
“You guys have survived because you are fighters. Because you are extremely smart and have figured out how to navigate these complex bureaucracies,” Bass told the group, as she stressed their shared desire to “hold government accountable” at every level.
But Bass’ decades in public service trying to solve those kinds of problems have run headlong into Caruso’s broadsides against what he describes as the ineffectiveness of career politicians.
“It’s out of control what’s happening in Los Angeles,” Caruso told an audience of Teamsters, electrical workers and other guests during a recent campaign event on the deck of the USS Iowa, which is now a museum docked at the Port of Los Angeles. He singled out the elected officials running for mayor: “They’re all talking about how much they did to help the homeless. I’m sorry. Just drive around the city. It hasn’t happened.”
Caruso’s agenda to fix the city’s problems includes expensive plans like hiring 1,500 more police officers by the end of his first term, building 30,000 shelter beds in 300 days, hiring 500 people trained in mental health and addiction treatment, and employing 500 new sanitation workers to “deep clean” the city in his first year. But critics call those plans a fantasy given the city’s budget constraints and its current difficulties recruiting police officers.
He has not specified what cuts he would make to pay for those expansions in city staff, repeatedly stating instead that the city has an $11 billion budget and he believes he could find “waste” in at least 10% of those dollars.
In an interview with CNN while he was spending the day meeting with business owners in the San Fernando Valley, he blamed the homelessness crisis on a “lack of leadership” and a “management failure” that has created a culture of “permissiveness” in LA that has allowed the population on the streets to grow exponentially. Though there has often been strong resistance among the unhoused to moving into congregate shelters, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, Caruso says he would find space for the additional shelter beds by using some 300 “surplus” parcels of land that are owned by the city.
When asked why he’s confident he could build 30,000 beds in such a short amount of time and start moving people off the street — given the myriad logistical and human challenges involved in that task — he told CNN: “Because I know how to build. Because I’ve run a business.”
Asked about some of those ideas, Bass avoids making point-by-point rebuttals of Caruso’s proposals, instead arguing that her deep relationships with leaders at many levels of government make her better suited to help expedite the city’s efforts to build more temporary and permanent housing.
She has set a goal of housing 15,000 people by the end of one year and ending tent encampments using existing funding, in part by organizing and deploying specially trained “neighborhood service teams” to connect people with housing and mental health services.
The former California Assembly Speaker argues that she could lean on her relationships with lawmakers in Sacramento to increase dollars directed to LA for housing from the more than $12 billion that Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature have set aside for that purpose.
She says she would use connections within the Biden administration to troubleshoot problems like the need for more federal housing vouchers, noting that many allocated for LA are going unused because of both cumbersome paperwork requirements and an unwillingness from landlords to take them. As mayor, she said she would also pursue federal waivers to allow the creation of mental health and substance abuse facilities with a greater number of beds.
“This is one thing that distinguishes me from the other candidates. I have a background in the medical field. I’ve worked with these patients,” she told CNN. “I spent several years in the emergency room at (LA) county. My patients were homeless. My patients were mentally ill. They had substance abuse. I know these systems,” Bass said.
In a city with a weaker mayoral system — where the mayor controls the budget and city departments but City Council members wield considerable veto power — both Bass and Caruso have both said they would declare a state of emergency to give the mayor greater authority to address the homelessness crisis. It is not clear legally what that would allow them to do beyond commandeering property, which neither has immediate plans for.
“On any given day, we have people that are naked, running down the streets screaming and shouting at the top of their lungs,” De León, the former president pro tempore of the state senate, said in an interview. “They’re having a psychotic break, and we have normalized that by allowing them to slowly die on our streets.”
Bass argues that declaring a state of emergency would, at the very least, set a new tone on addressing homelessness citywide: “It should be dealt with like a natural disaster,” she said. “I’m really hoping that we begin to build a new spirit in this city, where people understand that this problem is everyone’s problem.”
A negative final phase of the primary race
Caruso noted that he was raised as a Catholic but said he’s “evolved as a Catholic dramatically,” adding that he is “firmly pro-choice. I have been for decades.” When asked about his opponents’ tactics citing his donations to USC’s Catholic Center to raise questions about his views on abortion, Caruso said he couldn’t believe the campaign was headed back to a “pre-Kennedy era where we’re going to be critical of somebody’s faith.”
“Shame on them,” he said. He also rejected the notion that his contributions to politicians like McCarthy or McConnell had anything to do with abortion, as his critics inferred: “They have no evidence of that…. That’s why they’re making stuff up,” he said.
Many political observers here expect the attacks on Caruso’s political evolution to intensify this fall when more Democratic voters get engaged. But Bill Carrick, a Democratic political consultant who has advised a series of mayoral candidates over the years (including Garcetti), noted that many voters are still just getting to know the top contenders.
“If you can convince a city, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, that (Caruso) is really a conservative Republican and a kind of a Trump figure, you win the election,” Carrick said. “But I don’t know that it’s going to be all that convincing,” he said, noting that Caruso has spent years in the public eye burnishing his credentials as a moderate. “Most people, I think, are still trying to figure this all out.”
Quoted from Various Sources
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