Election day is in less than a week (Nov. 8!) and though vote counting will take a while, the battle between U.S. Rep Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso will finally come to an end. The contest to be the next mayor of Los Angeles has been a long and winding process, taking literally 32 months this cycle.
Please check out part I of this column here, where LAMag details the happenings and highlights from March 2020 through February 2022. This section picks up with the field set up and the June primary on the horizon.
Chapter 12: The Blitz Begins
Caruso declares his candidacy on Feb. 11, and within days begins airing a 60-second spot. It’s a milquetoast get-to-know-me ad but it’s also running four months ahead of the June primary, boosting his name ID while no other candidate is on air. It’s a preview of a strategy that will be unlike anything Los Angeles has ever seen in a mayoral election. He laser focuses his campaign on three issues: homelessness, crime, and City Hall corruption.
Chapter 13: An Almost-Full Debate
On Feb. 24, candidates Karen Bass, Joe Buscaino, Kevin de León, Mike Feuer and an outsider candidate, Mel Wilson, appeared at a debate at Loyola Marymount University. A few things stand out: A series of disruptors jump up and scream expletives, interrupting the event, before being led out. On stage, everyone talks a lot about the homelessness crisis. No one says anything particularly special.
Rick Caruso’s absence is conspicuous. It feels like the rest of the field is debating a ghost.
Chapter 14: The Bashtastic First Real Debate!
On March 23, Caruso attends his first mayoral debate, held at the University of Southern California, and his campaign smarty-pants strategy is revealed. The candidates agreed that if someone is attacked then she or he gets time to respond. Caruso gets attacked the most, so he speaks the most. There is a lot of talk about homelessness and crime. Feuer references Caruso’s $100 million yacht, Invictus, which leads to my single favorite sentence in the entire cycle as Caruso remarks: “I do have a nice boat.”
When the magnate lashes out at in-office pols, they swing back. “Stop denigrating ‘career politicians,’ people who have devoted their life to public service,” instructs Bass. De León goes further, saying “With all due respect Rick, you and I are two very different individuals and I have a body of work that you can only dream of having.”
Chapter 15: Caruso’s Momentum Builds and the Field Shrinks
Jaws drop in April when new campaign finance reports are revealed: In the first four months of 2022, Bass raises another $1 million and de Leon secures about $600,000; Caruso reports a gobsmacking $23 million, nearly all of it his own money.
That’s when the campaign begins blanketing the airwaves with ads, and the race shifts. Whereas a few months before everyone was talking about Bass, now it is all about the developer of The Grove and the Americana at Brand. Observers begin to question why Team Bass doesn’t do more to combat this onslaught of ads. It’s not that she stumbles; she just seems, well, quiet.
With this barrage, Caruso seizes control of the narrative. And as he does, the race changes. Buscaino recognizes that his new rival will swallow up the conservative and San Fernando Valley voters he had been targeting. On May 12, he appears at The Grove to announce that he is dropping out and endorsing Caruso.
“We share the same values,” Buscaino states at the event.
Five days later, Feuer, also languishing in the polls and unable to generate momentum even after releasing an ad featuring a dachshund riding a skateboard, also pulls the campaign plug. But at an Encino event, he announces that he will be backing Bass.
“Rick Caruso’s campaign has been a toxic mix of false claims, promises he knows he can’t keep, and a desperate effort to distance himself from a failed record of leadership of USC,” Feuer proclaims, referring to the magnate candidate’s seat on the top school’s board of trustees.
Chapter 16: Caustic Times
As the primary approaches, polls put Bass in the lead. Then the mud starts to fly. An independent group supporting Bass launches an ad describing Caruso as a “lifelong Republican” and seeks to ally him with the anti-choice movement. But even with these and other criticisms, Caruso seems to be made of Teflon as nothing thrown at him really sticks.
Yet everything tossed at Caruso comes back fivefold on Bass. Caruso and independent groups, including the union representing Los Angeles police officers, hit Bass with an unending barrage of ugly ads that range from saying she missed votes in the U.S. House of Representatives to spots seeking to tie her to City Hall corruption investigations. It’s ugly and unending and is still going on as the end is in sight.
Chapter 17: The Voters Like Karen
Finally, June 7 arrives. On primary night, Caruso has a 5-percentage point lead. But as the molasses-slow vote counting proceeds, the outlook begins to change. When the race is certified a few weeks later, Bass is comfortably on top. She doesn’t approach the 50 percent threshold needed to win outright, but with 43 percent to Caruso’s 36 percent, it is an unquestioned victory. This is even more striking when you do the math: Caruso spent $176 per vote, and Bass shelled out $11.79.
No one else got close. In a distant third place was de León, followed by left-wing candidate Gina Viola. It is five months until the runoff and time to regroup.
Chapter 18: Bass Is Back
With one round down, many observers expect Caruso to not just be spending big, but really, really big. Instead, he pretty much takes the summer off. Bass takes advantage and hosts an extensive series of fundraisers and keeps herself in the headlines with a retinue of policy announcements and big-name endorsements: Sen. Elizabeth Warren backs Bass. Then Hillary Clinton announces her support. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris step up. So does Alex Padilla. Her campaign team has clearly learned from its sleepy-time mistake of the spring.
The result is that Bass clearly wins the summer. Some people begin to wonder if Caruso sees the proverbial writing on the wall.
Chapter 19: A Bewildering Burglary
On Sept. 9, the Bass campaign announces that the candidate’s Baldwin Vista residence was burglarized, and that two guns she apparently—and to many, surprisingly—owns and keeps in a locked box were stolen. But nearby cash and valuables were left behind in the robbery. Two people are arrested but it remains perhaps the weirdest element of a combative campaign. Bass will do TV interviews and say the weapons were properly secured and were decades old, but many are astounded to learn that she owned guns—plural!—in the first place. Her explanation about the burglary always feels a little hinky.
Chapter 20: He’s Baaaaaaack, and So Is His Money
Anyone who thought Caruso would go out quietly is proven wrong, as the developer unleashes a Howitzer of an ad campaign. But the money blast goes beyond TV spots, as Caruso spends millions on a ground game, including door knockers. Additionally, after a primary with a few carefully controlled events, the mall man begins crisscrossing the city, doing meet-and-greets in dozens of neighborhoods. And he pays a lot of attention to Latino voters.
Bass also is active, and like Caruso, she makes a concerted effort to woo Latino voters. The two meet in a couple of televised debates; the second one turns testy. With the election a month away, the city prepares for a fierce final stretch.
Chapter 21: October Surprise
On Oct. 9, the Los Angeles Times breaks the story of that secretly recorded meeting from Oct. 2021 with just a whole lotta racist and homophobic language among City Council members Nury Martinez, de León, Gil Cedillo and labor head Ron Herrera. Instantly, the L.A. mayor’s race is blown off the figurative front page of the city’s consciousness. The discussion, in which Martinez uses some horrible terms and makes dark insinuations, becomes a national story. Bass and Caruso condemn the talk and call for resignations, but for more than a week, no one cares. The candidates recognize the gravity of the moment and understand that the public is in no mood for divisive fisticuffs—their third and final debate is a somewhat tepid affair.
Politics can be strange.
Chapter 22: The Eve of the Election
The fervor surrounding the leaked audio has diminished, but with de León refusing to step down, it is not gone, and still casts a shadow over the final days of the race.
Bass and Caruso are powering their way to the end, each doing their thing and desperately working to turn out their respective bases. On Oct. 27, it was revealed that Caruso has spent more than $50 million just in the runoff period and is expected to surpass $100 million overall by the time everything is done. Bass, meanwhile, continues to court on-the-fence Democrats; she recently appeared with Sen. Bernie Sanders and announced the endorsement of former President Barack Obama.
After 32 months, Los Angeles is on the brink of selecting its next leader. So much has happened, but with four days to go, the race still seems to be up in the air.
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