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Unease with crime and homelessness is lifting a billionaire developer in LA’s mayor’s race

<i>Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images</i><br/>US Rep. Karen Bass
MediaNews Group via Getty Images
Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images
US Rep. Karen Bass

By Maeve Reston, CNN

Over coffee at Siren’s Java & Tea after a walking tour of the San Pedro neighborhood near the Port of Los Angeles, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso couldn’t stop marveling over the cleanliness of the streets as he listened to Yolanda Regalado’s story of starting her coffee shop in this tidy corner of Los Angeles.

For months, Caruso — the Republican shopping mall magnate turned Democratic mayoral candidate — has been traveling the city, fielding the frustrations of LA business owners as they deal with the city’s rise in crime and its staggering homelessness crisis, with more than 41,000 people living on the streets. They have told him stories about stepping over needles and human waste in the gutters; tent encampments that have overtaken the city’s parks; and police officers too spooked by potential lawsuits to force people to move and clear entryways.

But here — in a part of the city where City Councilman Joe Buscaino has been unapologetically vigilant in his drive to clear tent encampments and enforce the city’s anti-camping law — Caruso sees an example of what the city can be: “The minute you allow people to start taking back the community, it just continues,” Caruso says to Regalado. “It becomes contagious.”

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!”

Having served in other civic roles as a former city police commissioner and the former head of the USC Board of Trustees, he’s long eyed the mayor’s race, all while donating generously to both Republicans and Democrats. But he is best known for the meticulously groomed, open-air malls that he has built in Los Angeles that are awash in 1950s Americana, with splashing fountains, trolley cars, valet parking and a seemingly unending loop of Frank Sinatra.

In this overwhelmingly Democratic city, political strategists point out that Caruso might have struggled in previous cycles given that he is a former Republican.

His political affiliations have changed over time: He became an independent in 2011 while weighing a mayoral run. Later, he told LA Magazine in 2016 that he had reregistered as a Republican to support former Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president, but stated that “under no circumstances” would he support Donald Trump, adding that he “couldn’t think of anything more horrifying” than putting Trump in charge of his future.

Then, he said he was registering as a “pro-centrist, pro-jobs, pro-public safety” Democrat a month before he announced his mayoral candidacy in February.

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.

Sonenshein noted the historical parallels to the political climate in the early 1990s when voters elected two Republicans — Rudy Giuliani and Richard Riordan — as the mayors of New York and Los Angeles, respectively. Both cities were grappling with crime and upheaval, concerns that were especially pronounced in Los Angeles after the riots that followed the acquittal of four White police officers of all charges in the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King. Like Riordan, who financed a significant portion of his own campaign as he touted his entrepreneurial skills as a self-made millionaire, Caruso has used his wealth to create a gigantic financial imbalance with the other candidates.

“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

Before Caruso entered the race, Bass was the unquestionable front-runner. The six-term congresswoman was running on her decades of experience shaping public policy in areas like child welfare, foster care and prison reform. Biden vetted Bass, the then-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, to be his running mate as she helped lead the negotiations on legislation to create greater police accountability following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

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.

She’s highlighted her early work as a physician assistant in the emergency room and her experience bringing together Black and Latino community organizers in South LA in the early 1990s to address the root causes of crime and the crack epidemic through the nonprofit she founded, Community Coalition. She has also pointed to her role as a dealmaker when she led the California State Assembly after the 2008 financial crisis — making budget decisions that earned her a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2010.

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.

“There’s more than enough land to do really nice, very comfortable, safe encampments that have mental health services, physical health services and retraining programs to get people off the street,” he said. He drew a sharp rebuke from the Bass campaign by citing Fort Bliss, a site that has housed unaccompanied migrant children and is the subject of a whistleblower complaint, as a potential example of how the homeless could be housed during an interview this spring with the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board.

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.

De León, a city councilman who is also seeking the mayor’s office, says his rivals’ calls for a state of emergency amount to a “nice political sound bite” with no practical impact. He is running on his own plans to create 25,000 new units of homelessness housing by 2025 (a goal that won the approval of the City Council) and what he describes as a record of getting more people housed in his council district than any other over the past year through tiny homes and hotel/motel conversions. He is also convinced that the city must wrest control of mental health services from LA County, proposing a new city department of public and mental health. (Caruso has embraced a similar proposal).

“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

As Caruso has risen in the polls, the mayor’s race took a sharply negative turn in the final weeks with allies and outside groups accelerating attacks on both Bass and Caruso. The Bass campaign accused Caruso’s campaign of darkening her face in one of their ads — bringing signs showing side-by-side comparisons of the images in the ad and the original images to a recent press conference. (Caruso dismissed the accusation as “not true”).

Bass’ allies have also tried to frame Caruso as a threat to abortion rights by pointing to his past donations to Republican lawmakers like Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy. After Politico published the draft Supreme Court opinion suggesting the high court is poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade, Bass allies also drew attention to Caruso’s contributions to Catholic causes like the USC Caruso Catholic Center and to a 2007 article in LA Magazine that paraphrased him as saying he opposed abortion in most cases.

The candidate told CNN he’s “always been a supporter of Roe v. Wade” and that it “should stay the law of the land.” He recently pledged to spend $1 million through a political action committee to build public support for a Newsom-proposed ballot measure for a state constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights.

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.”

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