LOS ANGELES -- Many voters in heavily Democratic Los Angeles are seething over rising crime and homelessness and that could prompt the city to take a turn to the political right for the first time in decades.
One of the leading candidates for mayor is Rick Caruso, a pro-business billionaire Republican-turned-Democrat who sits on the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and is promising to expand spending on police, not defund them.
At another time, the high-end mall and resort developer would seem an unlikely choice to potentially lead the nation’s second-most populous city, where democratic socialist Bernie Sanders was the runaway winner in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. A progressive City Hall has embraced so-called sanctuary city protections for people who entered the U.S. illegally and “Green New Deal” climate policies.
But these are fraught times in Los Angeles, with more than 40,000 people living in trash-strewn homeless encampments and rusty RVs, distress over brazen smash-and-grab robberies and home invasions while inflation and taxes are gouging wallets -- gas in a region built on car travel has cracked $6 a gallon. Rents and home prices have soared.
Caruso is spending millions of his estimated $4.3 billion fortune to finance a seemingly nonstop display of TV and online ads to tap into voter angst. At issue is whether enough people will embrace his plans to add 1,500 police officers and promises to get unhoused people off the streets, while not recoiling from his vast wealth.
Twelve names are on the ballot for the primary election that ends June 7, though several candidates have dropped out and the race is shaping up as a fight between Caruso and Democratic U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who was on then-President elect Joe Biden’s shortlist for vice president.
If no candidate clears 50% — which is likely with a crowded ballot — the top two finishers advance to a November runoff. Bass could become the first woman to hold the office and the second Black person.
Bass and Caruso are not well known in a city that can be notoriously indifferent to local politics.
“Part of this is going to be how people feel about them as they get to know them better. We don’t know the answer to that,” said veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who thinks voters are looking for solutions for homelessness and crime, not obsessing with past political affiliations. The contest is technically nonpartisan.
Bass, 68, is a favorite of the party's progressive wing, while Caruso, 63, is a political shape-shifter who calls himself a "centrist, pro-jobs, pro-public safety Democrat.”
According to government records, he was a Republican for over two decades before becoming an independent in 2011. Caruso changed back to Republican in 2016 — a year when he served as California campaign co-chair for Republican John Kasich's presidential bid — and then to independent again in 2019. He became a Democrat shortly before entering the mayor's race in February.
He's donated to candidates in both parties, which has led to criticism from Democrats who point to his financial support for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, among others. And he's been routinely attacked for an opulent lifestyle, including owning a 9-bedroom yacht.
The mayor’s race is one of several competitive contests in the state’s primary where political loyalties are being tested by questions about the direction of California's dominant Democratic Party, which holds every statewide office and commanding margins in the Legislature and congressional delegation.
Voters in San Francisco are considering whether to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a Democrat who critics say has failed to prosecute repeat offenders, while Democratic state Attorney General Rob Bonta is facing several challengers who assert he favors criminal justice reform over crime victims, which he disputes.
A looming question in Los Angeles is who will show up. About 80% of voters didn’t cast ballots when outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti was reelected in 2017.
There is a deep dismay with government across Los Angeles. A major challenge for Caruso, Bass and other rivals — including city Councilman Kevin de Leon, a former Democratic leader in the state Senate — will be convincing voters change is possible.
A case in point: Gas station owner Wignesh Kandavel. He says his complaints have gone unheard for years about homeless people setting up campsites around a freeway overpass just steps from his pumps and convenience market.
Sagging tents and trash are cleared from time to time, only to have homeless people return again. He says drug use is rampant, shoplifting a constant problem and panhandling at the freeway exits a daily routine.
The Nigerian immigrant and registered Republican who came to the U.S. in search of a better life has lost interest in the election and doesn’t see any candidate as credible.
“The whole system is gone,” Kandavel said.
Caruso’s ascendancy in the race — polls show him closely matched with Bass — has alarmed longtime Democrats who are attacking him as a poseur trying to buy the job. His campaign has raised about $30 million, most of it his money.
There is the expected competition over celebrity endorsements — Earvin “Magic” Johnson is backing Bass, while Caruso has Snoop Dogg and Gwyneth Paltrow behind him. Already, the rivalry is taking on a nasty edge, particularly in ads from groups supporting the candidates.
Bass’ commercials recall her work as a physician's assistant during the crack epidemic and her time in Congress and the Legislature. But the police union that endorsed Caruso is running ads that attempt to link Bass to a federal corruption case involving her longtime friend, suspended city Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. She calls the ads lies.
Caruso’s advertising touts his immigrant grandparents, philanthropic endeavors and promise to work for $1 a year. But ads being run by an independent group backing Bass and funded by unions and former Disney studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg depict Caruso as an L.A. version of former President Donald Trump who is attempting to conceal an “extreme” record.
Retired public defender Paul Enright said he was undecided in the mayor’s race but turned off by Caruso’s spending spree that totals more than the other candidates combined. A Democrat who supports public financing for campaigns, he is leaning toward Bass or de Leon.
It’s a “classic example of how money talks,” Enright said.