Election 2022: ‘Daily disorder’ was on the ballot in the Caruso vs. Bass race for LA mayor

From among a field of nine candidates for mayor, Los Angeles voters have chosen Congresswoman Karen Bass and billionaire businessman Rick Caruso to face off in the November general election, a litmus test of sorts that will measure the angst and hope of the city.

While many had predicted the two would head to a runoff, some observers said Caruso’s 40.53% of ballots counted by Friday evening, putting him ahead of veteran politician Bass who had 38.76% in the same batch of results, was something of a surprise.

In the race for Los Angeles mayor, developer Rick Caruso had 40.53% and Congresswoman Karen Bass had 38.76%, according returns reported just before 4 p.m. Friday, June 10 by the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder.

That outcome was thanks in part to more than $40 million Caruso spent to catch up to early leader Bass, who has a long history in L.A. politics, according to Darry Sragow, a former campaign consultant for state Assembly’s Democrats.

“It’s important to not read a lot into the results,” Sragow said. “Caruso spent tens of millions of dollars to allow voters in Los Angeles to get to know him … He got his money’s worth.”

Sragow said Bass was never going to be able to match Caruso’s spending, so it would not have helped had she poured her more finite resources into the primary.

He explained that the assumption is that “the people who are more inclined to vote for Karen Bass were less inclined to turnout in the primary,” so it made more sense for Bass to focus her energies on at least placing second, and then raising money to spend toward winning in November.

But others said that money was not the only key to Caruso’s rise in the primary.

Political observer Joel Kotkin said Caruso didn’t squander his financial advantage like other wealthy candidates who have tried and failed to get elected into top political offices in California.

“Very often you get candidates with money, but they have no discipline, and they spend it stupidly or they they say stupid things, and there’s been less of that,” Kotkin said, citing the unsuccessful bids for office by Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post; former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina.

Kotkin, a fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, saw a parallel between former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, and Caruso, who as a former Republican doesn’t fit the profile of a candidate who can typically win an election in a Democrat-leaning city like Los Angeles.

Both Caruso and Riordan are “traditional, mainstream Republicans,” Kotkin said. “Rick can dress up as a Democrat, you know, but I don’t think that’s who he is.”

He drew a comparison to the popular Riordan, elected in 1993 shortly after the L.A. riots and re-elected in 1997, soundly beating well-known politician and civil rights activist Tom Hayden, 61% to 28%. Today “L.A. isn’t having riots, it’s just having daily disorder,” Kotkin said. He points to the city’s homelessness crisis, an uptick in crime, the smash-and-grab robberies that captured news headlines, and the Union Pacific train robberies, as examples.

The outcome of the primary helps to cast Caruso as “a credible candidate who could win,” Kotkin said. “It doesn’t mean that he will win, but it will make the race much more interesting.”

Even though the city elections are nonpartisan, the role of the Democratic Party could feature heavily as part of Bass’s campaign heading to November. Democratic political strategist Bill Carrick explained that Los Angeles voters are “overwhelmingly Democratic … so they are more secure voting for Democrats.”

But Carrick also noted that Los Angeles voters may not base their choice for 43rd mayor on party affiliation. “So far, the voters are schizophrenic on this,” Carrick said. “But they also want to see change, and they’re looking for a new leadership.”

“They’re focused on two issues — homelessness and crime,” Carrick said, “and they are probably going to make a judgment on who they think can do a better job of solving those two really difficult issues.”

The race could hinge on “how somebody can articulate their solution to these issues in a way that the voters are gonna say, ‘That’s a hell of a good idea,’” Carrick said.

Facing those strong currents, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party is expected to serve as a powerful ally to Bass. The county party declined to put its weight behind a candidate in the primary, but is preparing to jump in and unite behind a pick for the November general election, said party chair Mark Gonzalez.

While the endorsement process for the Bass-Caruso runoff has not begun, Gonzalez said they will likely champion Bass. He described Bass as the “leader our city needs” and a “respected activist who’s been, our whole life, running toward crises — and not watching them from afar.”

Caruso, who recently registered as a Democrat, did not seek its support in the primary.

Gonzalez acknowledged that Caruso hit a chord with many voters, noting, “numbers are facts. … He did well because his message resonated with Angelenos who are fed up with the status quo.”

If Caruso becomes mayor, Gonzalez said, Caruso and the Democratic Party would not be able to avoid each other — and Caruso should make good on his recent membership in the party because it “isn’t going anywhere,” Gonzalez said.

With so many voters going against the city’s status quo by favoring Caruso, some progressive groups are saying that the frustration among voters contributed to Bass’s underwhelming performance in the primary.

Brittani Nichols, an organizer with Ground Game L.A., a burgeoning progressive group seeking to upend traditional politics in Los Angeles, says that Bass, who often points to her start as a Los Angeles activist, threw away an opportunity to win the mayor’s race in the primary. 

Bass abandoned progressive positions championed by local organizers and activists who had been among her top supporters, Nichols said, who further remarked, “Everyone was initially excited when she entered the race, and she did almost everything in her power to dampen that excitement.” Bass’s “bullet points don’t even stray that far apart from what Caruso is saying.”

“You have people that are constantly asking, ‘How do we attack these problems? Why is it that what we’re doing isn’t working?” she said.

Nichols noted that both Bass and third-place mayoral candidate Kevin de Leon support the city’s anti-camping law adopted by the City Council as a tool for quickly cracking down on homeless encampments. Nichols accused Bass and other candidates of “talking in circles.” 

Ground Game L.A. had its highest profile victory in L.A. politics in 2020 when the group pushed for candidate Nithya Raman, who unseated Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu despite his endorsement from the Democratic Party. On Tuesday, June 8, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, although endorsed by the party, was forced into a runoff with Hugo Soto-Martinez, backed by Ground Game L.A.

Ground Game’s preferred candidate also made the runoff in 11th Los Angeles City Council District which includes troubled Venice, a community gripped in a polarizing battle over how to address homelessness.

But even though voters appear to be ready for change, Dick Platkin, a former Los Angeles city planner, said that in the years he worked at the city, under both Democratic and Republican mayors, he has seen little improve, so he argues that the “status quo” is unlikely to change whether voters choose Bass or Caruso.

Caruso and Bass do not appear to be very different, he said. “The appearance would be different, the rhetoric would be different,” he said. “But if you look at the actual policies that are pursued in the city budget, I doubt there’d be a qualitative difference.”

He said that mayoral candidates are reaching for a simplistic strategies. “We know that in L.A. (being) tough on crime has periodically been a very effective electoral strategy,” said Platkin, who now writes a column on the website CityWatchLA.

But he called this shortsighted. Following the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020, there were “temporary” changes made to the city’s budgeting process, but that didn’t last, he said. “It was able to, at least in the short run, change the conversation, but things like that would have to continue wide-scale, long-term to be successful.”

He suggests that those who run for mayor of L.A. and propose “comprehensive answers and solutions” don’t have the funding to compete. “I mean,” Platkin said, “there’s – what’s her name? Viola? … I think she got five or 10% of the vote. She had a more comprehensive view, but she doesn’t have $40 million of her own money that can magnify her image.”