This year, the famed mall tycoon changed his registration, hired one of the state’s top Democratic consultancies, betting that a platform based on cleaning up homelessness and crime could push the electorate in his direction.
So far it seems to be working – much to the chagrin of liberal Angelenos.
“That’s not the kind of mayor a heavily Democratic city like Los Angeles deserves,” said Garry South, a Los Angeles Democratic adviser who has served on previous mayoral races. “If you look at his background, he doesn’t reflect the heavily Democratic values that voters support in Los Angeles.”
Despite jumping into a crowded field at the last minute, Caruso is now neck and neck with progressive Democratic representative Karen Bass† He has captured a deep bank of celebrity endorsements — including rapper Snoop Dogg and Kim Kardashian — and has spent more than $37.5 million of his personal fortune funding his campaign. He has flooded the Los Angeles airwaves with ads, promising to “clean up” the homelessness, add more officers to the police force and “stop the corruption at City Hall.”
Bass is a formidable candidate: a well-known Democratic congresswoman with a long history of activism in both LA and the State Capitol. But the city’s voice class, concerned about camps and crime, seem drawn to Caruso’s sparkling vision of a cleaner, safer Los Angeles.
It’s the culmination of decades of deep civic engagement, from the police commission to the USC administration, which he is now trying to use, along with his fortune, to take control of the city’s most powerful office.
California, like the rest of the nation, has experienced a surge in crime following the pandemic. Upward trends in property and violent crime are being felt in Los Angeles, where homicides are up 13 percent in 2021 and robberies are up 6 percent, according to city crime statistics.
Some accuse Caruso of sow fear — inflating the threat of crime to collect votes. While it’s true that the numbers are nowhere near the crime spike Angelenos saw in the 1990s, voters still say public safety is one of their top concerns going to the polls.
With low turnout expected for Tuesday’s election, a large proportion of those voting in the primary race will likely be older, whiter and wealthier. If Caruso gets more than 50 percent of the vote, he will outright win the mayoralty. That would mark a monumental shift in a city that has embraced liberal reformers in recent years, highlighting the challenges progressive candidates face in the national polls.
Caruso has interpreted his bid for mayor as a personal conviction – he promised to work for just a dollar a year to save his hometown from the inundation of violent crime and street camps. But his mayoral aspirations aren’t new, and some Angelenos wonder whether a wealthy Republican turned independent and Democrat with a hard-hitting crime spree has a clear plan to run a city of nearly 4 million, or whether he’s just looking to spend his way to power.
Caruso’s party registration has fluctuated between Republican and Independent, switching three times between 2011 and 2019. He first became a Democrat in January, just weeks before the deadline to enter the race — and didn’t bother getting the L.A. seek the support of the County Democratic Party, as do its fellow candidates. Opponents have also objected to his recent full support for abortion rights, with groups like Planned Parenthood tarnishing his reputation of donating to anti-abortion politicians and organizations.
“In every way, Caruso has reinvented itself. He’s taken opposing stances to everything he originally stood for,” said John Shallman, a longtime political adviser who recently led the mayoral campaign of Los Angeles Attorney Mike Feuer. Feuer dropped out of the race last month, backing Bass.
One of Caruso’s campaign promises is to run LA’s housing division more like his real estate business, declaring a state of emergency for homelessness and bypassing the city council on certain affordable housing decisions — which city officials say he has no power to do. . Unlike some cities — such as New York and Chicago — where mayors exercise excessive influence, Los Angeles statutes divide power between the mayor and the 15 councilors who represent their districts.
Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson argued that a local state of emergency gives the mayor very limited powers and does not allow them to act independently of the council. That kind of political rhetoric, he said, rests on “the naivete of the electorate” and is disturbing given Caruso’s involvement in government.
“This is why the ‘I can do it myself, I’m the rescuer’ trope is a little tired and dangerous,” he said. “Those of us who do the work in the trenches, we know what the rules are and we know what can and can’t be done.”
Since launching his holding company in 1987 (thanks in part to the success of his father’s car rental business), Caruso has been cast as a friendly, Gatsby-esque businessman who runs his luxury malls with generosity and grace. A 2003 Los Angeles Times column described Caruso at the Grove, one of his landmark Los Angeles developments, which “was received royally” as “the center of attention in his own Magic Kingdom.”
“The Grove reflects Caruso’s fiery re-creation of Los Angeles as a safe, harmonious place,” Miles Beller wrote for the Times. “Where kids frolic, families meander arm in arm and the city spins with the smooth, clockwork efficiency of Disneyland.”
Caruso has worked to expand his presence elsewhere, including the USC Board of Trustees, where he became chairman in 2018 following a campus sex abuse scandal and helped negotiate a $1.1 billion dollar settlement with the victims. and Pepperdine University, whose law school takes his name. The Catholic Center of the USC is also named after him.
Perhaps most notably, he served on the Los Angeles Police Commission for five years, two of which as president. At the time, he was a registered Republican.
It’s a job he often touts in campaigns and advertisements, claiming that he has reformed the police force and that crime in the city fell by more than 30 percent shortly after he took power. But the LA Times recently found that Caruso missed 40 percent of police commission meetings. Among the city’s longtime political viewers, his role in reducing crime has been a point of contention.
As chairman of the committee, “You are literally a sock puppet to the mayor,” Democratic adviser Mike Trujillo said. Trujillo, who previously helped elect Antonio Villaraigosa to the mayor’s office, worked on Councilor Joe Buscaino’s mayoral campaign until he quit. Buscaino now backs Caruso, but Trujillo backs Bass.
Caruso said in an interview last week that his attendance rate was “in the 90th percentile” for the first two years. He did not dispute his irregular attendance in the following years, but said he spent more time in the community during that period.
“I did a series of community-wide listening sessions because it was important to me that we were responsive to the needs of the community,” said Caruso. “But I never missed anything that was critical or that I wasn’t aware of or was not informed about.”
Shallman, who has worked for the mayors of Los Angeles since Republican Richard Riordan won in 1993, said he believes Caruso too much credit for a 2002 commission decision to replace a controversial police chief† That move – controversial at the time – is now seen as a critical step forward for the Los Angeles Police Department a decade after Rodney King’s videotaped beating by police officers sparked riots in the city.
The Caruso-led Police Commission declined to recommend then-police chief Bernard Parks, who is black, for a second term. LAPD led by Parks has been plagued by corruption scandals, but the decision sparked outrage and protests among some black residents.
Caruso portrays himself in his campaign ads as the person who orchestrated the move to leave Parks and bring in former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. However, Shallman and others say it was then-Mayor James Hahn who was the driving force behind the decision and that he recruited Caruso to the Police Commission to help. That characterization has been disputed by some who worked in Hahn’s administration at the time, who say that while Caruso did not act unilaterally, he did play a crucial role in LAPD’s course correction.
The decision to extend Parks’ term was in the hands of the police commission, Caruso said, adding that he recommended not extending him. “I felt strongly that leadership needed to change and I was able to convince my fellow commissioners that this was the right thing to do,” he said.
He also noted that during his time on the commission, he worked to increase community involvement and diversify the police force.
Some observers say Caruso’s run for mayor is just the latest chapter in the wealthy resident’s quest for political power, evoking the last time a conservative businessman — Riordan — was elected mayor nearly 30 years ago. The attitude has certainly changed since then, but no one is denying that Caruso has gotten a lot of attention.
“If he were a semi-successful CPA, we wouldn’t be talking about him,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and an expert in campaign and election ethics. “But what we often see with self-financed candidates is that money is not enough. And that’s why I think he’s competitive, because he’s trying to stick with a story that he thinks will meet the voters where they are.”