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LA Voters Face Choice Between Billionaire and Political Vet for Mayor

·5 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Los Angeles voters are heading to the polls with two very different mayoral candidates leading the pack: Rick Caruso, a billionaire one-time Republican making his first bid for elected office, and veteran Democratic politician and former community activist Karen Bass.

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Polls show the likely outcome of Tuesday’s election will be a runoff vote between Caruso and Bass, with City Councilmember Kevin de Leon ranking a distant third. Unless one candidate gets more than 50% support in the nonpartisan primary, the top two vote-getters will face off in a Nov. 8 general election.

The campaign in the liberal-leaning city takes place as frustration grows over soaring homelessness, crime rates and housing costs. Voters hungry for change have helped boost Caruso and his law-and-order agenda in the polls in recent months, and he’s used his personal wealth to vastly outspend his competitors.

The ultimate winner will have an opportunity to reshape the policy agenda in America’s second-largest city for the first time in almost nine years, since Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti was initially elected.

Bass, 68, has served as a Democratic Congresswoman since 2011, following six years in the California Legislature, the last two as Assembly Speaker. She was on the shortlist of 2020 running-mates for Joe Biden, and Bass says her connections in Sacramento and Washington will help bring money and resources to pay for the housing and other social services needed to clean up the city.

If elected, she would be the city’s first female mayor and the second Black person. Bass’s campaign had $4.74 million in contributions through June 1, according to filings with Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

“I’m talking to the administration now,” Bass said in a March interview. “I’m trying to work on this stuff now.”

Jeanne Sheehan Zaino, an Iona College professor of political science, said Bass has her own public-safety action plan but she’s had a hard time getting that message across.

“She has found herself in a position of defending the progressive policies as it pertains to issues of crime safety and homelessness,” she said in an interview on Bloomberg TV.

Caruso, 63, has blanketed social media and mailboxes with campaign ads financed by $37.5 million in personal loans to his campaign, cultivating an image as a political outsider with the business chops to run a city. He’s pledged to provide beds for 30,000 homeless in his first 300 days, hire 1,500 additional uniformed police officers, and to cut red tape in city hall.

“Every problem continues to get worse,” Caruso said in an interview last month. “Crime continues to go up. More people are ending up on the streets. You got more businesses moving out, we’ve got more people moving out. There’s a lot that needs to be turned around.”

Caruso’s spending blitz “does not necessarily add up to victory,” Rick Davis, a partner at Stonecourt Capital who previously worked on the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush said on Bloomberg TV. “But in that case, his message discipline has been incredible. It’s thrust him into the lead in this very close race.”

Angelenos have been bombarded by negative ads during the campaign. Spots financed by Bass ally and movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg liken Caruso, a former Republican who registered in January as a Democrat, to Donald Trump, a depiction Caruso said was “lying” about his record. An ad sponsored by the union representing Los Angeles police officers accused Bass of corruption for accepting free tuition from the University of Southern California and then voting to send federal funds to the institution. Bass described the ads as defamatory and demanded they be removed.

De Leon, 55, was elected to the city council in 2020, succeeding Jose Huizar who was indicted on federal charges for allegedly taking bribes from downtown developers. De Leon has served in the California State Senate, including as President pro Tempore. He lost a 2018 run for US Senate to incumbent Dianne Feinstein.

The ballot has a total of 12 names, including City Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who dropped out to endorse Caruso, and City Attorney Mike Feuer, who left the race to support Bass. Because it’s LA, numerous celebrities have also weighed in. Bass is backed by Magic Johnson and Jennifer Aniston, while Caruso’s supporters include Kim Kardashian and Snoop Dogg, as well as billionaire Elon Musk.

Garcetti, whose nomination last year as US ambassador to India has been languishing in the Senate, is barred by term limits from running again.

California’s gubernatorial primary also is taking place on Tuesday, with the top two finishers moving on to the November ballot. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who handily beat a recall vote last year, is expected to win a place alongside one of about two dozen other contenders.

Senator Alex Padilla, who was appointed to the post by Newsom to the seat vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris, will appear on the ballot twice -- once for the rest of Harris’s term and another for a new term beginning next year. He’s facing a field of more than 20 opponents, led by Republican attorney Mark Meuser.

(Updates with commentary from 8th paragraph.)

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