A Caruso Candidacy Could Lead to an Epic Mayoral Election Battle

Cityside Column: The newly registered Democrat will find supporters–also encounter a lot of hostility on the campaign trail

The best Los Angeles political speech I ever saw was Antonio Villaraigosa’s 2005 inaugural address, when his “Dream With Me” theme sang to the unlimited potential of the city.

The second best speech, and by far the most entertaining, was delivered by Rick Caruso on May 12, 2011, at Downtown’s Biltmore Hotel. I’d say that the address, “Los Angeles: A New Kind of Leadership,” tore the political class a new one, but that understates things. Caruso fired off so much artillery from the podium that I got two columns out of it.

“What’s happening in Los Angeles is frankly painful to me,” the mall developer said that day, adding, “We don’t need political lifers.” In case that was too subtle, he later remarked, “I strongly believe that City Hall is a roadblock that’s keeping Los Angeles from reaching its potential.”

Caruso left no stone unturned and no bridge unburned. He compared arriving at LAX to “landing at any third-world country on the face of the Earth” and described the Los Angeles Unified School District  as “an educational gulag from which we have to free our children.” When the topic of trying to build an NFL stadium in the city arose, he stated that some council members “have a tough time spelling the word football.”

I mention this because, at the time he delivered this speech, the field was forming for the 2013 mayor’s race, and Caruso was considering running, making the address a cross between a trial balloon and a Molotov cocktail. Yet despite the City Hall broadsides and his seeming appetite to bring a business sensibility to local politics after a recession and Villaraigosa’s disappointing reign, Caruso never threw his hat in the ring. Eric Garcetti would go on to beat Wendy Greuel in the runoff and become mayor.

Flash forward 11 years and there is a resounding belief that, with Garcetti termed out and a primary in June, Caruso will shortly announce his run for mayor. A Los Angeles Times story last week boosted his already high profile. The following day, Caruso did something dramatic: He announced on Twitter—his second tweet ever—that after long being registered as a “no party preference” voter, he had shifted his political affiliation to Democrat.

Also read: L.A. Mayoral Race Fundraising: Who’s Pulling in the Most Cash?

The rest of his lengthy statement laid as much ground for a 2022 mayoral run as the 2011 speech did, though without the fireworks. In something sure to appear on a zillion mailers, he christened himself a “Get Real, Can Do Democrat.” He professed that his public safety M.O. is “not hamstringing our police but helping them be better,” and that, “my kind of Democrat will bring businesses that create jobs to our city and not chase them away.”

So will Caruso declare his candidacy before the Feb. 12 filing deadline? Sounds like it. Then again, it sounded like he was going to run before. There are untold possibilities for why a billionaire known for developing the Grove and the Americana on Brand might enter the race. But there are almost as many for why he would skip the whole thing. The main reasons he would run are a) because he truly believes he is the antidote to what ails City Hall, and b) he thinks he will win.

Remember, Caruso doesn’t need to get 50 percent of the vote in the June primary; he just has to finish second to make the November runoff. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass is currently favored to finish first in June, leaving the door open for another candidate to advance to the second round with about 25 percent of the vote. If Caruso connects with a swath of somewhat conservative voters and others tired of traditional politicians, then his path is clear.

Making it clearer is his bank account. He’ll hire the best advisors money can buy. And while other candidates spend hours begging for $1,500 donations (the maximum individual amount allowed in Los Angeles) Caruso could just write himself a check. His pollsters have long been querying voters, and with top-shelf political consultant Ace Smith on the payroll, Caruso will be able to launch his campaign at overdrive.

While Caruso’s war chest will be unmatched, this is no field of amateurs; in addition to Bass, four other prominent politicians are carving their own lanes and are not at all conflicted about making life very difficult for Candidate Caruso.

City Attorney Mike Feuer has the experience of winning two citywide elections, and although he stands to get tagged for his office’s role in the messy DWP scandal, Feuer has a devoted Westside base who have voted for him many times over two decades. District 15 Councilman  Joe Buscaino has already spent months appealing to law-and-order voters frustrated by homeless encampments, and he’s not one to shrink from a fight. District 14’s Kevin de León has extensive statewide experience, deep Democratic party and union ties, and a hefty Latino base. Then there’s Jessica Lall, the president and CEO of the Central City Association, who has ample respect and supporters in the business community.

Can Caruso beat one or two of these challengers? For sure. Can he finish ahead of all four, when each could claw some of the votes he needs to reach the runoff? Maybe.

By the way, for every bomb Caruso tosses, his opponents will launch three or four his way. Expect that his possibly opportunistic and very recent switch to Democratic party affiliation to be brought up relentlessly in an overwhelmingly Blue city. There will also be many, many mentions of Caruso’s past donations to Republicans, including, as the Times reported, a committee backing Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who is despised in Los Angeles. And one can envision mailers that remind voters of the sexual assault and scandals that took place at USC while Caruso was chair of the board of trustees. Also, expect attack ads that make a meal of his 215-foot yacht Invictus (Latin for “invincible”). If you want to question whether a mayoral candidate can connect with Angelenos living paycheck to paycheck, yachts make an excellent talking point.

Of course, Caruso knows full well what will be flung at him, and if his campaign advisors are on the ball, will have plausible responses primed. Plus, the worst probably won’t come from the candidates themselves but from interest groups backing them. Law enforcement unions supporting Buscaino in particular are guaranteed to bring the nasty.

So: Caruso definitely has a path to the runoff, but the four intervening months until election day would be brutal for a guy habituated  to controlling the narrative; he’ll instead be forced, over and over, to answer hostile questions from endorsement panels, community groups and rank-and-file voters.

Caruso has to determine not only if he thinks he can win, but if it’s worth it. We’ll find out soon enough.

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