How Karen Bass Won the Summer

Cityside Column: The congresswoman’s busy-bee schedule has earned a lot of headlines, while rival Rick Caruso has been generally quiet

The mayoral election is still three months away, and much will happen before Angelenos choose a successor to Eric Garcetti—as we slog through hot days and creep towards Nov. 8, one thing is certain: Karen Bass has won the summer.

To be clear, winning the summer provides no guarantee that Bass is going to win the mayoral election. When it comes time to cast ballots in November, few voters will remember that Bass had a busy-bee schedule while mall master Rick Caruso seems to have taken a season-long gulp of sleepy time tea. Still, if there’s a choice between winning the summer and losing it, winning is always better—particularly if it helps build momentum for the post-Labor Day period when voters really start to pay attention.

The Bass burst began almost immediately after the June 7 primary. Weirdly, the molasses-slow vote count played to her advantage, as each ballot update sparked new headlines about her growing lead. The congresswoman ultimately finished with 43.1 percent of the vote and a 7-point advantage over Caruso. That enabled her team to chest-thump about a clear victory, though it was not enough to pretend that she suddenly had a mandate from voters. This race is up in the air and beware of anyone who harrumphs that a larger liberal turnout in November makes Bass a lock; only about 30 percent of eligible voters participated in June, meaning plenty was left on the table for both candidates.

The Bass campaign held its first post-primary event on June 9—a press conference to announce support from the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters. A bevy of other unions has since come over to the Bass camp, including a teamsters brigade and the prominent Laborers International Union of North America Local 300. On July 18, she notched the backing of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which can put the proverbial boots on the ground for a candidate—when it chooses to do so.

Bass has scheduled a cascade of events to keep her in front of small groups and, more importantly, TV cameras. That includes an Aug. 5 happening at Olvera Street, where she was touted by the group Las Mujeres Por Karen Bass.
At that point, the big guns came out with the announcement of endorsements from high-profile pols and organizations. The L.A. County Democratic Party endorsed her on June 14. Sen. Elizabeth Warren stepped up on July 19; nine days later, Hillary Clinton backed Bass. The summer apex was the Aug. 2 endorsement from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and the hits keep coming. On Wednesday morning, Sen. Alex Padilla endorsed Bass as part of a continued and concerted effort from her camp to woo Latino voters.

None of these endorsements are a surprise. Bass has been a stalwart Democrat for decades, with extensive relationships across the state and in Washington, D.C. It’s not like any of those backing her were on the fence and considering picking Caruso, a former Republican whose most prominent political endorsement probably comes from the councilman and his former rival for mayor, Joe Buscaino. That said, surprises can happen—Caruso still boasts the most intriguing and unexpected endorsement of the cycle, which came in May with the backing of rapper Snoop Dogg.

The reason all of this matters for the Bass campaign is that it represents a shift in strategy from the primary race. The longtime congressional rep announced her mayoral candidacy in September and was met with a tsunami of enthusiasm. A campaign launch event at L.A. Trade-Tech College drew more than 700 people and Bass was swiftly proclaimed the race’s frontrunner ahead of several City Hall veterans.

But as 2021 bled into 2022, her campaign appeared to hit coast mode. While I have no idea if the curiously quiet period helped inspire Caruso to enter the fray, one can question what would have happened if Bass had maintained her momentum. Whatever the case, there was an opening, and Caruso burst through it in February—it felt as if he was spending like his cash would be no good after Election Day. He seized control of the narrative and, though it looks silly now, there was even a period when people were discussing whether Caruso could eclipse 50 percent on election night and avoid a runoff.

Bass’ everything-everywhere approach has another benefit: These big names can help with fundraising. While a clutch of political, business and entertainment-industry supporters will instantly donate the maximum individual amount allowed of $1,500, touting the backing of Biden, Harris, Padilla and the rest of the Democratic Party infrastructure could persuade more supporters to write checks. If it also prompts Jeffrey Katzenberg and his bigwig associates, who are part of the largest independent expenditure group backing Bass, to throw more money her way, all the better for her campaign.

Political campaigns are all about strategy, and Caruso’s squad clearly made a decision to lay low after the primary votes were tallied. The billionaire developer’s most attention-worthy move this summer was slamming Bass for endorsing Faisal Gill, the city attorney candidate—a nod she has since withdrawn.

Caruso has a defined message, along with a crack squad of advisors, and if they have chosen to cede the hot months to Bass, then it’s likely because they feel that they can ramp up whenever they choose. The mogul spent an astounding $41.5 million during the primary race, totaling nearly nine times the $4.75 million Bass dropped. One has to assume his team has circled a date on the calendar for when the next TV ad blitz will begin.

All this portends that it will be a fractious and combative autumn. Yes, Bass may have won the summer, but ultimately, the only result that matters is who finishes first on Nov. 8.

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