Joe Buscaino Positions Himself as the ‘Clean Streets’ Candidate for L.A. Mayor

The cop-turned-councilman drops an ad a year before Election Day and plays the public safety card

When it comes to Los Angeles mayoral elections, there are a few guiding truths. One is that the race is a marathon, not a sprint. A second is that defining one’s identity is crucial, particularly in a city of 4 million where many people may be totally unfamiliar with a politician who lives on the other side of town. A third, often overlooked truth, is that the race is actually two races, and they can be completely different: In the primary, which takes place next June, it’s not about winning, but just about getting enough votes to finish in the top two and advance to the November runoff. In the last contested mayoral primary, in 2013, Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel moved to the second round with, respectively, a mere 33 percent and 29 percent of the vote.

Those truths mashed together last Thursday morning for Joe Buscaino. The District 15 councilman, who launched his mayoral campaign in March, held a short press conference in downtown to unveil his first ad. It’s called “Clean Streets,” is filled with images of sprawling, trash-laden tent encampments, and showcases his effort to grab the public-safety-first platform before a competitor claims it.

The San Pedro-based Buscaino plans to drop a wagon-load of cash.

“This early, unprecedented six-figure investment nearly a year before election day is unheard of in the race for mayor of Los Angeles,” he said, a statement which was also true, because right now almost no one is paying attention to the political happenings of June 2022.

Buscaino’s remarks were delivered before a small crowd in a hotel ballroom. It was a complete 180 from a few weeks ago, when he visited Venice Beach for another safety-oriented campaign event, only for chaos to erupt when a security guard spied a woman holding a knife and Buscaino was hustled Secret Service-style into a nearby car.

“Clean Streets” takes the tack of addressing the Los Angeles homelessness crisis compassionately, without giving up the card of utilizing law enforcement when necessary. “As Mayor, I’ll offer anyone living on our streets a place to stay,” Buscaino states in the video. “If they refuse to leave, they could face citation or arrest.”

That message is anathema to progressives in Los Angeles. The left wing of local Democratic party ranks has vociferously argued that it is unfair to crack down on unhoused individuals when there is a severe lack of affordable housing. The matter came to a head in May when the tent encampment at Echo Park Lake was shut down, and the anger still simmers. There is an organized, anti-police constituency that is active on social media, and indeed, people have already directed lashes at Buscaino, asserting that he is uncaring.

They may not agree with the aspiring mayor, but they’re wrong about the lack of compassion. For years I have followed City Hall’s often bungled attempts to address homelessness, and Buscaino has pushed harder than many council members to build projects in his district for people living on the streets. Four Bridge Home temporary shelters have opened in District 15, more than any other council district to date (according to data from the mayor’s office), and those don’t happen without the council rep clearing landmines. Long before the mayor’s race, I saw Buscaino at events where discussions of the homelessness crisis brought him nearly to tears.

The dude does care.

Another thing to know about Buscaino is that, before he was a politician, he was a cop for 15 years, building his base and creating community connections as a senior lead officer in San Pedro. The placard on his podium at the Thursday event bore the headline “A Safer L.A.,” and that’s a message likely to resonate with Angelenos fed up with encampments that have swallowed sidewalks and overwhelmed parks and other public places. Facts such as homicides in the city being 25 percent above last year’s level, and shooting victims up 50 percent, will only heighten the concerns. Buscaino’s path to the runoff lies in convincing people that he is more likely than anyone else to make neighborhoods safer.

The timing of the new ad is interesting. Buscaino entered the mayor’s race a year after City Attorney Mike Feuer launched his bid; Feuer had a strong initial fundraising period, and with two successful citywide campaigns under his belt, he is likely known by more Angelenos. He too recently released a web ad, an amusing get-to-know-me piece with Jason Alexander voicing the role of his mustache. No, I’m not making that up.

Buscaino’s ad is also a preventative play before the next round of heavy hitters joins the race. Councilmembers Mark-Ridley Thomas, Kevin de León, and City Council President Nury Martinez are all being widely discussed as possible mayoral candidates, and each could launch a bid in the coming months. Political observers also continue to watch figures including mall developer Rick Caruso, outgoing L.A. Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner, and Central City Association President and CEO Jessica Lall. All of these figures have deep connections and the ability to raise a lot of cash. One can be sure that each also has campaign strategists whispering in their ear about how they could win.

Buscaino said that as mayor, his first message would be to members of the LAPD, to “say that they are blessed, that they are supported by the mayor, they are appreciated, because today our LAPD officers have been demoralized.”

As time wears on, expect Buscaino to hone the safety message. He began Thursday’s event by mentioning that in New York City, former police officer Eric Adams finished first in the mayoral primary (with 31.7 percent). Buscaino said that as mayor, his first message would be to members of the LAPD, to “say that they are blessed, that they are supported by the mayor, they are appreciated, because today our LAPD officers have been demoralized.”

How precisely he hopes to shape the department is unknown. When asked if as mayor he would seek to expand the ranks of the LAPD, or boost its budget, he would not give a specific answer. When asked a second time, he still demurred. Fair enough—candidates often withhold details this early in a mayor’s race.

There are more than 11 months until election day. Buscaino knows he has a lot of work to do, and knows as well that many people think he can’t win against bigger names. During Thursday’s event, he referenced his first run for council in 2013, when he also faced off against a cadre of prominent politicians, and dusted all of them. He used it as a template for what is to come.

“I’ll be taking my message directly to the people,” Buscaino said, “but if anyone doesn’t know how I ran my council race, feel free to ask my former opponents.”

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