One year and one pandemic after the first prominent City Hall figure entered the mayor’s race, a second has joined him.
This morning Joe Buscaino filed papers to begin raising money for the 2022 mayor’s race. He will give up his District 15 council seat, which he has held since 2012, as part of his quest to succeed Eric Garcetti, who will be termed out next year.
In a morning conversation with Los Angeles, Buscaino equated his entry into the race with his responsibilities in his pre-council gig as an LAPD Senior Lead Officer patrolling his native San Pedro.
“As a police officer I responded Code 3, lights and sirens, to emergencies,” Buscaino said. “There is a state of emergency today in Los Angeles as it relates to clean streets, crime, homelessness, economic development, and jobs as we crush this virus and pivot to recovery.”
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While Buscaino is popular in his district, he may be unknown to many Angelenos. That’s in part because the bulk of District 15 is nestled down by the Port of Los Angeles, and is tethered to the rest of the city only by a thin strip running through South L.A. The district also includes Watts and Wilmington.
Buscaino has overcome long odds before. He was far from the favorite when he first ran for public office to fill a vacated council seat. A grassroots campaign built on the base of his SLO role enabled him to come in first in a field of 11 in the primary. In the runoff he walloped former state Assembly member Warren Furutani.
Buscaino was easily re-elected in 2013 and 2017, and has bolstered his resume with roles including serving as president of the National League of Cities in 2019. He chairs the council’s Trade, Travel and Tourism Committee and is a member of the Homelessness and Poverty Committee.
He has been impassioned on addressing homelessness, and plans to make responding to the crisis a cornerstone of his campaign; he can boast opening projects in the district including a tiny homes village in Wilmington and four Bridge Home emergency shelters (more than have sprouted in most council districts). He has also been on the losing end of council votes related to homelessness, including being one of two people who voted against the city settling what was known as the Mitchell case, which concerned the possessions of homeless individuals.
“I warned my colleagues then, and I warned the residents of the city then, if we settle Mitchell, which the City Attorney was all in favor of,” he said, “then expect to see unlimited amounts of personal property in every corner of the city. And look at our city today. It’s a disaster.”
The settlement was pushed by City Attorney Mike Feuer as a means to avoid perhaps an even more significant loss if the case went to trial and the city faltered. Feuer is also running for mayor, having declared his candidacy last March, shortly before the onset of the pandemic. Feuer has raised $418,000, according to disclosure statements.
Other prominent figures are expected to enter the race, including possibly council members Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kevin de León. Additional potential candidates include mall developer Rick Caruso and Jessica Lall, the president and CEO of the Central City Association.
Buscaino can be emotional as well as effusive, and as the Mitchell vote indicates, he is not always in lockstep with his council compatriots. The 46-year-old husband of an LAUSD teacher and father of two is adept with social media and seems to enjoy creating videos; his YouTube page includes numerous pieces focused on addressing homelessness. There’s also a teaser for a Red Bull Rallycross event in San Pedro in 2015, in which the councilman straps in with a professional driver; as they rip around a tight corner Buscaino looks like he’s about to either cry or vomit.
Amid the current debate over the role of the LAPD, Buscaino’s police past could divide voters. He professes that the department has embraced more reforms than many law-enforcement agencies, and is a strong advocate of the Community Safety Partnership, in which officers pledge to serve five years patrolling a housing project or low-income community in the effort to strengthen ties with residents who may have a historic distrust of the LAPD. Last summer he was one of two council members who voted against a motion to “defund” the department’s budget by $150 million. He is among those searching for alternatives to sending police on mental-health related calls.
“Providing mental health service is not the role of the city,” he says. “I prefer to have my police officers respond to 911 calls and do so in a timely manner. Police science will tell you that the fewer officers you have on the street, the more crime you’ll see. And this is what I said back in June, when I voted no to defund, and we ended the year with the highest crime rate in 15 years.”
Perhaps the most surprising element of his quest for higher office is that he will give up his powerful (and highly paid) spot on the council. Buscaino would be up for a third and final District 15 term next June, and had already raised more than $91,000 for that race (the money cannot be transferred to the mayoral contest). He is walking away from a likely slam dunk.
When I mention that this is an unconventional move, and that he could wind up with no elected position, Buscaino displays an almost missionary zeal, describing how it “pains” him to see “trash littered in every corner of the city” and the “drug addicted and mentally ill living in encampments being ignored and allowed to live in trash and filth.”
He picks up steam and slings back to one of his first comments.
“I’m willing to forego my last term because I do want to be the first responder to a crisis the city is facing like I did when I was a police officer, responding Code 3, light and sirens, and if I can be that executive, who with the stroke of a pen can improve the quality of life in this city, then I’m all in.”
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