Joe Buscaino’s Audacious Homeless Gamble

The mayoral candidate wants the city to clear homeless encampments that decline alternate housing. The city council hates the idea. Just as he expected.

A couple days before Thanksgiving, City Councilmember Joe Buscaino introduced a motion asking his colleagues to place an item on the June 2022 ballot that would, boiled down, allow the city to clear tent encampments if people experiencing homelessness refuse offers of housing or services. It also would give new powers to the mayor, which is no coincidence, as Buscaino is among the crowd running to succeed a termed-out Eric Garcetti.

The politicians raised their eyebrows so high and so hard at this idea that they nearly dented the council chambers ceiling. Councilmember Paul Koretz warned that with a lack of available beds in Los Angeles, Buscaino’s proposal would amount to “a bait and switch on the voters.” Paul Krekorian asserted that the motion “doesn’t solve the underlying challenges that we continue to face in this city.” Gil Cedillo, summoning his inner “Great British Baking Show” judge, quipped, “This is simply not cooked.”

Those objectors were not alone. Mike Bonin, Curren Price, and Bob Blumenfield also took the opportunity to stand up and say why the effort should be shot down. Ultimately, the council opted to kick the matter to its Homelessness and Poverty Committee.

This may sound reasonable, as where better to debate a homelessness proposal? But in reality, this is probably like giving Buscaino’s motion a lethal injection. Whether it will even be discussed is a question, not only because many council members don’t like it, but also because the committee’s chair is Kevin de León, and he too is running for mayor. About the last thing he’ll do is fete a competitor’s proposal on the single most important issue facing Los Angeles.

Essentially, the council batted around Buscaino’s motion like a city cat does a country mouse. But the weird thing is, the rejection could serve as a boost to Buscaino’s mayoral campaign.

Watching the machinations of this motion—heck, watching anything these days at City Hall—means viewing proceedings on two timeframes at once. A gaggle of politicians are now running for their next job, and you have to interpret each candidate’s every move not just on its own merits, but also on how it allows someone to position themself on a grander political stage. Sure, 14 council votes matter, but ultimately they pale in comparison to the ballots of hundreds of thousands of Angelenos.

I doubt Buscaino expected the council to pass his motion, and in fact, he was likely anticipating that his compatriots would respond exactly as they did. Consider: Soon after the proposal was shot down, Buscaino’s political strategists announced that an effort would begin in January to gather signatures to place the Safer Streets LA measure on an upcoming ballot.

“My City Council colleagues showed today that they are more interested in the right to sleep on the sidewalk than the right to housing,” Buscaino harrumphed. “I will not be dissuaded by this Council’s inability to act and will get this measure onto the ballot with a signature gathering campaign.”

This isn’t to pretend that Buscaino’s colleagues were unaware of his ambitions. Most if not all of them knew what was coming, and everyone was trying to be strategic.

But Buscaino’s strategy is simultaneously the most audacious and the most interesting. That shouldn’t be a surprise; the former LAPD senior lead office gave up a certain third council term—with a salary north of $220,000—to gamble on a run for mayor.

A lot of people in Los Angeles, particularly the progressive crowd, are seething at Buscaino’s proposal, warning that this approach stands essentially to criminalize those on the streets who suffer from addiction or mental illness. Further, opponents charge, dictating that people experiencing homelessness accept services or face prosecution will prompt them to gather their possessions and move to another sidewalk in another neighborhood, where the cycle will repeat. They say time should be given to assess a new city anti-camping ordinance that allows councilmembers to identify specific locations, and where outreach workers can connect with vulnerable populations before any enforcement occurs.

At the same time, Buscaino knows that a large swath of the population is frustrated by tent encampments that swallow sidewalks. He recognizes that even some liberals who truly want unhoused individuals to get the necessary help are uncomfortable with the state of their neighborhood, and that they need a more urgent response from City Hall. Being able to claim that he’s pushing forward while other pols move slowly is key to Buscaino’s gambit.

His campaign team points to a poll which found that 64 percent of respondents expressed support for his ballot measure. This doesn’t mean that chunk of the population is ready to elect him over mayoral competitors including de León, U.S. Rep Karen Bass, City Attorney Mike Feuer, and business executive Jessica Lall. But at this point no one is aiming for 64 percent—rather, most candidates just hope to finish in the top two in the primary so they can advance to the November runoff. With widespread belief that Bass is the frontrunner, the goal for many is to come in second and live to fight another day. Given the crowded field, someone might advance with only about 25 percent of the vote.

Thus, a candidate can afford to alienate one part of the electorate if it means another sizable sector detects a difference between that person and the rest of the field. Now not only is Buscaino seeking to convince voters he is tougher than other pols, but he aims to build connections before election day by getting tens of thousands of Angelenos to sign a petition to put his measure on the ballot.

Will it work? Good question. It may be a difficult line to straddle. Beyond that, much of the city won’t even pay attention to the mayor’s race until next April or May. And even with Buscaino’s attention-grabbing moves, many Angelenos have never heard of the San Pedro-based politician.

So much can and will happen in the months ahead, potentially including other candidates entering the race. But one thing certain is that homelessness will continue to be the dominant issue of the election, and anyone hoping to be the next mayor will have to convince Angelenos that she or he is best prepared to address an unacceptable status quo.

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