How Money and Hollywood’s Elite Are Reshaping L.A.’s Mayoral Race

Ask Michael Bloomberg if millions in cash prevent a campaign flame-out. This year, for Karen Bass and Rick Caruso, the optics of association are critical.

Across the rooftop of Bad Robot Productions on Tuesday night, a fundraiser for Los Angeles mayoral hopeful Karen Bass was the local politics event du jour. Attendees mingling in Santa Monica, above “LA’s coolest office,” found themselves among some choice Hollywood elites. J.J. Abrams, Katie McGrath, Shonda Rhimes—all were there to tout the career and potential of the race’s former presumed frontrunner, who will spend the next few weeks locking heads with wealthy developer Rick Caruso in what is constricting into an air-tight Democratic primary

For Bass’s campaign, this event will ideally do two things: raise money and cement her as the darling and clear pick for Hollywood’s liberal set. But any campaign cash or uptick in individual donor numbers from such a star-studded event will give the congresswoman a mostly inconsequential boost; these figures can be an indicator of viability, but it’s unclear if it’s only optics when one’s cash totals are dwarfed by a billionaire rival. Recent data, however, is showing that the two leading candidate’s war chests are lopsided in two ways—in terms of Caruso’s vast amount of money in the bank and the number of individuals Bass has throwing funding her way. Following the money and these donor numbers is a steadfast way to feel out a campaign’s trajectory and potentially predict a race’s outcome. But this year, looking at who is funding Bass, or which influential figures have slid over to Camp Caruso, the city’s divide begins to crystalize—as do some truths about what these candidates must do to win. 

Looking at dollars alone, the eye-popping amount held by shopping mall mogul Caruso’s campaign is clearly insurmountable. And that’s because of the $23 million in his campaign’s coffers as of late last month, about $22.5 million came from the developer’s own bank account. While her campaign holds a mere fraction of that amount, Bass has nearly doubled Caruso in fundraising, bringing in over $1 million this year and over $3 million total, according to data from the city’s Ethics Commission, which looks at all of the major candidates. The headline from this data: About half of the candidates’ outside fundraising—north of $3.5 million—is funneling in from outside L.A.; about $1 million of this money is from outside California. For Bass, non-L.A. funds have amounted to about 47 percent of her total; for Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who exited the race last week, it was about 60 percent. And for City Attorney Mike Feuer, who bowed out on Tuesday and will support Bass, it was a low 29 percent. For Caruso, of course, campaign money is a non-issue.

As we’ve recently learned, billionaire status doesn’t ensure political success—recent presidential campaigns have shown how an ugly following emerged around one (possible) one-termer (possible) billionaire, while another recent billionaire turned White House hopeful—an ex-mayor, incidentally—made a swift exit after having his ass handed to him by the Libs. Money no longer changes everything, it seems. But maybe in a time and town where the optics of association can give such high social currency, just who’s in one’s corner now has more caché.

LAMag noted last week that Caruso’s campaign had then pulled in over 1700 donations, with 140 of those at the legal $1500 maximum. Those who shelled out for the billionaire’s bid include other rich white men, like home-building tycoon Bruce Karatz, celebrity chef Joachim Splichal (of Patina and the Pinot restaurant chain), Erewhon CEO Toni Antoci, and former NBCUniversal chair Ron Meyer (who was ousted amid a 2020 sex-extortion scandal). The longtime Republican, first-time Democrat also counts Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos and his wife, notable powerhouse fundraiser for the Democrats Nicole Avant, among his key supporters. And then there’s Brian Grazer, who sits on the board of USC with the candidate, and Gwenyth Paltrow, who told her Twitter followers that her dear friend is her pick for L.A. mayor. 

I think we need to be honest with ourselves that L.A. is experiencing a tough time right now. And I think we really need a leader who can come in and has the strength to solve some really tough problems,” Paltrow says to camera in her clip. After that bit of verbal gymnastics avoids speaking about the tough stuff going down right here, the actor shares that Caruso is, in her view, “an amazing human being.” 

The Oscar winner and founder of GOOP threw an under-publicized fundraiser event for Caruso back in March. Yet it’s unclear if Paltrow actually donated any of her money to the Caruso campaign—a search by LAMag for her name, several misspellings of her name, and GOOP turns up zilch in the city’s ethics database. 

If the towering figures of Los Angeles who have planted themselves in Carusco’s corner feel pretty white, wealthy, worried about some things and a bit “corporate establishment,” that’s because they are. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the candidate made a clear and direct statement to the studios that he’s on the industry’s side, telling the trade: “As mayor, I will constantly focus on giving the industry the tools to grow, create more jobs and bring back filming to our great city.” Bass, to be fair, made a similar statement to the magazine where she touted her record over years in the state legislature. 

The shade that Caruso’s L.A. might settle into may be apparent while looking at these relationships with his key supporters. They’re certainly, in some cases, longtime friendships, but for others, the deals are apparent. Sarandos, for one, entered a deal for Netflix to overtake the Bay Theater in Caruso’s Palisades Village just seven months ago. Paltrow happens to have a retail location in Caruso’s exclusive resort in Montecito— where Sarandos happens to be a founding member. It looks like these optics may have caught the eye of rapper-entrepreneur Snoop Dogg, who on Tuesday lept over to the Caruso camp, calling the billionaire the “real deal.”

Contrast this with the Bass bandwagon and the difference in boosters is…well, it’s not exactly glaring. The seasoned politician, who two years ago was head of the Congressional  Black Caucus, has the type of progressive bona fides that moves A-listers like Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, and Jennifer Garner into her corner while bringing a righteous tear to the eyes of the city’s activist set. 

Yet, for every Alyssa Milano or Donald Glover type that sings her praises on matters like housing and policing —potentially boosting Bass’s support among the city’s disenchanted youth and woke left—there stands a hyper-connected Boomer like Michael Eisner or Jeffrey Katzenberg, hosting a gala event at his mansion or handing a fat check to the PAC supporting the congresswoman. Just this week, it was announced that a $250,000 donation from Katzenberg—whose estimated net worth was $900 million (before Quibi)—to a pro-Bass committee ballooned to $600,000; otherwise, the producer has been raising money for his Hollywood-based venture capitalist fund, WndrCo. And for L.A.’s disenchanted young Democrat voters, how easily can Bass’s past progressive work sit next to the knowledge that a Black woman took the maximum contribution from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, as the league’s history of fucked up, racist practices continues to play out on the field and in courtrooms?

Maybe Bass’s acceptance of the commissioner’s $1500 donation, as well as Caruso’s transfer of $22 million to his own campaign, both indicate some political truths in L.A. and beyond: If you don’t have the money, you’ll take it—even if you investigated your donor’s conduct in the recent past. Because a win, in the end, will justify the means, campaign financing rules won’t change, and no one will really remember such minute details when the next cycle begins. 

Voting in L.A.’s Democratic mayoral primary is set for June 7. if no candidate reaches or surpasses 50% of the vote, the top two candidates will advance to the general election on Nov. 8.

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