L.A. Mayoral Race: Does Mike Feuer Backing Karen Bass Actually Help Rick Caruso?

Cityside Column: A thinning mayoral field might benefit the cash-flinging, ad-happy developer

On Tuesday morning, City Attorney Mike Feuer joined U.S. Rep. Karen Bass in an Encino park to announce that he was abandoning his mayoral campaign and throwing his backing her way. With Feuer’s war chest dwindling, and trailing deeply in the polls, it made sense. It also felt like a parry to the thrust perpetrated five days before, when District 15 Councilmember Joe Buscaino junked his own shrinking mayoral ambitions and pledged support to mall master Rick Caruso.

Feuer spoke warmly about Bass, praising her leadership, authenticity and ability to listen. But as much as his move was to support her, it also seemed designed to combat the billionaire developer, who has injected around $30 million into his campaign, and in the process turned the local airwaves into a nonstop barrage of Caruso commercials interrupted by the occasional TV show.

“This has been, as we all know, an extraordinary campaign,” Feuer said in Encino. “This is the first time I can remember when a candidate is literally trying to buy the mayor’s office. And I and we cannot let that happen.”

He soon added, “As much as I am enthusiastic about supporting Karen, the choice is stark: She is right for L.A. Rick Caruso is wrong for L.A.”

Feuer wants to elevate the congresswoman, and she thinks he’ll provide a boost. But it is entirely possible that, unintentionally, the two just gave Caruso a bigger gift than all the sparkly specials at The Grove come Christmas.

If the partnership works as planned, then Feuer’s support will expand Bass’ base as the June 7 election approaches (mail-in ballots are already at homes). However, their union could prove to be faulty in vision and turned against them. In their worst-case scenario, a reduced field could actually propel Caruso beyond 50 percent, making him mayor-elect without even needing a November runoff.

Is this probable? No. But every day, and every seven-figure transfer from Caruso’s personal bank account, makes it more possible. The fact that people are even chattering about Caurso aiming for 50 percent—which would have been laughable a month ago—is something of a win for him.

Here is how things could spill out:

The Feuer-Bass partnership seems to be based on the assumption that, if he exits the race, his supporters will automatically swivel to her. But this prompts two questions: 1) How many people would have voted for him? (and still might, given that his name remains on the ballot); and 2) How sure are strategists that every Feuer supporter transitions to Bass?

Feuer and Buscaino were both lagging in the single digits, though with many voters undecided, it’s hard to tell whether they would have finished closer to 2% or 9%. But it seems likely that almost every Buscaino voter will happily take a drive down Caruso way—they both advocated for the LAPD hiring 1,500 cops, and want to take a more aggressive approach to clearing tent encampments from the streets. It’s hard to imagine any Buscaino backer saying, “I thought about it, and I actually like Karen.”

Feuer and Bass have some ideological overlap, and a significant number of his supporters will happily lean her way. But one cannot deny that some stone-age supporters would flip from one white man to another, particularly if Caruso’s ads are everywhere. Others may appreciate Feuer from his many years in office, but with him off the board, they might pick a guy whose malls they like rather than a politician who has spent much of the past decade in Washington, D.C.

The great unknown is how many votes Feuer would draw, and this is where math is critical. If Feuer stays in the race, than every vote for him is one that—along with votes for Bass, Kevin de León and other candidates—keeps Caruso from reaching 50 percent and winning outright. But if, say, Feuer was on a path to get seven percent of the vote, and now five percent goes to Bass and two percent goes to the mall guy, then that’s a win for the developer. Even one percent to Caruso is a net gain.

The reality is that the fewer candidates there are, the easier it is for someone to win a majority. History has brought plenty of razor-thin electoral margins.

Another matter could be just as significant, and could be coming soon to a screen near you.

One of Caruso’s campaign touchstones is rooting out City Hall corruption. Feuer’s campaign has been clouded by a federal investigation into his office’s role in a lawsuit related to the messed-up rollout of a DWP billing system. It’s confusing stuff that makes eyes glaze over, but during a USC debate Caruso eagerly reminded viewers that Feuer’s office was raided by FBI agents. Additionally, a former top attorney in his office pleaded guilty last month to one count of aiding and abetting extortion.

It’s possible that Caruso’s squad, which just launched an unsavory ad zinging Bass, seizes this opportunity. Imagine the grainy footage, Exorcist-like music and the voiceover, “Late in the campaign, who did Karen Bass turn to for help? A city official whose office was raided by the FBI, and who saw one of his top attorneys go to prison. And if you vote for her you’re a dummy and get what you deserve.”

Okay, the last line won’t be in there, but Caruso’s guys are sharks, and they will seek to put a spin on who is now in Bass’ corner. So might the pugilistic Police Protective League, which is independently spending millions to slam Bass.

This would be ugly and unfortunate. Although his mayoral campaign didn’t go the way he hoped, Feuer achieved more than many realize during his two terms as city attorney, and he genuinely cares about Los Angeles. He made moves to address homelessness when many pols were content to talk about the crisis, and he has been aggressive on issues such as pushing gun control and going after banks that behave badly. He can discourse intelligently on many complex matters and never ducked the hard questions.

I’m assuming Team Bass has thought through these scenarios, and envisions Feuer playing a specific role in the final weeks of the campaign. Maybe they expect that the guy who just ran the “Underdog” ad can pivot to being her attack dog, slicing at Caruso and allowing Bass to avoid slinging mud herself. One could foresee this strategy, but it may not be effective—people care a lot more about what Feuer says when he’s in the race, than when he’s out of it.

There are still 19 days until the votes are counted, and a lot can and will happen. Come June 8 we’ll learn if the Bass-Feuer partnership is a bridge to round two, or an unintentional kneecapping.

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