Meet Rick Caruso’s Ace in the Hole

As L.A.’s Mayoral Race tightens, Rick Caruso’s secret weapon is a controversial democratic strategist from San Francisco who doesn’t mind playing in the mud

It was the exact kind of opening Rick Caruso’s political opponents had been longing for. On the morning of May 2, Politico broke the news that the Supreme Court was poised to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, a story that quickly sent seismic shock waves across the country. It also promised to have deep implications for the Los Angeles mayor’s race, mainly because Caruso—a devout Catholic and former Republican—had been publicly pro-life for most of his career. His opponents, most of whom were trailing the billionaire businessman, quickly pounced on the issue, denouncing Caruso for being out of touch with L.A.’s overwhelmingly pro-choice voters. Abortion rights groups also piled on, and for a moment, it felt like the kind of black swan political event that could alter the trajectory of the election.

Joe Buscaino endorsed Caruso after abandoning his own mayoral bid (GENARO MOLINA/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Strategist Ace Smiths decision to work for the one-time Republican drew slings from progressive allies (PHOTOGRAPH: GABRIELA HASBUN)

But it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, Caruso shimmied his way out of the hot seat by claiming to be pro-choice and pledging a million dollars to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s efforts to push through a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights. Even as thousands of pro-choice marchers took to the streets of the city, Caruso’s poll numbers barely budged.

It was deft crisis management. And the man behind it was a savvy political strategist named Averell “Ace” Smith, who—as it just so happens—also consults for Newsom and has a hotline into the Governor’s Mansion.

Over the past three decades, Smith and his longtime business partner, Sean Clegg, have carved out a powerful perch within California’s political hierarchy. Their San Francisco-based firm, Bearstar Strategies, is the most powerful political consultancy in California, with a client list that reads like a who’s who of Democratic heavyweights—both of the Clintons, Jerry Brown, Newsom, and Kamala Harris, to name just a few. If you haven’t heard of Smith before, it’s because he prefers to stay out of the limelight, ruthlessly collecting political scalps behind the scenes.

Smith has represented blue chip Democrats from Gavin Newsom to Kamala Harris. (ARIC CRABB/MEDIANEWS GROUP/EAST BAY TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGE)
Smith’s jockeying reportedly helped Kamala Harris win her job as VP. (WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES)

What you don’t see on Smith’s extensive client list, though, are any Republicans, or even ex-Republicans, which is why eyebrows were raised last year when Bearstar agreed to take on Caruso as a client. Caruso, a former Republican, is by far the most conservative candidate in the running, but from a strictly bottom-line perspective, the decision to rep him was a no-brainer. The billionaire mall owner has already spent upward of $25 million on TV and radio ads—a percentage of which has been going to Smith’s firm, on top of its sizable retainer. He’s expected to spend millions more on the race before it’s over.

Still, while adding Caruso to the roster might have made business sense, some progressive allies saw it as nothing short of a betrayal. “Ace and Sean are personal friends of mine, and I don’t want to criticize them. But everyone has to account for their own actions and judgments in their business,” said Gary South, a seasoned Democratic consultant who has worked with Smith on multiple occasions.

L.A. hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since Richard Riordan, who won in 1993. Caruso is technically a Democrat, having changed his political affiliation from “no party” to Democrat in January, weeks before he announced he would be running. But he was a registered member of the GOP until 2012, so if elected, he’d be the closest thing to a Republican mayor L.A. has seen in a couple of decades.

And he just might pull it off.

A recent Berkeley-IGS poll shows Caruso polling at around 24 percent, with Congresswoman Karen Bass trailing close behind, at 23 percent. The next closest candidate is City Councilman Kevin de León, at 6 percent. (Six other candidates are in single digits.) According to the poll, 39 percent of voters are undecided. The most likely scenario is that Caruso and Bass each fail to get a simple majority and end up after the June 7 primary in a five-month runoff with the general election taking place on November 8. That said, as a self-funding billionaire willing to spend whatever it takes to win, Caruso could afford one last television-advertising blitz in the final days of the primary and win over enough of the remaining undecided voters to put him over 50 percent, avoiding a runoff.

South worries that a runoff between Bass and Caruso could get ugly, especially given Smith’s penchant for hardball. “I don’t consider what we do to be a highly moral profession,” South says, “but I could not in good conscience take on a lifelong Republican to run for mayor in the nation’s second-biggest city and run against a Black female Democrat. I could never vote for Caruso in a million years.”

Smith’s introduction to bare-knuckle politics began close to home. In 1990, his father, Arlo Smith, a former San Francisco DA, was the underdog in a race to become California’s attorney general against popular L.A. DA Ira Reiner. But he eked out a surprise victory after pursuing a brutal, take-no-prisoners approach. For his son, it was apparently a lesson well-learned.

Smith began his own career as an opposition researcher. He’s still considered a master in the art of unearthing damaging information about a candidate and planting it in the press to exact maximum damage. And though he’s from the Bay Area, that hasn’t stopped him from trying to play kingmaker in L.A. He helped get Antonio Villaraigosa elected mayor after a bitter campaign in 2002. Villaraigosa fell out with the consultant over Smith’s decision to ditch him for Newsom in the 2018 governor’s race.

Even by the murky standards of political consultants, Smith’s hardball tactics stand out. “It’s a dark art, and Ace is a master of it,” says his friend and fellow consultant Nathan Ballard. “I can’t point to any examples because that’s the point.” But he needn’t look much further than the 2020 presidential campaign.

Ace Smith (Instagram)

In his book, Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaign to Defeat Trump, Edward-Isaac Dovere claims that it was Smith and Clegg who helped mastermind the now-infamous “That little girl was me” busing attack that Harris leveled at Biden during a Democratic presidential debate. While the stunt temporarily lifted Harris’s presidential prospects, it reportedly infuriated Biden’s inner circle, which became a problem for Harris months later when she was vying to become Biden’s running mate. At the time, she and Bass were among a handful of finalists who were being considered for the post. Undaunted, Smith set about clearing the field.

In their book, This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future, reporters Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns confirm previous reporting by Los Angeles that Smith and his team leaked damaging stories about Bass’s past in an attempt to scuttle her chances. Another reported finalist, former UN Ambassador Susan Rice, was also in their crosshairs. When Rice caught wind that Smith and his team were compiling an opposition research file on her, she became so alarmed that she called Harris and told her to “call off her attack dogs.”

“I know of him, but I have never met him,” Bass said when asked about Smith during a recent campaign event. “I will tell you that very prominent people called me during that [vice-presidential vetting] process and told me that Ace Smith is the master of the dark arts, and that he was behind the attacks that I experienced and if that’s true then he has the oppositional research to continue doing that.” Indeed, some observers believe that it was his effective takedown of Bass that won Bear Star Caruso’s business.

Last week it appeared that Smith and his firm’s handling of political fliers in which Bass’ visage appears darkened via an Instagram-like filter was poised to balloon into a racially tinged scandal in the waning days of the campaign. Digitally altering images of politicians and celebrities — especially persons of color — is nothing new but it can easily be interpreted as a cynical dog whistle and is universally avoided by almost every Democratic consultant in California (when asked about the fliers, a spokesman for Bear Star explained that it was an oversight and that the fliers were quickly pulled and discontinued). But even that slip-up failed to damage Caruso’s prospects to the point where a clearly frustrated campaign manager for Bass, Anna Bahr took to Twitter to ask why “no one in the LA media market” was covering it.

In his nonpolitical life, Smith, who lives with his wife, Laura Talmus, in a modest Marin County home, seems far from the monster his opponents paint him to be. Friends describe him as a soft-spoken, fiercely intelligent man with a photographic memory who collects vintage books and jazz albums. (He once self-published a book about baseball player Satchel Paige.) Smith and Talmus oversee a non-profit called Beyond Differences, started to honor their daughter, Lili, who died of complications from Apert Syndrome in 2009 at age 15.

Indeed, several associates claim that Smith’s reputation is more myth than reality; they say he is given credit for all sorts of campaign shenanigans he had nothing to with. According to Chris Lehane—another Democratic operative—the firm’s scary reputation just enhances its brand.

“They get in the heads of other candidates and campaigns to the point where if a candidate is doing a press conference and there’s inclement weather, Ace gets blamed,” laughs Lehane. “But ultimately that’s where you want to be—in your opponent’s head.”

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.