Rick Caruso’s Campaign Launch Is, Well, Decidedly OK

Cityside Column: The billionaire rookie mayoral candidate makes a few smart moves and some easily avoidable mistakes
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On Feb. 11, developer Rick Caruso turned long-running rumor into reality by entering the 2022 Los Angeles mayor’s race. In joining U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, City Attorney Mike Feuer and Councilmembers Kevin de León and Joe Buscaino, he has set the stage for a crowded contest that may end up as entertaining and caterwauling as a professional wrestling battle royale. The primary election is June 7.

All eyes have been on Caruso recently, with City Hall watchers curious to see how he seeks to connect with frustrated voters, and even more curious as to how he spends his money.

I looked at the mall master’s early moves and found them, well, decidedly okay. Caruso has balanced some smart plays with mistakes that never should have happened. Here is a rundown.

Timing

Caruso has been contemplating entering the race for months, if not years. So it’s hard to tell why he picked perhaps the worst possible launch moment. He filed papers to get on the ballot and made his first public statements on the Friday afternoon before a Los Angeles Super Bowl featuring the hometown Rams. This is like trying to make a splash in a backyard kiddie pool when a tidal wave is about to crush the region.

I assume Caruso chose this time because it meant fewer days of formal competition. Still, given the big game, Caruso’s entrance was a secondary story.

 

Silly Stumbles

The months of anticipation, and the money Caruso can spend on advisors, provided an opportunity for the perfect launch. Yet there were avoidable errors. In a placard posted on Twitter on Feb. 11 he described himself “as the grandson of immigrants from Boyle Heights.” Maybe only a few grammar teachers care, but this reads as if Boyle Heights is its own country. The placard also states, “We can end homelessness,” a line most politicians no longer utter because the promise can’t be met—maybe one can mostly end homelessness for a sub-group like veterans, but anyone who really understands the crisis knows homelessness in L.A. won’t be eradicated. It was either a rookie mistake or an intentional line that polls well with voters. Probably the latter.

Also, until last week, Caruso’s campaign Twitter page had a top photo of the Americana at Brand—it’s a lovely place with a nice lawn and an Apple Store, but it’s in the city of Glendale, not Los Angeles.

This is minor stuff, but given Caruso’s wealth, prep time, and ability to hire the best, the bumbles are surprising. John Thomas, a top local GOP campaign strategist, noted that Caruso is known for his attention to every little detail—a 2019 Architectural Digest story pointed out how even the street lamps in Caruso’s Palisades Village project were inspired by ones he saw while on vacation in St.-Tropez.

“He is a perfectionist to the hundredth degree,” said Thomas. “The rollout is one of the most important things in his entire life, and yet it lacks polish and sophistication. It is almost antithetical to his identity as a businessman.”

Messaging

The first place many Angelenos will learn about Caruso’s campaign is his website. It’s generally clean and navigable, but the splash page again feels a bit off—there’s a picture of the tie-clad mall master looking about 58 percent happy, next to the giant words “Caruso Can.” It looks more like a billboard for a CBS procedural than a guy running for mayor. I can almost hear the deep voice intoning, “And after ‘Blue Bloods,’ it’s ‘Caruso Can.’ This week, Rick tries…”

Smartly, his “Issues” section is short and tight, with entries for just “End Street Homelessness,” “Public Safety” and “Corruption & Ethics.” He skips the nods to environmentalism, COVID recovery, transportation and other chestnuts that nearly every candidate slaps across their site as if it were required by Democratic party law.

Are his solutions groundbreaking? No. His top tactic to addressing homelessness is declaring a state of emergency on day one as mayor; Feuer has been banging that drum for months. Caruso wants a FEMA-level response to the crisis—Feuer, Buscaino and Bass have each hit that point. On public safety Caruso talks up investing in the LAPD and hiring 1,500 officers—that would bring the force to about 11,000 cops, a staffing level Buscaino has already called for.

Caruso’s ideas may square with the electorate, but a problem with coming in late is that you often end up with solutions others have already used. Caruso has the type of resume that the career politicians (not an insult) lack, but he has yet to rock us with new thinking.

TV Time

What most distinguishes Caruso from his competitors? Aside from net worth, it’s the TV ad he is already airing. Media reports have classified it as a seven-figure buy.

Thomas says the 60-second spot does what any good ad at this stage should—it lets people know he’s running. “It’s very savvy and smart of the campaign, knowing that name ID right now is the biggest challenge all candidates have,” Thomas says.

The execution? Well, this one won’t win any awards. It’s rote copy—“L.A. has always stood for the idea that anything is possible,” Caruso intones—and images of tents, police tape and City Hall are generic. Caruso says he won’t take a dime from corporations, but people think of his development empire as one of the biggest corporations around.

It’s the details, again, where things get hinky. Thomas points out that Caruso is sitting in a film director’s chair, almost suggesting that the city is a prop. And weirdly, the billionaire’s gaze is not into the camera, but off to the side, fixed on some distant, undefined element. It’s like when a 6-year-old won’t look you in the eye because he is distracted by a cute puppy. Maybe a puppy was there on taping day.

This may seem like nitpicking, and in other places Caruso does well—he was direct and confident, if a bit arrogant, on TV interviews last week with Elex Michaelson of FOX11 News and Kate Cagle of Spectrum News, and on a campaign video Caruso does look into the camera. But with this ad—again, the first impression for many voters—Thomas believes the moment, and the money, could have been better utilized.

“It was a missed opportunity to connect with voters,” said Thomas. “Even if voters can’t articulate why they can’t connect with Rick in this ad, they know it internally, because Rick is not looking at them.”

Early Stage

Despite these stumbles, Caruso is in a good place—he has pockets deeper than any other candidate, and a seasoned campaign team. And while the political crowd is feasting on the early developments, many Angelenos have no idea a mayor’s race is even coming. Caruso will have an opportunity to claim a lane as the non-pol who has created family-friendly shopping and dining destinations.

As the race takes shape, Caruso’s toughest task, believes Thomas, will be convincing regular Angelenos that he understands them.

“How does a billionaire with private security and a big yacht connect believably and emotionally to Los Angeles voters?” Thomas asks. “That is his fundamental task.”


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