Teflon Caruso: Will Anything Ever Stick to Rick?

Cityside Column: Attacks have so far slid off the billionaire developer. As the mayoral election approaches, will Karen Bass start swinging?
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Last week, an independent expenditure group backing U.S. Rep. Karen Bass began running a 30-second TV commercial that throws darts at mall master Rick Caruso. It was intriguing on several fronts. For one, it hit after what seems like 162,397 Caruso ads that have dominated local airwaves. Additionally, the IE group, helmed by Jeffrey Katzenberg, committed to spending more than $1 million on airtime.

This is separate from a commercial the Bass camp has begun airing (by law, IE groups cannot coordinate with a candidate’s campaign). The official spot is a well intentioned but ultimately milquetoast get-to-know-me vehicle that threatens to put viewers to sleep in its 30-second run time.

The IE commercial is a different beast. Titled “At Stake,” it mentions Caruso’s past donations to GOP officeholders, sludges him as a “lifelong Republican,” seeks to ally him with the anti-abortion movement (in part by citing a 2007 Los Angeles magazine article), and equates him with Donald Trump.

In short, it’s a pupu platter of pointed progressive politics, touching seemingly every element that polls show resonates with left-leaning Los Angeles voters. Team Caruso responded by sending a cease-and-desist letter to local TV stations that are running the spot, arguing that the facts were funky, though this may just have been a tit-for-tat, as recently the Bass squad had issued its own cease-and-desist letter in the wake of an attack ad. Local stations such as KABC, KCBS and KNBC have gotten orders for six-figure ad buys, so it’s no surprise that everything is still airing.

While the hardball of “At Stake” marks a new phase in the campaign, it prompts a question: Will the message penetrate the public consciousness?

It’s worth asking because, to date, everything slung at the billionaire developer has slid off him, barely smudging his carefully orchestrated persona and platform. There are still two weeks until election day and anything can happen, but so far Caruso has been the Teflon candidate—nothing sticks to him.

This has been the case despite people trying a variety of hits. Consider the first of two televised debates, when then-candidate Mike Feuer brought up Caruso’s $100 million yacht, Invictus, and noted that it is registered in the Cayman Islands, not the United States. This both brought my single favorite line of the campaign—Caruso understatedly declaring, “I do have a nice boat”—and was a springboard for candidates to call for Caruso to release his tax returns.

For a couple days this threatened to become a media mainstay, as Feuer (who recently dropped out and is backing Bass) and others made their returns public. But after Caruso provided some carefully selected information, the topic petered out, and now no one discusses the tax benefits of yachting in the Cayman Islands.

If there was one thing that really threatened to kneecap Caruso, it was his former party affiliation. He only registered as a Democrat a few days before entering the race in February, and his Republican past more than a decade ago is no secret. Feuer again was among those who hit this point, and a lot of political chatterheads predicted that once being a member of Trump and Ronald Reagan’s party would hamper a run in overwhelmingly blue Los Angeles.

But again, the topic has not gained much traction.

Other potential weights have also failed to drag Caruso down in the polls. While his tremendous wealth prompts questions of how he could possibly relate to Angelenos worried about paying the rent or filling the gas tank, the income gulf has been a non-topic. Other candidates have railed at him for developing only luxury housing in an era of worsening homelessness and tent encampments, but the general public doesn’t seem to care.

Why is Caruso’s Teflon coating so effective? That wealth is a prime factor, and the approximately $30 million that he has so far pumped into his campaign has paid for the ever-present ads that are louder and more consistent than any drumbeat against him. He and his strategists early on recognized that they had the potential to seize control of the narrative of the race, and they have done so.

There may be another reason that nothing has stuck: because Bass, who has the potential to do the most damage, has largely avoided the fray.

Although it may seem like the Pleistocene era, for months after launching her campaign last September Bass was uniformly described as the “frontrunner” in the race. Even though her momentum dulled, she remains near the top of the polls and has a wide base of support. Caruso has surged, but it also seems that Bass is nowhere near her ceiling.

Part of reaching that ceiling, and pushing Caruso down, could require Bass being more personally aggressive. She can be effective when wielding a stick—one of the enduring moments of the debates was when she zapped Caruso for denigrating certain elected officials, reminding viewers that politicians are actually people who have committed their lives to public service.

If Bass opts to hit Caruso on any of the topics in the “At Stake” video, the media would eat it up. So would her supporters and, even more importantly, possibly some undecided voters.

That comes with risks, and if she strikes, Caruso’s war chest allows him to strike harder. But his campaign has already lashed out at her in a nasty ad about the city’s homelessness crisis. One could argue that the door has been opened. Will she stand on the other side and wave, or stride through it with the equivalent of a howitzer?

Bass doesn’t seem to want to go hard, at least not yet, so the IE ad could serve the same purpose, especially if the group is ready to spend, spend, spend. The next two weeks should tell if anything can stick to Rick.