The Los Angeles Mayoral Race, in 22 Chapters (Part I)

Cityside Column: Looking at the twists, turns and key moments in the 32-month (!) campaign that led to a Karen Bass-Rick Caruso throwdown
290

In less than a week, the 2022 election season will come to a close. Nov. 8 will bring to an end one of the most curious, entertaining, and truly unpredictable mayoral races Los Angeles has seen.

When the election cycle began in March 2020—literally 32 months ago—no City Hall observer would have predicted that the last two standing would be U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and billionaire developer Rick Caruso. Here are 22 chapters that brought L.A. to this moment.

Chapter 1: Feuer Is First

The window to file papers to raise money for the 2022 mayor’s race opens on March 8, 2020. The first to declare is Mike Feuer. The veteran pol seeks to follow the path used by Jim Hahn, trampolining from City Attorney to the mayor’s office. Feuer believes his experience, efforts to address homelessness and gun control activism will convince Angelenos that he is the guy to succeed Eric Garcetti. 

“As City Attorney, I have taken great strides to change the nature of our office and make it more focused on how we make neighborhoods throughout the city safer and improve their quality of life,” Feuer tells me shortly after entering. “I’m going to take that same approach to the mayor’s office and embed members of the mayor’s staff in neighborhoods throughout the city to tackle the priorities that matter most in communities.”

My column on Feuer’s entry also lists others believed to be considering running, including Councilman Joe Buscaino, state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, then-Council District 14 hopeful Kevin de León, former City Controller Wendy Greuel and Caruso.

Chapter 2: The Pesky Pandemic

A week after Feuer enters, Garcetti orders most businesses in the city to close due to the rising threat of COVID-19. We all know what happened next. Not only did L.A. grind to a halt but so did the mayoral campaign. With rising infections, overburdened hospitals, and Garcetti appearing on TV every night, the last thing anyone cares about is L.A.’s next leader. In any normal cycle, a few candidates would hold fundraisers and build their campaign machine. Not this time.

(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Chapter 3: Joe Jumps In

On March 15, 2021, District 15 Councilman and former cop Joe Buscaino becomes the second candidate to declare candidacy. The COVID era has changed everything. “As a police officer, I responded Code 3, lights and sirens, to emergencies,” Buscaino says in one of his first interviews. “There is a state of emergency today in Los Angeles as it relates to clean streets, crime, homelessness, economic development, and jobs as we crush this virus and pivot to recovery.”

Buscaino, who gave up an almost assured final City Council term to run for mayor, finds a receptive audience, and the dude crushes it in fundraising, pulling in more than $800,000 in the first two-and-a-half months. By the June 30, 2021 filing date, he is ahead of Feuer, who has about $721,000.

Chapter 4: The Waiting Game

As spring turns to summer, and with the June 2022 primary still far off, the early entrants seek to claim their lanes. Buscaino, who positions himself as a law-and-order candidate, is met by protestors at a Venice campaign event that erupts into chaos when security officials see someone with a knife. Buscaino soon drops an ad entitled “Clean Streets.” It contrasts with a Feuer spot titled “Best Friend,” in which Jason Alexander voices the role of Feuer’s mustache. No, I’m not making that up.

Meanwhile, political observers drool over themselves speculating about who else will enter the fray. A column I write in late June includes the line, “Councilmembers Mark-Ridley Thomas, Kevin de León, and City Council President Nury Martinez are all being widely discussed as possible mayoral candidates.” No, I’m not making that up, either.

The column also mentions potential runs by former LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner and Central City Association head Jessica Lall.

Chapter 5: A Surprise Name

On Aug. 3, 2021, the Washington Post gets the biggest scoop yet of the election cycle, with a story headlined, “Karen Bass signals openness to Los Angeles mayoral run.” Speculation spreads fas as the Congresswoman’s current reputation is sky-high after making Joe Biden’s running-mate shortlist. That article, and every article to come, note one thing: Bass is not expected to enter if her longtime friend Ridley-Thomas runs for mayor.

Mark Ridley-Thomas speaks to the press at Hot and Cool Cafe in Leimert Park on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in Los Angeles. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Chapter 6: The Ridley-Thomas Bombshell

On Aug. 16, Ridley-Thomas, who the previous fall had been elected to represent District 10 on the City Council, shakes up the race. “After considerable thought and care, I have decided not to pursue running for mayor in the city of Los Angeles,” he tells me in an exclusive interview. Instead, he will focus on addressing the homelessness crisis in L.A. When I ask him about Bass running, he responds, “I think Los Angeles would be fortunate to have such leadership, should she be inclined to pursue it.”

Weeks later, federal authorities indict Ridley-Thomas on conspiracy and bribery charges. He maintains his innocence.

 Chapter 7: Bassmentum Builds, and the Field Expands

After Ridley-Thomas opens the door for her candidacy, many urge Bass to burst through it. The internet begins to see “Draft Karen Bass” messages.

With the race morphing, Lall announces her candidacy on Sept. 20. “I’m an outsider with insider experience,” the head of the DTLA advocacy and lobbying group declares as she enters the race.

The next day, de León throws his hat in the ring. The former president of the state Senate—at this point, still a newly elected City Council rep, pitches himself as the guy to lead L.A. out of a crisis moment. 

“We can’t afford to go back to the old normal,” de León tells me. “You don’t have to look further than our Latino, Asian-American, and Black brothers and sisters on the front lines who were forced to wait at the back of the line to receive life-saving vaccines.”

Chapter 8: Bassapalooza!

Lall and de León generate some attention—but all eyes are on Bass. On Sept. 27 she tweets, “With my whole heart, I’m ready. Let’s do this—together. I’m running for mayor.”

The entry of Bass into the race sparks a sense of euphoria among L.A. Democrats. A few days later, she says that wanting to address the homelessness crisis helped propel her decision to run. So did the grassroots support, she says on Oct. 1, when I ask what role the “Draft Karen Bass” movement played in having her enter.

“It had everything to do with me making this decision,” she says. “I wasn’t sitting back in D.C. going, Ooh, what’s my next move? What’s my next position?

A couple of weeks later, Bass holds a packed campaign launch event with more than 600 people thronging L.A. Trade-Tech College. She’s the instant frontrunner.

(Photo by Jon Regardie)

Chapter 9: The First Kinda-Sorta Debate

As winter arrives, most Angelenos have no idea a mayoral race is coming. But political nerds like me go gaga over the first debate of the campaign. The Stonewall Democratic Club hosts it on a Sunday afternoon in December. Buscaino and de León sit out, but Feuer, Bass, Lall and another candidate, PR exec Craig Greiwe, do attend. It’s over in a quick and efficient 44 minutes. Bass speaks so quickly, she sounds like a podcast set to 2x mode. It’s Feuer who has the strongest performance, though.

Chapter 10: Show Me the Money

As 2021 closes, the race proceeds on two tracks: The first concerns money and when fundraising figures are revealed, Bass has pulled in almost $2 million in just over three months. She outpaces Feuer, Buscaino, Lall and a few fringe candidates.

At the same time, there is an increasing buzz about Caruso. Everyone knows he is working with campaign whiz Ace Smith, but there is uncertainty as to whether or not he’ll actually jump in. One day someone whispers that he’s leaning toward “yes.” The next day it’s a “no.” The only definite is that if he enters, the race will be epic—and epic amounts of cash will be spent.

Then, the signs start to flash brightly. On Jan. 24, the one-time Republican switches his political affiliation from no party preference to Democrat. On Feb. 8, Lall drops out, citing fundraising challenges tied to Caruso’s possible candidacy.

The deadline to declare is Feb. 11. In the days before, a rumor circulates that Caruso will enter and run an ad two days later… during the Super Bowl.

rick caruso los angeles mayor
Rick Caruso

Randy Shropshire/Getty Images

Chapter 11: The Caruso Era

At 4 p.m. on Feb. 11, a GMC Yukon pulls up to the office of the City Clerk on Ramirez Street. Caruso, looking like a billion bucks, exits the vehicle, enters the building, and fills out the paperwork to declare his candidacy. The mall magnate speaks briefly to reporters. Shortly after 5 p.m., in his third tweet ever, he declares, “I believe in the L.A. dream, and I know that we can end homelessness, crime, and corruption. But the politicians can’t.” 

Part II of this column will publish on Nov. 4.

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