Why is Anyone Surprised by Rick Caruso’s Mayoral Race Spending?

Cityside Column: As election day approaches, Los Angeles becomes a fascinating case study for what money can buy

On Thursday, the latest mayoral financial data dump left many people slack-jawed: Mall man Rick Caruso has now spent a staggering $62.6 million on his attempt to succeed a termed-out Eric Garcetti, with $21.1 million of that spilling in the period between the June primary and the disclosure deadline of Sept. 24. Caruso is barely bothering to raise money—the war chest is stocked with $61.7 million of his own cash.

This is all absurd. Not just the deep-eight-figure spend, but the fact that anyone could be surprised that the creator of The Grove and the Americana at Brand is setting his own financial parameters. If you didn’t figure that out during the primary, when he paid $176 per vote cast for him, compared to the $11.79 shelled out by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, then that’s on you. This is the most predictable play in politics—back in July, I wrote that no one should be stunned if Caruso surpasses $60 million in the runoff alone and over $100 million in total.

This is not only to battle Bass, who finished first in the June primary with 43 percent—seven points ahead of Caruso. But it is probably necessary if he hopes to cut through the clutter of all the TV ads for sports betting, dialysis clinics and other ballot propositions.

Many will opine that the 2022 mayor’s race is about whether Los Angeles wants a lifelong Democrat who came to this moment via a career that veered from the streets of South Los Angeles to jobs in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., or a mega-successful businessman who, through hard work and savvy, created an empire that includes some of the most adored family-friendly destinations in the region. When the book looking back on this race is written, it may be all about the length of each candidate’s party affiliation, questions of their support for reproductive rights in the year Roe fell, and scandals involving the University of Southern California.

Sure, the 2022 L.A. mayoral race is about those things, but it is also an incredible case study of the power. Or perhaps the limits of money, and whether Caruso can deploy astronomical sums to get the job he wants

Is this cash outlay a “good” or a “bad” thing? It depends on who you ask. Most people hew to the latter side and assert that Caruso is seeking to buy the election and that it should not be available for purchase—that it is not a commodity like his $100 million yacht, Invictus. The take goes that Los Angeles, which is wrestling with a devastating homelessness crisis, needs the person with the best ideas, plans, and ability to lead and unite the city, and that is not necessarily the figure with the fattest bank account who can fund the ugliest attack ads.

Is Caruso seeking to buy the election? Of course, he is. But there’s no law against that and the counter to the argument is that in modern major city electoral politics, if you’re not buying a win, then someone else is trying to help buy it for you, and it’s usually some sort of special interest group. These organizations and political action committees have long been dumping six-and seven-figure sums into mayoral and city contests, and few large donors or groups funding independent expenditure campaigns are operating in an entirely altruistic manner. Nearly everyone and every entity want something, even if it’s mere face time. But it’s always more than face time, isn’t it?

Caruso claims that spending his own money means that he won’t be beholden to anyone if he wins, and indeed, not a single union, lobbyist, business consortium, or another group could ever claim he owes them favorable legislation, friendly contract terms, or any other cookie for putting him over the top. Yeah, the guy would arrive at the Spring Street mayoral suite with predilections for how and with whom he likes to operate, but he would be beholden to no one.

That said, we’re still talking about $21.2 million deposited in his campaign bank account just since the primary, which is almost nine times the $2.4 million Bass raised from donors in that period. One can’t help but squirm in discomfort or feel that something is messed up knowing that she has attended dozens of fundraisers and spent countless hours dialing for dollars, while all Caruso had to do was write a few checks. Sure, Bass is likely to secure about $1 million in city matching funds, but that basically means she can buy a few more BBs when he’s launching howitzers.

It’s those howitzers that also complicate the money game. Caruso is pouring unprecedented sums into a ground operation, paying handsome hourly rates for people to go door-to-door with a pro-Rick script. This is complemented by the endless TV ads, some that put a shine on Caruso, and many that seek to dirty up Bass, including that weirdo Scientology commercial that everyone who I know just finds hilarious. I’ll assume Caruso’s sharp campaign team tested the heck out of it, but it feels more screwy than punch-tastic.

Perhaps the wildest thing about all of this is that the race is finally about to heat up, and this is when the money will really flow. Election day is Nov. 8, and mail-in ballots will arrive in homes in a few days. In the June primary, hundreds of thousands of people in the region skipped the polls altogether and picked their person with a stamp. That means the blitz to sway on-the-fence voters is happening now and will continue for the next five weeks—in fact, in the last two days of September Caruso gave himself another $7 million.

Caruso has to amp up his game, and so does Bass. Most publicly cited polls have her in the lead, and most people who follow this stuff still think she is likely to finish first after the molasses-slow vote counting after Nov. 8.

At the same time, Caruso’s wealth, and his willingness to part with a sizable chunk of it, rockets everything into an entirely new and perhaps unpredictable stratosphere. Can dropping nine figures obliterate conventional political wisdom? I think we’re about to find out where the outer limits of campaign cash lie.

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