Why L.A.’s Next Mayor Won the Election Is Obvious—She’s Karen Bass

Cityside Column: Rick Caruso could have spent $500 million. Going up against this candidate at this time, he was destined to finish second
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The 2022 Los Angeles mayor’s race will be remembered for two things: It was the contest when the city left the Pleistocene Era and joined major U.S. cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and so many other modern metropolises and finally elected a woman mayor; it was also the battle when mall master Rick Caruso spent a gobsmacking $109 million in a failed effort to succeed outgoing mayor Eric Garcetti.

A couple hundred thousand uncounted votes remain, but the lead Bass now has stretched in recent days, and it’s clear to me, the Associated Press, and Caruso himself that this thing is over. After Bass was down 12,000 votes on election night, the mail-in ballots that were processed broke hard toward the left. The Wednesday update from the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk gave the longtime pol a six-point advantage and a lead of 46,578 votes. The AP called the contest in the afternoon. Then Caruso called Bass to concede the race. The gracious candidate issued a gracious note headlined, “Statement from Mayor-elect Karen Bass.” Now it’s time to formally install the transition team.

Los Angeles never experienced an election like this and for all the division and late-stage clawing, it was a heckuva contest. Voters habituated to complaining about picking from among two City Hall insiders instead had actual variety in this cycle and the chance to choose their own adventure. Yet for all the candidates’ differences, and the divergent career paths they took, Bass and Caruso each had perhaps the most important thing in common: They both clearly love Los Angeles and are committed to making it better. I know that sounds hokey but it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Thinking about this race, it is impossible to escape the introduction of Caruso’s seemingly never-ending bankroll, and when the final figures are tallied, he will likely have outspent Bass by an 11-to-1 ratio. The more than $53 million he dropped on TV and radio ads is already legion. Some are snickering at what his campaign team, headed by Ace Smith, earned in salaries; others will gag when the final dollar-per-vote cost is determined.

The Twittersphere is full of snarky comments about Caruso wasting $100 million, but like most everything on Elon Musk’s new platform, those statements lack nuance and miss a lot. If you step back and look at the match-up in this race, it becomes clear that every dollar Caruso spent was necessary to get as far as he did. The $41.5 million he shelled out over four months in the primary accomplished his first mission—boosting his name ID, trampolining a rookie candidate into the runoff, and beating out a field of experienced politicians. The $67 million he unleashed in the general election was unprecedented but sharply strategic. After the primary ad blitz, he launched another flotilla of TV commercials, and as Nov. 8 approached he also invested heavily in a ground game of door knockers who fanned out across L.A. and sought to convince low-propensity voters that, er, Caruso can. He then paid attention and directed ample resources toward Latino and Asian-American voters. It’s not like spending $20 million less would have given him a better chance to win.

Of course, going nine figures deep over nine months didn’t work, and the strategy actually didn’t come all that close—there could easily be an eight-point difference by the time all the votes are counted—so those looking to throw darts have a big target. This leads to what is perhaps the overwhelming truth of this race, albeit something we could only know in the endgame: Caruso could have spent twice as much and he still likely would have lost. Heck, he could have dropped $500 million and he probably would have finished in second place.

That’s because ultimately it was less about him and more about the other name on the ballot. Simply, Los Angeles wants Karen Bass. She was the right candidate at the right time.

Given her sizable victory in the primary and now the general election, it’s silly that some ever doubted her enormous odds of winning. She ticks off every box on a hypothetical Ideal Los Angeles 2022 Mayor Checklist. She’s a city native who worked as a physician assistant and then launched the South L.A. social justice nonprofit the Community Coalition. She made history as the first Black woman to be Speaker of the state Assembly. She served more than a decade in Congress. Then, a couple of years before she announced her run, her reputation shot into the stratosphere when she made the shortlist to be Joe Biden’s running mate.

Bass didn’t need tens of millions of dollars to boost her name ID; she was L.A.’s mayoral favorite even before she entered the race in September 2021. Then there was her most important advantage: Bass is a lifelong, pro-choice Democrat, running for the top office in an overwhelmingly Blue city.

More than anything, this made the math impossible for Caruso. Bass is who she is, a point hammered home as one by one, she nabbed the endorsement of every big-name Democrat still breathing, including Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, Caruso is a business mastermind with a long record of philanthropy and commitment to the civic structure of the city—but put him next to Bass and he gets painted as a one-time Republican who only registered as a Democrat three weeks before declaring his candidacy. Many saw his party jump as political opportunism.

Caruso issued a credible commercial explaining his party shift. That might have worked in another race or against another candidate, but not in this one going up against Bass. He could have promised a baby donkey to every voter, but her Democratic bona fides would still have blown him away.

L.A. wants Bass because its voters trust her connection and dedication to the Democrat’s ideals. Full stop.

This is interesting because, in certain areas, her campaign underwhelmed. Even though she smartly maintained momentum after the primary and during the summer, her fundraising machine was nothing special—when everything is counted up, she will probably report about $5 million in the runoff period, which is nearly what Eric Garcetti pulled in nine years ago. But Garcetti had just a two-month window to ask donors for dollars after the primary, and Bass had five.

There was also the Bass campaign’s weak messaging. In the weeks before the election I had a sort of litmus test: I would ask a variety of people to define what each candidate’s campaign was about. Every respondent, from age 15 to their 60s, mentioned homelessness as the cornerstone for Caruso, and many also said crime. Those TV ads worked.

But when it came to Bass, literally no one had any specific answer for what her campaign was about. I have been following the mayoral election for 32 months, and I have no idea what it was about besides it ending with the inauguration of Mayor Karen Bass.

But maybe that’s the point and the most important takeaway. Bass didn’t have Caruso’s money but she has an unparalleled record and a lifetime of applicable experience. People also like her, and you can’t dismiss this in an election. She also managed to run a 14-month-long race without a big screw-up—a feat not as easy as it sounds.

The lesson may be that you don’t need that strong of a campaign if you’re a great candidate, and in the end, Bass was a great candidate. Her 40-year career superseded the ups and downs of any electoral cycle. Angelenos want her. Angelenos trust her. Angelenos believe in her.

And in three weeks, Karen Bass will be the 43rd mayor of Los Angeles.

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