The conga drum started 90 seconds into the candidate’s speech, shortly after he declared, “Our city has devolved into a place where chaos is common.” A man wearing an American-flag bandana over his face had planted himself down on the asphalt in the middle of the crowd, legs crossed, and begun to play: doonk koonka-doonk, doonk koonka-doonk. It was a sound as familiar on the Venice boardwalk as that of spoken language.
“Get the fuck out of here!” someone yelled.
“You’re a piece of shit,” a man straddling a beach cruiser said, wagging his index finger at the drummer. “You’re being a fucking piece of shit!”
City Councilman Joe Buscaino had come to Venice Beach at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday for his first campaign event of the 2022 mayor’s race. He was standing in a parking lot not ten yards from the boardwalk and from a very large and very strange homeless encampment, recently described by the L.A. Times as a “milelong ribbon of tents and shanties.” The surrounding beachfront real estate is among the most expensive in Southern California, and a clique of Venice homeowners have become some of the most virulently anti-homeless agitators around. About a hundred of them were there that morning, armed with Starbucks cups and handmade signs that read, “Public Beach—No Encampments!!!” and “SAVE US JOE.”
Buscaino, a 15-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, read forcefully from a speech that laid out his three-part plan to tackle homelessness in L.A.: build shelters quickly; send outreach workers out to connect the homeless with shelters and housing; and if unhoused residents repeatedly refused shelters and/or treatment, “order them to get off the streets. And if that means using law enforcement, I support it.” He spoke for ten minutes and was greeted by a scrum of Venetians eager for handshakes and small talk.
And then someone shouted, “Knife! She’s got a knife!” Buscaino’s private security team bundled him away as LAPD officers surrounded a girl in overalls and a bucket hat. Her name was Alaia Smith, or Angel, as she is called, a 19-year-old from Vancouver, Washington, who was living at the Venice encampment and carrying a six-inch hunting knife—for, she said, cutting fruit and to ward off would-be rapists. The knife had fallen out of her sweatshirt, and someone in the crowd had noticed it as she hurriedly picked it up. After a brief struggle, Angel was disarmed, handcuffed, and arrested.
And so L.A.’s 2022 mayor’s race had begun with a perfect Rashomon moment. To those who want the city’s homeless residents packed up and shipped off to Palmdale (or worse), here was a dangerous vagrant who had attempted to knife an elected official. “Homeless Lunatic Pulls Knife On Councilman Joe Buscaino” read a typically hysterical headline on the website of KFI (640-AM), L.A.’s right-leaning talk radio. To left-wing activists affiliated with organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, StreetWatchLA, and Ktown For All, who often protest encampment cleanups in aggressive and confrontational ways, this was only the latest instance of the city criminalizing homelessness and poverty or else it was a false flag event.
While the last contested mayoral election in L.A. was fought over the thinnest of ideological territory by two liberal Democrats with pro-union backgrounds, this one promises to be a contest over a divisive set of issues: crime, police reform, and, above all, homelessness. Buscaino’s positions on those issues are hardly extreme, and his campaign raised an impressive $800,000 in its first two and a half months. But his rhetoric, his supporters’ rhetoric, and some of his staff’s rhetoric have a way of inflaming the opposition, and Buscaino has become the bête noire of L.A.’s progressive activist community.
After the Venice press conference, the People’s City Council tweeted that Buscaino is “L.A.’s Donald Trump.” A tweet from the L.A. Community Action Network called him the “Messiah of Segregation” and “a willing servant of structural racism,” adding, “His vision for bringing L.A. out of houselessness is by force, banishment, and ultimately death.”
I first met Buscaino a decade ago, when he was running for city council. We spent an afternoon driving around the council district, which, in addition to San Pedro, where he was born and raised, includes Wilmington, Watts, and parts of South L.A. He was generically handsome, a bit doughy, with a winning, chipmunk smile. And he was nonconfrontational and full of insipid talking points like, “People are fed up with the standard politics as usual.” Although he was registered as a Republican from 2005 to 2010, his positions lined up with that of a moderate Democrat.
Buscaino won the election, and went about his job in much the same way most council members do: not making too many waves, cozying up to the mayor, voting along with everyone else. (The city council was once notorious for voting unanimously 99 percent of the time; now it’s more like 98 percent.)
During his first term, Buscaino wanted to put a ballot measure before voters to raise sales tax in order fix the city’s crumbling streets. But the idea was repeatedly shot down, first by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, then by Mayor Eric Garcetti, both of whom had their sights set on tax hikes for other causes (closing the budget deficit and building out L.A.’s rail network, respectively), and Buscaino essentially gave up without a fight, a decision he says he now regrets.
At some point, he developed a pushy side. There had long been a proposal to renovate Jordan Downs, a 700-unit, 1940s-era public housing project in Watts. But the project had stalled after the city’s housing authority failed to secure funding. Frustrated, Buscaino wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times blasting the housing authority for not making the project a priority and called for the removal of the agency’s head, Doug Guthrie. The gambit worked—$50 million of funding was secured for the Jordan Downs redevelopment, which is now halfway completed and will double the number of units. It also created a shopping center that includes a supermarket and a Starbucks, the first new commercial development in Watts in recent memory.
I recently spent another afternoon with Buscaino, touring the district again. He wanted to show me how much it had changed. But I was struck by how much he’d changed. He’d lost a bit of weight during the pandemic (he recently took up running). Within minutes of meeting him at his large, Spanish-style house blocks from the Pacific Ocean in San Pedro, he was taking shots at his fellow council members. Of the first-time politician Nithya Raman, a progressive: “I don’t think she knows what she signed up for.” Buscaino’s chief spokesman, Branimir Kvartuc, who joined us for the afternoon, was even less politic. He dismissed City Councilman Kevin de Leon, widely rumored to be running for mayor, as “a scrub,” and said, “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
I asked them about the criticism Buscaino gets from left-wing activists, which the councilman at times seems to almost relish. Kvartuc explained, “We have sort of a no-fear attitude. Every other council member is so afraid. Even Nury,” he continued, referring to City Council President Nury Martinez, who has said she’s considering a run for mayor. “She’s been such a disappointment.” He added, “You have to be combative.”
When Buscaino began running for city council, Kvartuc had just returned to the U.S. from three years in Croatia, where he’d been working as a photojournalist and, later, the owner of a standup paddle-boarding business. (“I’m the godfather of stand-up paddling in Croatia,” he informed me). Kvartuc and Buscaino had been friends growing up, and Kvartuc joined the campaign as a volunteer. Buscaino’s first chief of staff, Doanne Liu, was impressed with Kvartuc’s ability to shoot and edit video quickly and hired him to be director of communications. Kvartuc calls the councilman “Joe”; Buscaino calls Kvartuc “Branny.”
In April, the two were inspecting a homeless encampment in Los Feliz (well outside Buscaino’s district) when they were approached by an activist with StreetWatchLA, Jeffrey Perez de Leon. Kvartuc took a few photos of the councilman stepping around a make-shift shelter. De Leon, who says he thought Kvartuc was shooting video, took offense and shouted, “Yo! What the fuck are you doing here? Stop that.” The 5-foot-8 Kvartuc was startled and, he says, felt threatened by the 6-foot-4 de Leon. Kvartuc responded by going head to chest with de Leon and shouted, “Fuck off! Fuck off! Turn around and fuck off!” All the while, Buscaino, annoyed, was calling out, “Branny. Branny. Branny.” The incident was captured on video and posted to Twitter.
“I’m pretty proud of what I did,” Kvartuc tells me. His boss was no more contrite. “I understood his outrage,” Buscaino says. “I think Branimir represented a majority in the city that are outraged about these advocates.”
Then at a campaign event in August, as Buscaino, flanked by hostile protestors, tried to read a speech, Kvartuc deemed a sign was too close to his boss’s face and grabbed it, causing a scuffle that forced Buscaino to cut his speech.
Says de Leon, “It’s unfortunate how public officials don’t think this kind of behavior is horrible.”
In his own district, Buscaino has drawn criticism over his handling of homelessness, both from progressives like de Leon but also from NIMBY groups, who have opposed the construction of shelters and supportive housing. Both sides have held protests outside his home. Five years ago, Buscaino tried to put up a storage bin facility for unhoused residents to use two blocks from an elementary school. He was met by angry throngs of homeowners opposing the project. He withdrew it. But Buscaino pressed ahead with another site, this time near a police station. When the storage center opened, it was the first of its kind outside Skid Row. In the last few years, the council office has opened up three parking lots for safe camping, four homeless shelters totaling 340 beds, and a parking lot full of 75 “pallet shelters,” or tiny 64-square foot homes equipped with electrical outlets, heat, and air-conditioning. He’s converted three motels into temporary shelters via state and federal government programs and built a complex of 160 permanent supportive housing units.
“We’re doing better than most council districts when it comes to how many solutions we have open and in the pipeline,” says Amber Sheikh, who heads the Council District 15 working group on homelessness.
It’s hard to know how many people are still sleeping on the streets of Buscaino’s district since there was no homeless count this year due to the pandemic. But Sheikh says the largest encampments in San Pedro have shrunk considerably, and she guesses that the number of unsheltered people in the district has gone down.
“We’ve said yes to solutions,” is Buscaino’s constant refrain, and that story largely checks out. Even some of his critics agree. “He has taken a much more urgent approach to building and supporting permanent supportive housing in his district than other members,” says Sabrina Johnson, an organizer with the People’s City Council. But she adds, “I think a lot of that is an excuse to ramp up sweeps.”
Buscaino was the first councilman to restart cleanups of homeless encampments, which the council had placed on hold during the pandemic. And he pushed the city council to pass an ordinance that would have placed strict limits on where the homeless could pitch tents and banned them from sleeping outside if they’d been offered shelter. The council passed a narrower version giving council members authority to decide where the tents would be allowed in their districts, which Buscaino supported and vowed to use aggressively.
“There’s got to be consequences,” Buscaino says. “Because right now, it’s lawlessness on our city streets.”
Talk like this can make Buscaino sound like a bit of a reactionary. He has referred to seeing “buckets of feces” at homeless encampments so often that activists have taken to calling him Joey Buckets. “He takes the worst of what he’s seen and repeats it over and over,” says Johnson. “He really plays up the ‘buckets of feces.’ They don’t have any bathrooms. Where would you shit?”
Buscaino likes to speak about the need for compassion and empathy but offers no apology for his charged rhetoric. “We need to either speak the truth of what’s happening on our streets or paint a rosy picture that all is fine in the city of L.A.,” he says.
My tour with Buscaino took us to a large complex of permanent supportive housing built during his tenure. Buscaino wanted to see a woman whom he had helped move in. We knocked on her door. He called: “Blanca! Concejal Buscaino. Buenas Tardes.” He was clearly excited to see her. “I’d just love to give her a hug.” No one answered.
There’s a side of Buscaino that can be a living dad joke: loud, genuine, maybe a little offensive. When we were walking through a Starbucks parking lot, we passed a young woman struggling to get out of her car and into a wheelchair. Buscaino began to cheer her on, saying, “You got this! You got this!” He went to help her, and she laughed good-naturedly.
Later, we were in Watts with some of his staff when a man walked up to us and asked for some money. Buscaino pulled out a five-dollar bill and stretched it out, then asked, “What are you gonna do with this?”
“I’m gonna go to Popeyes,” the man said, sounding dazed.
“You’re gonna eat?” Buscaino asked, handing him the note. “Make sure you don’t drink.”
One of Buscaino’s staffers asked the man if he needed shelter.
“No, I stay somewhere,” he said.
“What’s your name?” Buscaino asked.
“Are you Italian?”
“No, I’m Black,” the man said calmly, and we all laughed.
“All right, man. I love you,” Buscaino said.
The man started to walk away and then turned back to say, “Thanks for not making me feel bad.”
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