The contest to become Los Angeles’ next mayor was supposed to be about homelessness, crime and soaring rents and home prices. But lately it’s taken a nasty turn.
In ads run by Democratic U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and her allies, rival Republican-turned-Democrat billionaire Rick Caruso is depicted as a West coast version of former President Donald Trump, who is dodging taxes, blowing a “right wing dog whistle” and lying about Bass’ record.
In advertising from Caruso and his supporters, Bass emerges as an ethically compromised charlatan who missed key votes in Congress and counts an indicted city councilman in her circle of friends.
Voters will have their say Tuesday, when the primary election concludes in what has emerged as a mostly two-person fight between the congresswoman who was on then President-elect Joe Biden’s short list for vice president and the wealthy developer in his first run for public office.
Twelve names are on the ballot, though several candidates have dropped out. If no candidate clears 50% — which is likely with a crowded field — the top two finishers advance to a November runoff.
Bass could become the first woman mayor of Los Angeles and the second Black person to hold the office.
The race has largely focused on homelessness and crime. More than 40,000 people are living in trash-strewn homeless encampments and rusty RVs, and widely publicized smash-and-grab robberies and home invasions have unsettled residents.
A looming question in Los Angeles is who will show up. About 80% of voters didn’t cast ballots when outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti was reelected in 2017.
The eventual outcome could have national implications.
Caruso, 63, who sits on the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and was endorsed by the police union, has positioned himself as a centrist outsider running against City Hall’s progressive establishment. He blames Bass, 68, and other longtime incumbents for sprawling homeless encampments that have spread into virtually every neighborhood and concerns about unsafe streets.
If he performs strongly or even pulls off a surprising win, it would be an unwelcome sign for Democrats defending their fragile majorities in Congress and in other races around the country.
The last time City Hall veered to the political right was in 1993, when voters turned to Republican businessman Richard Riordan to lead the city in the aftermath of the deadly 1992 riots that erupted after four white police officers were acquitted of assault in the beating of Black motorist Rodney King.
Los Angeles, however, is much changed since Riordan’s days. It’s more Latino, less white and more solidly Democratic. Only 13% of registered voters are Republicans.
Caruso’s estimated $4.3 billion fortune has allowed him to run a seemingly nonstop display of TV and online ads. His campaign’s spending — over $40 million as of early this week, most of it his money — has topped all other candidates combined.
By comparison, Bass’ spending has hit about $3.3 million, though both campaigns also have been supported by ads from outside groups.
There’s been competition over celebrity endorsements, as is typical in Los Angeles. Earvin “Magic” Johnson is backing Bass, while Caruso has Snoop Dogg and Gwyneth Paltrow behind him.