Perhaps I have a bit of an ingrained East Coast bias. After all, I wrote several pieces about last year’s fight to determine New York City’s next Mayor, yet I haven’t touched on this year’s contest to lead Los Angeles. Well, that ends right now.
Incumbent Mayor Eric Garcetti is term-limited, giving us an open race to become L.A.’s 43rd Mayor. The polling shows that two candidates are far out ahead of the pack, Congresswoman Karen Bass and businessman Rick Caruso. The June 7th primary, however, will only end the first phase of their fight.
You see out in California they have a nonpartisan blanket primary. To put it simply, instead of holding Democratic and Republican primaries to determine party nominees, primaries in the Golden State are a free-for-all where the top two finishers regardless of party affiliation advance to the general election. Since parties aren’t listed on the ballot, it’s supposed to help Republicans in deep-blue California, but more often than not the result is two Democrats vying for office come November.
If Karen Bass’ name rings a bell, you’re likely remembering back to June 2020 when she emerged as a late sleeper candidate for Joe Biden’s Vice-Presidential pick. Bass, of course, lost out to fellow Californian Kamala Harris and didn’t even get her Senate seat as a consolation prize. So with Nancy Pelosi blocking a possible ascent in House leadership, and Dianne Feinstein hanging on to that other Senate seat, Bass is instead eyeing the top job in L.A.
Bass has a one-of-kind personal background that includes anti-war activism in the 1960s, a Cuban sojourn in the 1970s, community work against crime and drugs in the 1980s and 1990s, and becoming a state and national legislator in the 2000s and 2010s.
Rick Caruso, on the other hand, is the son of the Dollar Rent-A-Car founder and started his own real estate company. A billionaire who served on the city’s Water and Police Commission Boards, Caruso is making his first foray into elective office.
The main obstacle for Caruso will likely be his former membership in the California Republican Party. As detailed by Michael Blood of the AP, Caruso was a Republican for decades until becoming an independent in 2011. He went back to the party in 2016, probably so he could support John Kasich in the presidential primary (Caruso served as John Kasich’s California co-chair), only to become an independent again in 2019. Last February, he finally became a Democrat.
Despite the state’s blanket primary, Caruso is right to suspect his old party affiliation might be a problem. Since 1961, Democrats have won 13 of L.A.’s last 15 mayoral elections. The lone exception was Richard Riordan, who won as a Republican in 1993 and 1997.
In order to shore up his appeal to the City of Angels, Caruso is touting endorsements from the likes of Kim Kardashian, Snoop Dogg and Gwyneth Paltrow. At the same time, Bass has her own cavalcade of celebrity backers including Magic Johnson, J.J. Abrams and Jane Fonda. One particularly impactful celebrity endorsement worth diving into, though, is Jeffrey Katzenberg’s support of Karen Bass.
Katzenberg is one of the most colorful characters in modern Hollywood history. After serving as Michael Eisner’s right-hand man at Paramount in the early 1980s, Katzenberg followed Eisner to Disney and oversaw a Renaissance in their animation department. After a high-profile split with Eisner, he co-created DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. In recent years, however, Katzenberg’s’ career has been defined by the disastrous failure of Quibi. All the while, the indefatigable Katzenberg rose to become one of the most powerful fundraisers for the Democratic Party.
Unfortunately for Caruso, he seems to have become Katzenberg’s latest project. The mogul gave $600,000 to a PAC which is running TV ads hammering Caruso as a Republican Trump clone, highlighting an L.A. Times piece that called Caruso “the Donald Trump of Los Angeles”. The Caruso campaign is quick to point out that the line in question came from a 2007 article, years before Trump’s MAGA persona fully emerged in 2011, that merely refers to their shared history in real estate.
In response to the spot, Caruso publicly blasted Katzenberg as a liar, a clear sign that his campaign is nervous about the focus on their candidate’s GOP past. After all, liberal L.A. voters might think twice about electing a man who sits on the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
The ads were probably prompted by Caruso’s recent rise in the polls, as Caruso and Bass are both now in the mid-30s vying for the front-runner spot. Meanwhile, City Councilman Kevin de Leon is stuck in single digits and a distant third place. Other candidates like City Attorney Mike Feuer and Councilman Joe Buscaino have dropped out and endorsed Bass and Caruso respectively.
This race will ultimately come down to Hispanic voters. As of the 2020 Census, Hispanics and Latinos make up about 47% of the population of Los Angeles. De Leon’s poor poll numbers, and his inability to win L.A. in his 2018 Senate race against Dianne Feinstein, suggest his support won’t move the needle for either candidate.
Bass is betting that former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is able to move that needle. Villaraigosa, the first Hispanic L.A. Mayor since the 19th Century, is throwing his support behind Bass. Conversely, Caruso is betting that running to Bass’ right on crime will prove politically fruitful with Hispanic voters. Much as Riordan rose to power in the aftermath of the city’s 1992 race riots, Caruso believes concerns about crime could lead voters to consider a political newcomer.
One final question is just how passionately the Democratic establishment will rally behind Bass to prevent a former Republican from becoming Mayor of America’s second-largest city.
A Bass win, of course, would give the Biden White House a rare shot at a 2022 victory. So when the President recently signed an executive order on the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Rep. Bass got a prime spot at the ceremony. Vice President Harris would also get the opportunity to mend fences with Bass by hitting the campaign trail with her this fall.
California’s primary is set for June 7th, and the first round will give us a good look at how the candidates stand five months out from November. Also holding their primaries on Tuesday are Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota. I’ll be back next week as always to break down these results.