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A Higher Calling?

Miles Beller last wrote for the magazine about the making of the Lawrence Bridges film "12." He is co-editor of "American Datelines: Major News Stories from Colonial Times to the Present" (University of Illinois Press, 2003).

In dress and in carriage, Rick Caruso seems an emissary from another era, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age Jay Gatsby, a romantic contradiction of strength and insecurity. Here is a multimillionaire real estate developer who is paid a buck a year for serving as president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. Here is a bottom-line guy who wants to experience life as an artist, to be a creative force free of convention and routine. Here is a Gatsby for our time--an insider who often feels like an outsider, a polished professional who operates as if he continually has something to prove.

At 44, Caruso is thin and fit, with piercing dark eyes and a preternatural year-round tan. He favors Brioni suits and shirts from Turnbull & Asser, while his drink of choice runs to Chivas Regal and his taste in cars to the opulent, with an armada that includes a Bentley and a Mercedes. Given Caruso’s high-gloss image, he initially can come across as self-absorbed as well as self-assured.

This duality is evident when Caruso stops by his newest shopping dominion--the Grove at Farmers Market--and is royally received, the staff greeting him with awe and anxiety. Caruso, impeccably dressed, is ever polite, ever friendly. But he clearly expects to be treated deferentially, to be the focus of attention in his own Magic Kingdom.

While some critics hold that the Grove emits an eerie vibe redolent of “The Truman Show"--the American Dream locked on eternal replay--large crowds are packing this open-air consumer village of retro-Americana. The Grove reflects Caruso’s ardent re-creation of Los Angeles as a safe, harmonious place where children frolic, families stroll arm in arm and the city runs with the smooth, clockwork efficiency of Disneyland.

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You see, Caruso believes that he knows how to make Los Angeles a better place, and he is now seriously weighing whether he might best effect that change as mayor of the city. At this point, it is a private debate. Indeed, Caruso has the money and ambition to mount a serious campaign. But the struggle between the private family man and the emerging public figure is a volatile dynamic. Like Gatsby, Caruso often seeks solitude, looking to retreat to a place deep within himself. Yet, like Walt Disney, one of Caruso’s personal heroes, he loves the big showy gesture, the over-the-top orchestrated public spectacle that generates a big bang and puts him at the center of things. It is this uneasy alliance--an urge to serve harnessed to a desire to control--that both drives Caruso and gives rise to self-doubt and skepticism.

I first met Rick Caruso seven years ago, when our sons were in kindergarten together. Though Caruso initially came across as distant, I once helped him with a speech, without pay or obligation, and discovered complexities and contradictions, his nature sometimes at war with itself. Sentimental one minute, seditious the next, Caruso likes to laugh and does not mind a joke at his own expense. Yet even at his most exuberant you catch those moments where he retreats. But, like Gatsby, Caruso can be a loner who craves fellowship. His baronial Westside home--a 10,000-square-foot mansion filled with such architectural elements as stone fireplaces from a French chateau--is the scene of many extravagant parties. Invitees might include former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, action-adventure star and possible gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who once parked himself at Caruso’s piano with a glass of Scotch and played standards deep into the night.

“We were a close family,” Caruso remarks when asked to consider his formative years as a middle child, two years younger than sister Christina, 10 years older than brother Marc. To track Rick Joseph Caruso’s past is to find a man in a hurry. A 1980 USC graduate with honors who enthusiastically indulged in fraternity life, Caruso received his law degree from Pepperdine in 1983. It was his father, Hank, who made sure this son became a lawyer. “I was told, ‘You will go to law school.’ I didn’t want to go,” recalls Caruso, settling in his study, a relatively small room dominated by a large wall of books. “I wanted to get my MBA. And he said, ‘No, you’re going to law school.’ ”

In the family pantheon, Hank Caruso, 81, is the bar against which all is measured. The son of an Italian immigrant, he started out by selling used autos and then built a dynasty of hugely profitable new car dealerships. Along the way, he married Gloria Restagno, and in the 1950s became somewhat of a local celebrity, starring in his own TV commercials and newspaper ads. But in 1957 a grand jury indicted him and several employees based on testimony by buyers who alleged that they had been defrauded. Hank pleaded guilty, and after a series of motions to change his plea, a judge handed down a suspended sentence.

Hank continued in the automobile business, and in the mid-'60s launched Dollar Rent A Car. Over the course of a decade he worked to change the judgment. In 1970, the Superior Court of California set aside the guilty plea and dismissed the case. Today Rick Caruso says the impact of his father’s case on his life has been negligible. “It happened before I was even born and really was not something we spent much time talking about.”

In no small measure, the father’s success helped provide a way for the son to expand his own business, Caruso Affiliated Holdings, which was launched in 1980 while the younger Caruso was still in school. Caruso expanded his enterprise by purchasing land and then leasing it back to his dad’s company. When his father sold the company to Chrysler in 1990, Caruso retained the real estate and remains Dollar’s largest landlord.

Today, Caruso Affiliated Holdings occupies the 14th floor of an Art Deco tower in Santa Monica. The enterprise is responsible for precursors to the Grove such as the Promenade at Westlake and the Commons at Calabasas. It also controls franchise rights to California Pizza Kitchen restaurants from Santa Monica through Malibu and Santa Clarita to San Luis Obispo. The company, staffed by more than 300, with 35 major commercial properties nationwide, has tripled its value in the last eight years, with a compounded annual growth rate between 20% and 30%.

But the suggestion that someone might think that Caruso’s achievements have everything to do with his father continues to sting. Sitting in his office, with its heart-stopping view of the Pacific, Caruso says: “To this day I still hear whispers that, ‘Well, the only reason Rick is successful in business is because his dad gave it to him.’ ” Consequently, he adds, his extreme desire to succeed might spring from a deep-seated need to prove himself. “Inside, I am a very insecure person.”

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This self-doubt is not easily apparent, as Caruso projects a steady confidence. Yet when talking about why he likes being acknowledged by the rich and influential, Caruso suggests that, perhaps, “I really don’t feel I’m as good as they are. Maybe I’m more comfortable with the, quote unquote, average guy.”

Caruso’s public service started in 1984, not long after law school, but it began as a lark--his interest initially spurred by a friend’s commissioner’s badge. “I said, ‘Geez, to be in L.A. being single with a badge!’ ” The friend persuaded then-Mayor Tom Bradley to appoint Caruso as a commissioner to the Department of Water and Power--he was 25 and one of the youngest public appointees in Los Angeles history. Under Bradley and then Mayor Richard Riordan he ended up serving 15 years, including a stint as president, longer than any board member since the 1920s.

Caruso was caught in a political ambush in 2000 when the City Council voted down his nomination to the Harbor Commission--an effort to punish Riordan for making appointments to further the political fortunes of his favored successor, Steven Soboroff. The irony was that Caruso was a Hahn man. Having unwittingly acted in this power play, Caruso declined to sign on with the Police Commission when Riordan--having fired Gerald Chaleff--asked him to take over as president in early 2001. Five months later, when newly elected Mayor James K. Hahn approached Caruso about becoming a member of the commission, he again said no.

“I was worried about the exposure, the high profile,” Caruso now says, looking back on why he initially demurred. “And I was swamped at work. I had another life.” Hahn persisted. Finally, Caruso agreed, though not long after he phoned the mayor, saying he had second thoughts. Caruso considered Hahn so gracious in accepting his flip-flop that, after hanging up, he found himself thinking he owed some allegiance to the new mayor. “I respect him so much,” says Caruso, who reversed himself again and took the post. “I did it because I knew he needed someone to help him turn it around.”

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The challenges began immediately. In early 2002, the deadline for whether to renew then-LAPD Chief Bernard Parks’ contract was approaching. Caruso, who had been elected commission president, found himself accused of insulting Rep. Maxine Waters after learning that she and community activists might stage a rally in support of Parks at the then-soon-to-open Grove. An anonymous letter was circulated, written by someone claiming to be an LAPD member. It alleged that Caruso, in a meeting at the Grove regarding its opening, which was attended by several top-level police personnel, exclaimed: “The bitch Waters wants to come here?”

Waters declined to be interviewed for this story, but in the heat of last year’s controversy, she attended a commission meeting, telling her supporters that she intended to challenge “little Rickie Caruso.” He did not attend the session, in which Waters asked: “If it is all right for the Police Commission president to call a congresswoman a ‘bitch,’ is it all right for police officers on the street to call women bitches?”

When Caruso is asked if he did, in fact, slur Waters, he answers that he does not comment on what goes on in private meetings. He does say that the ensuing contretemps “didn’t bother me since it was such a clearly transparent ploy to get me off the commission. It wasn’t about how good [Parks] was as a chief. It was all about me. It was silly.”

After the Police Commission voted to deny Parks another term, Caruso led the search for a new chief. He received advice from everyone, including former President Bill Clinton when they were seated together during a fund-raiser for Gov. Gray Davis. When Clinton learned that Caruso headed the Police Commission, he cracked, “Boy, you’re in the middle of things.” For the next 90 minutes, the former president offered his view of the candidates--in particular Bill Bratton, New York City’s ex-top cop, whom Caruso was going to interview later that day.

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The commission soon selected Bratton, with Caruso calling him “the best of the best.” Now, many months later, Caruso faces his greatest test. Issues such as the Police Department’s high-speed chase procedures and its ability to deal with escalating gang violence have raised deep concerns. Indeed, the number of homicides in Los Angeles has risen every year since 2000, and it increased by 10% last year. If Bratton is unable to turn things around, it could wound Caruso politically, diminishing his credibility and leadership.

Perhaps Caruso’s deepening desire for a possible mayoral run is the next natural step to further prove himself. Otherwise, he seems to have it all. Since 1987, he’s been married to his wife, Tina, a kind, soft-spoken blond who once worked as an actress and model. Their four children were the inspiration for bronze statues featured at the Grove.

In addition to serving as president of the Police Commission, Caruso is a sure presence in California politics. He has given some $200,000 over the years to help finance Davis’ campaigns and is a key member of the governor’s kitchen cabinet. He also is an active force in Hahn’s administration, and wields clout as a contributor and board member of many major nonprofit groups.

Yet for Caruso, the nascent drive to become mayor has more to do with affection for the city than with a policy wonk’s compulsion to tinker with government.

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“I love the climate, the energy, the diversity of Los Angeles, its independence,” Caruso says. Moreover, as he sees it, the city does not have to follow New York or Chicago to achieve its potential. “L.A. does not care what the rest of the country is doing. It has its own culture, its own lifestyle.”

For instance, Caruso views L.A.'s lack of a real downtown as a virtue, since there are “many heartbeats to Los Angeles.” However, he finds the city’s “crime and dirt” an increasingly disturbing element that must be dealt with if life is to improve. Caruso believes his background makes him uniquely qualified for the job. He sees himself as “a bottom-line kind of guy” who is not beholden to politicians, not unlike Riordan. But while maintaining that Riordan’s independent stance was tied to an intolerance for bureaucracy, Caruso says he knows how to navigate the straits of City Hall. When Police Commission members individually weigh whether Caruso can change things, most accord him solid marks.

“He is heartfelt,” says David S. Cunningham III, who became a friend in the mid-'80s when they were young attorneys at the firm Finley, Kumble, Wagner. To illustrate his point, he explains how Caruso anonymously offered a $25,000 reward when a young Latino girl in Echo Park was reported missing several months ago. On the deficit side, Cunningham finds that Caruso “will make decisions, executive decisions, and sometimes we are not always consulted because the president does have some extraordinary powers under the [city] charter.” But on balance, Cunningham describes Caruso as able and evenhanded. When Cunningham, who is African American, told Caruso that he would be the lone vote in support of Parks, “I turned to Rick and I said, ‘Look, I expect you to respect my decision.’ And he said, ‘Fine, I will do that.’ ”

Fellow commissioner Rose Ochi speaks of Caruso’s “sweet, human quality,” an attribute that the public may not have glimpsed.

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Whether Caruso can translate his abilities into the electoral realm remains to be seen. He is positioned to be “a significant figure in city politics,” says Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton and former executive director of L.A.'s Appointed Charter Reform Commission. Sonenshein says that Caruso possesses certain qualifications that have characterized mayors in the recent past, including financial resources and political skills as well as experience in government: “Only a few have the visibility and power of the Police Commission president.” Sonenshein adds that Caruso already has passed one important test--"overcoming negatives,” specifically those generated during the bitter battle over whether to reappoint Parks. "[Caruso] came out and he didn’t fold.”

Parks declined comment for this story. Some believe that the former chief, recently elected to the City Council, may have his own mayoral ambitions. Either way, Caruso could have a difficult time courting black votes, as the Waters incident will surely be revisited. “It is a big difference being in government and running for office,” says Sonenshein, adding that if Caruso does decide to run, “he will have to justify every business dealing he has made.”

Timing is another issue. Assuming that Hahn runs for reelection in 2005, it’s unlikely that Caruso would go up against his ally. Beyond that, growing Latino voter registration and turnout may favor Latino candidates in coming elections. Furthermore, Sonenshein says of Caruso: “Who does he represent? Elected officials have all built constituencies. It is difficult to do that as a commissioner in [the current] mayor’s administration.”

If Caruso decides to enter the electoral fray, his political moves will reflect his business philosophy. With each new shopping center, Caruso is trying to construct more precisely his own version of Los Angeles--a gleaming oasis of diversions and leisure outfitted with retro-architecture suggestive of venerated virtues. True, Caruso’s centers are designed to get customers to linger so they might spend more money. But Caruso insists that his joy comes from the pleasure his developments bring to visitors. “I think that drives me more than anything. It sounds so corny and so silly, but that’s what gives me the passion to do what I do.”

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The capstone realization of Caruso’s vision is the Grove. For more than a dozen years, other developers had vainly tried building on the site adjacent to the 1930s-era Farmers Market at Third Street and Fairfax Avenue. But local residents were not impressed with various plans for an indoor mall. Caruso--as he has done elsewhere--listened to the residents’ views rather than push his demands, and he got the nod.

What resulted is a $160-million project organized around an idealized--though some critics say sanitized--version of an American town square. With its functioning trolley that mimics an old-fashioned streetcar, the Grove is a walkabout cyclorama of a kinder, gentler USA; a smiley-face simulacrum of America before snipers, before terrorism, before bio-warfare. Ironically, the Grove also evokes America before shopping malls displaced local tradesmen. Still, for a great many, the Grove is an oasis of fun and pleasure.

According to Dan Burgner, Caruso’s senior vice-president of operations, close to 13.5 million visitors are projected to have stopped by the Grove during its first year in 2002, surpassing by nearly 1 million the current annual attendance at Disneyland.

Yet not everyone is dazzled by Caruso’s creations. “The traffic has increased tremendously,” says Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Assn., which was consulted early on about the Grove. Though Plotkin is pleased with many aspects of the development, she finds that the traffic plans tied to the Grove have not panned out. “It makes life very tough on those of us in the area to get around, to do normal activities.”

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Additionally, Caruso’s aesthetics are being taken to task. In 1998, after the Promenade at Westlake opened, Stefanos Polyzoides, an architect and urban planner who is a strong proponent of New Urbanism--a movement advocating pedestrian-centric cities--dismissed Caruso’s project as trivial: “It’s a tired example of the fact that a mall is a mall is a mall. You can’t do anything there but shop. Whatever the style is, or however successful, it’s a classic suburban sprawl project.”

Doug Meyer, an architect and associate partner at the L.A. office of Altoon + Porter Architects, thinks the Grove “is like a theme park. It’s Disney. [Caruso] has created a Main Street USA environment.”

“Well, I’d be happy to be compared to Walt Disney any day of the week,” Caruso counters. “He is one of the true geniuses in the world.” Besides, Caruso sees nothing wrong with evoking “The Happiest Place on Earth.” “When you walk into Disneyland, you feel good. And I think you feel good when you walk into one of our properties.”

Caruso, who reveres Frank Sinatra’s swaggering “My Way,” also fancies himself like the late iconic crooner: “He’s classy, he’s elegant, sophisticated. He’s also a little bit irreverent. You know, like me, he likes having his cocktails at night. Likes hanging around with friends. Maybe getting a little out of hand every once in a while, which I do.”

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But the closer model is businessman-turned-politician Richard Riordan--though Caruso will have to fight the convenient idea that he too is a rich, impatient autocrat. Politically, Caruso says that although he started out on the right he has been moving leftward. This shift, he says, has been spurred by his involvement with the city, with seeing how things are firsthand. Where once Caruso balked at government assistance, he now believes that more is needed to help the disadvantaged.

When Hahn is asked if Caruso would make a good candidate, he takes a moment and then answers, “I think he is a capable man, a well-rounded individual, who is very bright and [who] cares. He likes public service. Those are the people you want to be in politics.”

Bratton says Caruso “would be a natural” for elected office, but he also believes that Caruso could find political life frustrating because of its incessant demand for consensus and accommodation. “If there is a negative, as people would look at him, it would be impatience” since Caruso is “a charger” who “doesn’t like wasting time.”

But Hahn also points to a certain sensitivity. Moreover, like Jay Gatsby, Rick Caruso instinctively seems to understand what others want, whether dealing with hostile homeowners or belligerent bureaucrats. Might this also be the case with Los Angeles voters? For what Fitzgerald wrote of Gatsby and his knowing smile also is true of Caruso: “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it . . . [It] believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

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Still, with characteristic ambivalence, Caruso wrestles with his future. “I’m very frustrated by government. I’m not sure I could last.” He starts to laugh. Then, with a wide smile that could just as easily turn into its opposite, he explains, “Because I’m much better as a dictator.”


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