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L.A. on the Record: Gotta have faith ... or do you?

A man in a suit and a woman in a flowered dress stand outside alongside a church sign.
Mayoral candidate Mel Wilson and his wife, Bessie, worship at Chatsworth Foursquare Church.
(Marcel Wilson)

Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our local elections newsletter. It’s Dakota Smith and Julia Wick at the helm of this week’s edition.

Following a weekend that marked Passover, Ramadan and Easter, what role is religion playing in the mayor’s race?

Notably, several candidates were raised Catholic, and some are leaning into their faith on the campaign trail. Rick Caruso, who helped support the construction of the Our Savior Parish and USC Caruso Catholic Center, introduced himself to voters in February with an advertisement titled “Faith, Family and Community.”

City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who attends Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Parish, also speaks at campaign events about growing up in a Catholic household and giving back to community.

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Councilman Kevin de León also was raised Catholic and identifies with the faith but is not a regular churchgoer, said his spokesperson Jonathan Underland.

Community activist Gina Viola told us she was born Catholic but raised in a home that observed Jewish traditions and Buddhist beliefs.

“My personal faith and spirituality centers around the respect for our planet and the wider cosmos and the belief that all beings share a common birthright: the right to food, shelter and community,” said Viola, adding that she doesn’t align with a religion but identifies “philosophically as a humanitarian.”

City Atty. Mike Feuer, who is Jewish and attends Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, has talked extensively about his faith and family as he crisscrosses the city. Feuer grew up in San Bernardino, where there were very few Jewish students, and he often had to explain his faith to friends and teachers, he told us.

“When the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, I was in third grade. My teacher turned to me and asked if I could explain the Jewish perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict to the class,” Feuer said.

Businessman Mel Wilson said he and his wife, Bessie, attend Chatsworth Foursquare Church and the couple are “born-again Bible-believing Christians.” The pair also volunteered for more than 30 years as Christian education directors and Sunday school teachers at the church.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, meanwhile, is a Baptist and attends First New Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in South L.A., Bass spokesperson Anna Bahr said.

Although the candidates may make appearances at churches in South L.A. and synagogues in the San Fernando Valley — either in person or via Zoom — L.A. is far too big and too fragmented for any one house of worship or denomination to wield overwhelming power.

Mayoral candidates “who belong to a mainstream church — Jewish, Catholic, Baptist — I think people say, ‘Oh, that’s good. That’s nice,’” said political consultant Bill Carrick, who isn’t representing anyone in the mayor’s race. “They don’t care though. That’s not going to decide their vote.”

For much of the 20th century, political power in L.A. was dominated by white Protestants, many of whom had migrated from the Midwest. But in 1973, an informal biracial coalition of white Jews and Black Angelenos famously wrested City Hall from Mayor Sam Yorty, electing Tom Bradley as the city’s first Black mayor and permanently tilting L.A. politics leftward.

Bradley’s successor was Richard Riordan, a devout Catholic of Irish heritage known for supporting charitable causes.

“People who were not Catholic respected him for his faith, for charitable endeavors that in his mind were very much connected to his religious faith,” said Raphe Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.

The religious demographics of this year’s candidates are a contrast to those of the 2013 mayoral election, when Eric Garcetti became the city’s first elected Jewish mayor in modern times and three of the top candidates were either Jewish (Jan Perry and Garcetti) or married to a Jewish person (Wendy Greuel).

The Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, a pastor and assistant director of community and public engagement at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, said that the varied Christian and interfaith groups she participated in all had “a very targeted eye” on the race.

But in the wake of the pandemic, Smith-Pollard thinks the “old model” of candidates visiting various churches will be less prevalent this election cycle in favor of more virtual events.

State of play

TAX DAY BRINGS PAIN ... FOR CARUSO: Times columnist Michael Hiltzik writes that the minimal tax details released to the public by Caruso suggests “that Caruso thinks L.A. voters are so uninterested in the issue, or so incapable of noticing that he’s left out crucial information, that they must be idiots.”

Caruso, speaking to The Times at an event Wednesday, said he was “very clear” on what he would produce. “I don’t think releasing my tax returns changes one iota of who I stand for as a person and what I’ve done in my life. My tax returns aren’t going to define that, and I’m very proud of what I’ve done and I’ll stand behind that.”

The candidates’ attacks on Caruso may not mean much, according to Eric Hacopian, a political consultant. He told the Daily News that voters were more focused on tough issues such as crime and homelessness. “All of this personal stuff would have mattered far more in better times,” Hacopian said.

Meanwhile, De León, whose campaign said he would release his tax information this past Tuesday, has yet to do so ...

“BRING THE DREAM BACK”: Images of syringes in sandboxes and masked burglars are included in a reelection advertisement from Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who says the California dream “has turned into a nightmare” and pledges to bring it back. And as state Sen. Bob Hertzberg seeks the 3rd District seat of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, he tells voters in a new ad, “Hold Me Accountable.”

CLIMATE WATCH: Some of the mayoral candidates — Bass, Buscaino, De León and Feuer — answered Times reporter Sammy Roth’s questions about climate change, renewable energy and more. And the League of Conservation Voters held a debate Thursday on the issues.

— DELETED TWEETS ON REPEAT: Candidate Kenneth Mejia’s insurgent campaign has brought fresh attention to the city controller’s race and galvanized many of the city’s younger, progressive voters. But his deleted tweets — which, among other things, repeatedly refer to President Biden as a rapist — have become an issue in the race in recent days.

THE STATE OF THE DEFUND CANDIDATES: Several candidates for L.A. City Council are challenging incumbents by running campaigns that call for reducing or eliminating the LAPD budget, reports The Times’ David Zahniser. “Two years after the city erupted in protest over police killings, those candidates — and several others — will test the public’s appetite for reining in law enforcement spending.”

POLITICO SAYS CRIME IS UPSTAGING PROGRESSIVES IN THE RACE: Politico weighs in on policing, crime and the state of the mayor’s race, including activists’ frustration with Bass and De León.

And in non-campaign news ...

HIGH ACHIEVERS: City Council President Nury Martinez, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Los Angeles) all grew up in Pacoima and attended San Fernando High. Martinez this week posted a photo of the trio to celebrate the forthcoming east San Fernando Valley light rail project.

MORE $, MORE COPS: Garcetti released his city budget, which calls for staffing up to 9,735 police officers by mid-2023. To reach that goal, the city would need to hire 780 officers during the next budget year, which begins July 1, reports David Zahniser.

BLAME GAME: For the last two years, the city and county have been defendants in a federal lawsuit about homelessness. Then, earlier this month, the city of Los Angeles settled with the plaintiffs. Ben Oreskes looks at how this proposed settlement represents a growing wedge between the city and county that threatens to undo years of cooperation between the massive bureaucracies at a time when homelessness continues to spiral out of control.

Police union goes anti-Bass; Buscaino pulls ad time

The union representing Los Angeles police officers has started an independent expenditure to oppose Bass. The union, which is backing Caruso, put an initial $500,000 into the committee, union spokesperson Tom Saggau confirmed Friday.

Meanwhile, Caruso remains the only candidate advertising on TV, but back in fall 2021, Buscaino made an ambitious reservation for roughly $2 million in TV airtime for the month before the June primary.

Buscaino — who had the support of 1% of likely voters in the most recent Times poll — canceled that reservation on Wednesday, but his campaign said it was still planning to go up on TV.

“The campaign has amended the TV buy to start sooner,” said Buscaino’s campaign manager Gabriela Medina, who didn’t specify when it would start or how much the buy would be for.

Meanwhile, Caruso put $6 million into his campaign on Monday, bringing the total that the real estate developer has loaned his campaign to a whopping $16 million.

Feverish speculation on exactly how much money the billionaire developer plans to drop ahead of the primary has become political L.A.’s favorite guessing game. According to data from the analytics firm AdImpact, Caruso’s campaign is slated to spend more than $14 million on digital, radio and TV ads through the first week of May — a sum that notably does not include the price of video production or his barrage of glossy mailers and top-flight consultants.

Because the last required campaign filings detailing fundraising and campaign spending were released nearly three months ago, it’s difficult to gauge exactly how much money other campaigns have in the bank at the moment.

But that will change next week — filings showing how much the campaigns have raised and spent since the beginning of the year will be released Thursday, and we’ll be unpacking all of it in next week’s newsletter.

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Quick hits

  • Who’s running the city? Still Garcetti. His nomination to be ambassador to India awaits a Senate vote. The Senate returns to session next week, and it’s expected that the investigation by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) into allegations involving the mayor’s former aide will conclude soon.
  • The latest in mayoral endorsements: Former California First Lady Maria Shriver tweeted out support for Caruso: “Los Angeles needs someone totally focused on its present & its future. ... We’re rooting for you.” De León was endorsed by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) Action Fund and the Ethiopian Democratic Club of Los Angeles.
  • And other city endorsements: The Times endorsed certified public accountant Kenneth Mejia for L.A. city controller and Lanhee Chen, a public policy expert who teaches at Stanford. CHIRLA endorsed Gil Cedillo in Council District 1, Curren Price in Council District 9 and Hugo Soto-Martínez in District 13. Soto-Martínez was also endorsed by civil rights leader Dolores Huerta. Sam Yebri in District 5 was endorsed by the Southern California Armenian Democrats and the Ethiopian Democratic Club of Los Angeles.

    (If you have an endorsement you’d like to flag for next week, please send it to us. New endorsements only.)

  • On the docket for next week: The West Valley Neighborhood Alliance on Homelessness hosts a virtual city attorney candidate forum on Sunday at 4 p.m. Streets for All hosts a mobility debate on Monday at 5:30 p.m. for the two candidates — City Councilman Curren Price and Dulce Vasquez — running in the City Council District 9 race.
  • Notable fundraisers: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) are hosting a D.C. fundraiser for Bass’ mayoral run on Tuesday. Actors Samuel L. Jackson and Don Cheadle are also hosting a L.A. fundraiser for Bass on Saturday.

Stay in touch

That’s it for this week! Send your questions, comments and gossip to LAontheRecord@latimes.com. Did a friend forward you this email? Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Saturday morning.


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