L.A. on the Record: The mayor’s race, live from the Grove

Buscaino and Caruso at the Grove
City Councilmember Joe Buscaino, at lectern, announced that he was dropping out of the Los Angeles mayoral race and putting his support behind Rick Caruso, right, in an event held May 12 at the Grove, a mall developed by Caruso.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our local elections newsletter. It’s Julia Wick, here with an assist from David Zahniser for our second to last dispatch (!) before the primary.

The Grove — a Disney-esque Los Angeles retail complex developed by mayoral candidate Rick Caruso — has become an unlikely campaign destination in recent weeks.

First, Councilmember Joe Buscaino‘s mayoral campaign took its dying breaths a stone’s throw from an AMC multiplex. Cordoned off from the shoppers and tourists by a set of small black velvet ropes, Buscaino dropped out of the race and endorsed Caruso in the heart of the Grove.

Two weeks later, a smaller group of reporters trekked back to the luxury mall to see longshot candidate Ramit Varma throw his support to Caruso.

That event was held on an outdoor patio accessible through Caruso’s private office suite, where fresh orchids were plentiful and the inlaid Caruso family crest gleamed from the center of marble floors.


A single copy of the Montecito Journal featuring Caruso rested on the coffee table in the upstairs lobby, across from purple couch cushions that appeared to match Caruso’s suit on the magazine cover.

The candidate’s malls are known for their spectacle and highly curated sense of place, and every detail in the offices was similarly accounted for.

Campaign events in a candidate’s shopping mall are a surreal experience, even in a race upended by mountains of cash and a high-gloss production values. But is there anything actually untoward about it?

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and former president of the L.A. City Ethics Commission, said she didn’t see any issues, as long as the Caruso campaign was paying for use of the space or properly recording it as an in-kind donation.

Peter Ragone, a spokesperson for the Caruso campaign, said the Grove had been chosen for those events because it was a convenient and central location that made sense on those days. Most of the campaign’s events were in other venues around the city, he said. The campaign paid Caruso’s company comparable market rates for the use of space and resources during the Buscaino event and have not yet done accounting on the more recent Varma event, Ragone said.

Caruso’s vast wealth and personal business brand are inextricable from his candidacy: He wouldn’t be able to blanket the city with his message without his personal fortune. And that message hinges on using his success as a businessman (developing malls like the Grove) as reason to vote for him.


But there was no promotional flogging of the mall at either event. In fact, it would be difficult to argue that Caruso is using his campaign for financial gain, given that he has already hemorrhaged tens of millions of dollars paying for it.

(Caruso has said that he will put his company, which owns and operates billions of dollars’ worth of commercial properties in Southern California, into a blind trust and allow his chief development officer to take the helm if he wins.)

Still, Levinson said the standards for impropriety would be more stringent if Caruso won the election.

“There’s something very different about having a mayoral candidate stage a rally at their place of business, versus the mayor holding an event there,” she said.

State of play

‘WHY DID RICK CARUSO DARKEN THIS IMAGE?’: The Caruso campaign is under fire for artificially darkening images of his opponent Rep. Karen Bass in an attack ad released last week. At a rally held by Bass supporters on Thursday morning, posters featuring the images were displayed and a speaker denounced the ads as racist.

“Caruso is stoking racial fears by airing ads that artificially darken Congresswoman Bass’ face,” Moms in Office founder Simona Grace said at the rally. “The Republican Party has been using these kind of dogwhistle racist politics for years.”

The Caruso campaign said the high-contrast filter was quickly removed from the ad after objections were raised and noted that supporters of Bass used a high-contrast filter in an attack ad targeting Caruso.

It’s true that contrast or shadow effects are not uncommon in attack ads. But Caruso is a white man and Bass is a Black woman, making the optics of an ad that darkens skin tone a very different matter for both. There is a long history of controversy over political attack ads that darken the skin of Black candidates. And regardless of intention, research shows that such images can exacerbate viewers’ implicit racial biases.

A sign with the two images displayed at a small rally
Images of the Rick Caruso ad that provoked criticism were on display at a rally in support of Rep. Karen Bass’ mayoral campaign on Thursday morning.
(Julia Wick / Los Angeles Times)

UNPACKING THE FERVENT ‘50+1’ SPECULATION: The whisperings about whether Caruso might be attempting a shoot-the-moon strategy by exceeding the 50% threshold in June have grown deafening in recent weeks. While it is technically possible for a candidate to win the mayorship in June, experts say it would be highly unlikely. Here’s why.

WHITHER THE VALLEY? The San Fernando Valley has evolved from its largely white, conservative past to resemble the more diverse city of Los Angeles as a whole. Which, as columnist Sandy Banks writes, raises the question: Karen Bass or Rick Caruso?

WHERE THE CANDIDATES STAND ON POLICING: Policing and crime in Los Angeles have been some of the dominant issues in the race. The Times’ James Queally takes a look at where the candidates stand on various aspects, and how their positions differ.

— A PISSING MATCH BETWEEN MOGULS: Caruso and Hollywood titan Jeffrey Katzenberg, who supports Bass, have been publicly quarreling over the race.

PLAYING CATCH-UP: Did you miss last week’s KCRW-Los Angeles Times mayoral forum on homelessness? You can still listen to the podcast version.

And in non-mayoral news ...

PAGING MOM AND DAD: With Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s ambassadorial nomination stalled in the U.S. Senate, his parents have taken a step more typical of industries or governments: They hired a national lobbying firm to help clear the path to a vote. It is highly unusual for a politician’s parents to hire a lobbying firm on behalf of their adult son.

HOME IS WHERE THE VOTER REG IS: The Times looked at the race between Councilmember Curren Price and college administrator Dulce Vasquez, which has focused heavily on the amount of time Vasquez lived — and voted — in the 9th District, which takes in part of South Los Angeles. Price said Vasquez lacks roots in, or knowledge of, the district. Vasquez, the daughter of immigrants, said she’s well aware of the district’s issues.

RENTER REVOLT: The Los Angeles City Council voted Friday to make an offer on Hillside Villa, a 124-unit apartment complex in Chinatown, following an emotionally charged hearing where residents expressed rage over huge rent hikes. The proposal comes as Councilman Gil Cedillo, who represents Chinatown, is in a tough re-election fight. But there are still a number of uncertainties, including the building’s price and whether every tenant will get to stay.

The money shot

The latest tranche of campaign finance disclosures were released Thursday, revealing what candidates took in and spent from April 24 through May 21, according to filings submitted to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

We’ll start with the two big headlines: Bass is seeing some real donor momentum and raised nearly half a million in less than a month. And Caruso continues to pour money into his campaign, with self-funding that will likely surpass $40 million before the primary.

Bass’ campaign took in about $466,000 in contributions during the April 24 through May 21 filing period and spent about $1.75 million.

Caruso raised about $145,000 in contributions and spent about $12 million during that same period. The new filings (along with an additional 24-hour contribution report from just after the May 21 deadline) reveal that Caruso has now put $37.5 million of his own money into his campaign.

Councilmember Kevin de León took in roughly $156,000 in contributions and spent about $775,000. He also received more than $100,000 in city matching funds during that same period.

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  • Who’s running the city? It’s still Eric Garcetti. His confirmation as ambassador of India remains in limbo, but Gil and Sukey Garcetti are on the case.
  • The latest in mayoral endorsements: Mazel tov to Bass on endorsements from a large group of Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Sharon Brous, former Reps. Howard Berman, Mel Levine and Henry Waxman and former L.A. City Councilwoman Roz Wyman. Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich endorsed Mel Wilson. Caruso was endorsed by the Central City Association and reality TV moguls Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner.
  • And other city endorsements: Korea Daily and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99-Education Workers United endorsed Tim McCosker in CD 15. Planned Parenthood Advocacy Project for Los Angeles County endorsed Greg Good in CD 11.

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

  • Dig of the week: “It’s bizarre that Caruso would spend tens of millions of dollars persuading Angelenos to vote for him while largely ignoring one of the most pressing challenges facing the city.” — Times energy reporter Sammy Roth, writing in his climate newsletter about Caruso’s lack of a plan on climate action.
  • On the docket for next week: Monday is Memorial Day. The Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council is hosting a Zoom forum with candidates for the LAUSD District 4 board seat on Tuesday evening.

Stay in touch

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