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L.A. on the Record: It’s showtime!

Mayoral candidate Kevin de León talks to Martha Jimenez.
Mayoral candidate Kevin de León talks to Martha Jimenez at the Memorial Day celebration at the Cinco Puntos Mexican American All Wars Memorial in Boyle Heights on Monday.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record, our local elections newsletter. It’s Dakota Smith and Ben Oreskes bringing you the final (!!) newsletter before primary day. We got some help from Dave Zahniser and Julia Wick. Also, be on the lookout for new polling about the Los Angeles mayor’s race tomorrow at latimes.com.

If the mayoral primary felt different this election season, it was. The pandemic meant candidates skipped large in-person events in favor of Zoom meetings and smaller outdoor gatherings.

Retail politics — where candidates spend a lot of time schmoozing with voters, and TV cameras are there to broadcast the images — took a pause for much of the primary.

“The pandemic made it harder to campaign, no question about it. It made it harder to fundraise too,” said Bill Carrick, who represented business leader Jessica Lall, who dropped out of the race and endorsed developer Rick Caruso.

Media relations consultant Helen Sanchez questioned how successful canvassers were because of COVID-19. “People aren’t answering the door,” she said, speaking broadly about the June 7 election.

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One candidate who pushed ahead with traditional campaigning was City Atty. Mike Feuer, who held weekend meet and greets across the city. That strategy didn’t boost his campaign, however, and he dropped out of the race last month.

A silver lining to having forums and debates online was that potentially more people could tune in and hear from the candidates. Many of those conversations are still online.

For example, Caruso talked up his plans for homelessness with the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. (here on YouTube), and City Councilman Kevin de León laid out his policing plans with the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment (here’s the video.)

How effective those events are for communicating with voters is another matter. “It’s a little weird when you’re talking into a computer,” Carrick said. “There’s a rigidity about the process where you’re not really having a back and forth.”

Political consultants also noted that the primary felt like a short race compared with those of years past. Rep. Karen Bass entered last fall but didn’t ramp up her campaign until earlier this year. Both activist Gina Viola and Caruso jumped in about four months ago, and the developer didn’t do as many debates and forums as his rivals.

Carrick predicted that mayoral debates would take on more importance in the runoff when it’s two candidates going head to head.

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In the meantime, how much do the voters really know about the candidates after a campaign season that felt like it was mostly happening online?

Visiting Larchmont Village on Memorial Day, Lucas Hanson, 28, admitted that he was barely paying attention to the race and needed to do some last-minute cramming to understand the field.

He said the advertisements he’d seen on social media were “vacant” and that he couldn’t make a decision by the ads alone.

“If I’m buying a pair of pants online, that’s different,” said Hanson. “If you’re voting for mayor, you need more information.”

A smiling man in a suit and tie stands at a food counter inside a market.
Rick Caruso tours Grand Central Market on Thursday while campaigning to become mayor of Los Angeles.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

State of play

With the primary just days away, we published several profiles of the candidates that you’ll find below. In recent months, we also dived deep on Caruso, exploring why he wanted to run and his time helming the Los Angeles Police Commission and navigating the crises at USC while chairing the university’s board. Be sure to check out our local voter guide for a great compendium of our stories.

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Knowing Karen Bass: How the congresswoman came to start the nonprofit Community Coalition and turn it into a political force speaks to how she might run Los Angeles if she is elected mayor, and how she might tackle the city’s most pressing crisis: homelessness.

Her evolution has been more about method than any shift of principle, which she began developing almost 60 years ago, listening to civil rights marches on the radio with her father, according to interviews Ben Oreskes did with nearly 40 of Bass’ friends, family members and colleagues in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington.

And Jennifer Haberkorn looks at Bass’ time in Congress, where she is praised for her workhorse style and known for her doggedness on two issues: foster children and the relationship between the United States and countries in Africa. But despite gaining seniority in D.C., she never got a major bill enacted with her name at the top.

Knowing KDL: As in his other campaigns, De León has leaned heavily on his personal story, hoping that voters will relate to someone who has struggled, reports Alejandra Reyes-Velarde.

Colleagues and friends describe him as an aggressive, persuasive politician intent on improving the lives of the working class and immigrants, authoring legislation while in the California Legislature such as a “sanctuary state” measure during the Trump era. At campaign events, he paints a picture of a Los Angeles divided between rich and poor.

Knowing Gina Viola: The activist marched in the streets with thousands of frustrated Angelenos two years ago after George Floyd’s murder. A member of an anti-racist group for white people, she was overwhelmed to see the support for Black lives.

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Now, Viola finds herself in television studios and on debate stages, explaining why she should succeed Mayor Eric Garcetti. The question Dakota Smith looks into is how many voters will embrace Viola’s calls for dramatic changes to policing and city spending.

Caruso’s political evolution: The real estate developer has changed his party registration four times in the last 11 years, shifting twice between Republican and “no party preference” before re-registering as a Democrat about four months ago.

—A big week for big stories about the race: The New York Times’ Jennifer Medina and Jill Cowan spent some time at the Grove with Caruso. NYT Opinion’s Jay Caspian Kang also had an interesting take on Caruso’s campaign. Over at the Washington Post, Scott Wilson wrote about public anger driving “an identity-focused mayor’s race.” Politico’s Elena Schneider took the money angle, looking at Caruso’s shock-and-awe spending campaign. New York Magazine’s Alissa Walker has a fascinating meditation on the Grove as a public space — and what the mall says about Caruso’s vision of L.A. And closer to home in Los Angeles Magazine, Peter Kiefer has a fun profile of Ace Smith, the oppo research master and political strategist advising Caruso (and many other powerful California politicians).

Further down the ballot: The race to see who represents much of Los Angeles’ Eastside is heating up and revolving around public safety, and calls made by community activist Eunisses Hernandez to abolish the police — a concept the incumbent Councilman Gil Cedillo opposes. But the contest has dealt even more with the rising cost of housing, and how to address it.

Who can tackle corruption? Six candidates are seeking to replace City Controller Ron Galperin at City Hall, which has been buffeted by FBI probes into council members, political aides and others. David Zahniser looks at the field and what the candidates say they will do to catch wrongdoing.

Go on “Chapo”: Tickets to a comedy show fundraiser benefiting City Council candidates Hugo Soto-Martinez and Hernandez were made free at the last minute after an influx of donations from the online left. Josh Androsky, Soto-Martinez’s communications director, said his appearance plugging the event on the popular leftist podcast “Chapo Trap House,” followed by a pitch on political commentator Hasan Piker’s Twitch stream, spurred the interest. The Democratic Socialists of America-L.A. event raised more than $27,000, according to ActBlue screenshots reviewed by The Times.

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Police $$$ flows: Two years ago, it would’ve been unheard of to see candidates so enthusiastically receive support from the union representing rank-and-file police officers. Now, the union is spending more on its candidates than any other group.

—More attack ads: Bass and the independent expenditure committee supporting her campaign both released new ads attacking Caruso this week. The independent committee’s ad hits Caruso for past donations to pro-gun Republicans. Spokesperson Morgan Miller said the committee was planning a six-figure digital spend for it. The Bass campaign’s ad also focuses on Caruso’s Republican ties and prior ads attacking Bass.

And in (mostly) non-campaign news ...

More no-go zones: The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday instructed its lawyers to draft a major change to the city’s anti-camping ordinance, barring homeless encampments within 500 feet of schools and daycare centers. Candidates in an assortment of races scrambled to weigh in on the measure, with some denouncing it and others welcoming the change.

A new twist on affordable housing: “Nearly $1 million has been raised in two months for a new fund to subsidize rents for Los Angeles Police Department recruits, close to the $1.2 million needed to start the flow of subsidies,” Los Angeles Business Journal’s Howard Fine reports.

Water wise: L.A.’s new drought restrictions went into effect on Wednesday, limiting the watering of lawns and gardens to just twice a week during specific hours. The rules differ depending on whether someone is at an odd- or even-numbered address.

Tepid turnout?

Los Angeles is infamous for its anemic turnout in elections. This year was supposed to be different after city elections were moved from odd-numbered years to even-number ones to coincide with state and national elections.

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But as of Thursday, our friends at Political Data Inc. report that just 9% of ballots sent to city residents had been returned. In some parts of the city — such as City Council District 9, where incumbent Curren Price is facing a challenge from Dulce Vasquez — just 5% of voters have returned their ballots.

PDI data guru Paul Mitchell expects there to be about 25% voter turnout in the city — give or take a few percentage points — and bases this prediction on prior election cycles and the city’s history of having lower turnout than the state writ large. His expectation is that statewide turnout will be closer to 30%.

“When turnout is this low with less than a week to go, you can’t imagine that there’s going to be some mad rush,” Mitchell told The Times.

The low turnout so far comes even as the government has made it easier to vote in this election by sending every registered voter a ballot. There were drop boxes spread out across the city and county, and nearly two weeks of early voting at poll locations.

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Quick hits

  • Who’s running the city? Still Eric Garcetti. His confirmation as ambassador of India awaits a Senate vote. President Biden will be in L.A. next week for the Summit of the Americas conference, and reporters will watch to see if Biden and Garcetti hold events together and face questions about the mayor’s nomination.
  • The latest in endorsements: Fellow billionaire Elon Musk endorsed Caruso. “He’s awesome,” tweeted Musk, a former Bel-Air resident who now lives in Austin, Texas. Former mayoral candidate Jessica Lall and the Italian American Democratic Leadership Council also backed the developer. The Southland Regional Assn. of Realtors endorsed Mel Wilson. The Korea Times endorsed Bass. Band Grupo Firme endorsed De León on stage at SoFi Stadium last weekend. Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez endorsed city attorney candidate Hydee Feldstein Soto. ILWU Local 13 endorsed city attorney candidate Marina Torres.

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

  • On the docket for next week: ELECTION DAY IS TUESDAY.
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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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