L.A. on the Record: Caruso and Bass together onstage
Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our local elections newsletter. It’s Ben Oreskes here with a great deal of help from Dakota Smith, Julia Wick and Dave Zahniser.
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The last two weeks in Los Angeles politics shook any residual cobwebs out of our heads after a sleepy summer.
This period has been full of hard hitting journalism, mudslinging from political candidates and a flurry of controversial search warrants being executed.
Next week, that intensity will hit another level. Wednesday night on KTTV Channel 11, Rep. Karen Bass debates developer Rick Caruso one-on-one for the first time. That will be preceded by a debate between L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his challenger, former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.
The election is a little over seven weeks away. I’m sure there will be a lot of talk about homelessness and public safety in both debates, but here are three other things to watch for:
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” The inverse feels true these days. Whether it’s Gov. Gavin Newsom using campaign funds to rent billboards in other states on abortion or the presence of candidates across the country who deny the outcome of the 2020 presidential race, national headlines feel like they’re drowning out stories closer to home.
The mayor’s race is no exception. Bass has been strident in her bashing of Caruso’s history of supporting Republican candidates who oppose abortion.
Remember, the businessman is now a Democrat and called the recent Dobbs Supreme Court decision abhorrent. It’s not a stretch to expect Bass to come at Caruso hard on his views on abortion in an effort to tie him tightly to recent moves by GOP elected officials and what came from the court this spring.
A recent fundraising appeal from Bass referenced the introduction of a national abortion ban by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Expect more of that Wednesday.
“The future of reproductive freedom is on the ballot this November,” the appeal states. “I will fight to ensure that Los Angeles is always a safe haven for reproductive freedom — no matter what.
“My billionaire opponent has a history of supporting anti-choice politicians and organizations. Rick Caruso’s previous actions do not align with the values of our city.”
This debate was supposed to take place at USC, until the school backed out. Still, the school’s foibles will likely be on display when the two candidates take the stage. Both have extensive Trojan ties and have been under the microscope for actions associated with the school.
You can be sure Caruso will come out swinging, talking about the nearly $100,000 scholarship Bass received from Marilyn Flynn, then-dean of USC’s School of Social Work — something federal prosecutors had cited as “critical” to their criminal case against Flynn.
Flynn agreed Thursday to plead guilty to a federal bribery charge, admitting she arranged an illicit $100,000 payment for suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas when he was on the Board of Supervisors in return for a USC contract with the county. Flynn’s plea deal reduced the likelihood that evidence related to Bass’ scholarship would get a public airing at trial.
That won’t stop Caruso from talking nonstop about corruption at City Hall. This week his campaign appeared to telegraph a bit of what Caruso might say from the dais, sharing a letter from former federal prosecutor and city attorney candidate Marina Torres to members of the House Ethics Committee.
“In the face of all these disturbing questions,” Torres writes after laying out what’s been reported in The Times about the $95,000 scholarship Bass received and its connection to the Ridley-Thomas case, “an investigation is the only way to shed light on what exactly occurred and help restore trust in the office.”
Ridley-Thomas, who faces a trial in the case in November, has denied any wrongdoing. Federal prosecutors have given no indication that Bass is under a criminal investigation, and she has denied any wrongdoing.
“This is an act of desperation, straight out of the Republican playbook, that shows the Caruso campaign will do anything to win,” said Bass spokeswoman Sarah Leonard Sheahan.
Yet again we remind you that Caruso is now registered as a Democrat — though as recently as three years ago he was a Republican, and has been a big GOP donor at that.
Bass’ campaign has been talking a lot as well about Caruso’s tenure as chair of the USC Board of Trustees when there was an avalanche of lawsuits relating to decades of alleged sexual assault by a campus gynecologist. That will likely come up too.
Two cops on the stage
A dizzying week of news could have huge reverberations in the sheriff’s race. The bruising contest between Robert Luna and Alex Villaneuva got a lot weirder on Wednesday when sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant at the home of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl as part of a criminal investigation into a county contract awarded to a nonprofit organization.
Kuehl and Villanueva dislike each other, and a copy of the warrant showed that the search was tied to an ongoing probe into Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit run by Patti Giggans, a member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and a close friend of Kuehl. Both Kuehl and Giggans have called for Villanueva’s resignation.
“Alex, I am told, recused himself from this, but that means of course that he knows about it and ... all of the blame resides with him anyways,” Kuehl said of Villanueva. “If he doesn’t know about it, that means there’s a rogue element within the Sheriff’s Department. And either way, it’s totally out of control.”
Hours after, Villanueva was campaigning off the raid. The next day our colleagues Alene Tchekmedyian and Ben Poston dropped a wild investigation, which found that among the thousands of people who had received gun permits under Villanueva were dozens of donors to his election campaigns and others with special links to the sheriff. These people often gave questionable reasons for needing to be armed, received their permits more quickly than the average wait or were assisted by two deputies who worked directly for Villanueva.
How the two sheriff’s candidates will go at each other will be interesting to watch. It will also be intriguing if the mayoral candidates are asked about the sheriff.
State of play
— Gun update: In an interview with KTTV this week, Bass said she met with LAPD detectives Wednesday about a burglary at her home. The LAPD said two people were in custody in connection with the alleged theft of two guns. The suspects were charged Friday. Juan Espinoza, one of the men, is a parolee with a previous burglary charge, and a warrant was out for his arrest, the LAPD said. The weapons stolen were .38 caliber revolvers, according to the criminal complaint.
— Big spender: After a dormant summer on the airwaves, Caruso’s mayoral campaign on Thursday reserved $17 million worth of broadcast TV ad time spread over the remaining weeks of the race, a commitment that does not include cable or digital advertising, meaning the spending total will likely grow. Bass has not yet made any TV buys, but a political action committee sponsored by the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters placed a reservation for more than $1.1 million in cable and broadcast airtime for ads supporting her, which will air during a three-week period beginning in mid-October.
— Advice for Caruso: “Go negative against Karen Bass. Very, very negative. Caruso’s campaign has to be about Karen Bass and how dangerous she is to our once-fair city. Bass is part of the cadre of politicians who have wrecked the city,” writes conservative columnist John Phillips in the L.A. Daily News.
— Battle by the beach: Voters will determine whether the 11th District continues to be represented by an outspoken liberal, with Erin Darling supporting many of the policies of outgoing Councilman Mike Bonin, or swings in the other direction, with Traci Park representing a more law-and-order approach.
— Wage hike on hold: L.A.-area healthcare organizations succeeded in stopping a new $25-per-hour minimum wage from going into effect for thousands of private hospital workers. The city clerk concluded that opponents of the wage increase gathered enough signatures to force the council either to repeal the wage ordinance or send it to voters.
The hospital minimum wage is backed by Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers West. Last month, SEIU-UHW put $250,000 into an independent expenditure campaign supporting Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who represents a Hollywood-area district. O’Farrell voted in favor of the $25 hospital minimum wage earlier this year.
And in noncampaign news ...
— More than two years later: In a major turnabout Monday, county officials announced a preliminary legal settlement with the plaintiffs of a sprawling federal lawsuit over the treatment of homeless people, signaling an end to a lawsuit that has spanned all of COVID-19 and taken on a political dimension as elected officials have jousted with lawyers over how best to serve people living on the street.
— Replacing the replacement: The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has a new interim executive director. Stephen David Simon replaces Kristina Dixon and Molly Rysman, who have been sharing the responsibility since Heidi Marston resigned in April. Dixon and Rysman will go back to being chief financial and administrative officer and chief programs officer, respectively. The agency has “hopes of securing a permanent leader in early 2023,” according to a news release.
Behind the scenes
So how close was Mayor Eric Garcetti to actually entering the 2020 presidential race?
A new book spells out some of the behind-the-scene steps the mayor took during his exploration, including seeking advice from former President Obama. In the “The Long Alliance: The Imperfect Union of Joe Biden and Barack Obama,” author Gabriel Debenedetti sets the scene.
“By late 2018, the list of Democrats who were thinking about running for president at least somewhat seriously — either out of a real conviction that they could win or a more casual, ‘If Trump can do it, so can I’ attitude — stretched beyond four dozen, by far the largest field of potential candidates in modern American history.”
Obama offered himself as a consultant to wannabe presidential candidates, according to the book, and made it known he was willing to meet with them in his Washington office. Visitors were warned not to reveal any details about their talks with Obama. More than a dozen politicians met with the former president, including Garcetti and then-Sen. Kamala Harris.
“The thickest-skinned and naivest of the bunch asked Obama to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Obama rarely held back, and sometimes this tough talk gave the visitors pause,” Debenedetti writes. “He was discouraging with Garcetti, for one, figuring that the L.A. mayor wasn’t well-known enough and didn’t have a clear enough vision. Garcetti opted against running.”
(It’s not clear what vision Garcetti presented when he spoke to Obama. But in speeches in 2018, Garcetti cast Washington as out of touch and portrayed himself as a progressive who gets things done. During that flirtation, a friend of the mayor even commissioned an “urban Latino beat song” that was called “Eric Garcetti, Are You Ready?” according to Rolling Stone.)
Garcetti backed Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the former president endorsed his 2017 mayoral reelection. Any visitor to Garcetti’s City Hall office in recent years could see several photos of Obama on the mayor’s bookshelves.
At another point in the book, Debenedetti writes that Biden traveled the country in 2018 and warned politicians looking to run for president that he would jump in if he didn’t think any other Democrats could win. Biden had that conversation with Garcetti, as well as Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, according to the book.
In January 2019, Garcetti told Angelenos he wasn’t running for president and would stay in L.A. to “finish the job.”
A little over 2½ years later, The Times interviewed Garcetti at Getty House when the presumption was that he would be leaving soon for an ambassador post in India and asked him how close he came to running.
“I don’t think I came super close ever. I kept that door open; it was intriguing to me. I thought that not only abstractly mayors have something to say, but I’ve consistently had something to say about our nation. It was a pretty easy decision for me that I felt the responsibility was here,” Garcetti said. “It wasn’t a political calculation.”
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- Who’s running the city? Still Garcetti. His confirmation as ambassador to India awaits a Senate vote.
- The latest in mayoral endorsements: Former California Gov. Gray Davis and the women’s advocacy group Her Bold Move endorsed Bass. This week, Bass’ campaign also announced support from more than a dozen showbiz figures, including Cedric the Entertainer, Chelsea Handler and executive Chris Silbermann. (Variety wrote up the whole list.) Caruso picked up the backing of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 13. Bass also nabbed support from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Southern California District Council.
- And other city/county endorsements: Ironworkers Local 416 and Local 433 endorsed Caruso. Council District 13 candidate Hugo Soto-Martinez received the backing of both Assemblymember Isaac Bryan and Councilwoman-elect Eunisses Hernandez. The Korean American Democratic Committee, the Miracle Mile Democratic Club, the Pilipino American Los Angeles Democrats and state Controller Betty Yee all endorsed Katy Young Yaroslavsky for Council District 5. Malibu Mayor Paul Grisanti is backing state Sen. Bob Hertzberg for county supervisor. Council members Curren D. Price Jr., Paul Krekorian, Bob Blumenfield and Monica Rodriguez are endorsing Hydee Feldstein Soto for city attorney. United Firefighters of L.A., City Local 113 are backing her as well.
- Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific-ILWU Marine Division, Southern California Region and International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 56 all got behind Faisal Gill for city attorney. The Stonewall Young Democrats announced their support of Tim McOsker for Council District 15.
(If you have an endorsement you’d like to flag for next week, please send it to us.)
- Dig of the week: “Unless Villanueva can produce evidence that justifies the Wednesday morning searches, it’s just one more misfire, with the sheriff shooting himself in the foot yet again.”
— Times columnist Steve Lopez writing on the wild flurry of search warrants coming from the county sheriff.
- On the docket for next week: Televised debates Wednesday between Caruso and Bass, and Luna and Villanueva. More details here.
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