L.A. on the Record: Best frenemies skirmish in the Sepulveda Pass

A man in a suit and tie and woman in a pantsuit smile and shake hands on a stage.
Developer Rick Caruso and Rep. Karen Bass shake hands following the mayoral debate Wednesday at the Skirball Cultural Center.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our local elections newsletter. It’s Julia Wick, with help from David Zahniser, Jeong Park and Ben Oreskes.

It’s no secret that many supporters of Rep. Karen Bass can’t stand Rick Caruso, or that a good deal of Caruso backers are equally un-fond of Bass.

But an often overlooked facet of this year’s mayor’s race is the relationship between the candidates themselves. Caruso and Bass do not appear to dislike each other. Quite the opposite.

It would probably be an overstatement to say they were ever actually friends, unless we’re using the Washington, D.C., definition of a “friend.” But powerful people tend to intersect with other powerful people, be they billionaire real estate developers or activist-turned-pragmatist government leaders. Particularly when they both care about bettering the same city. And that’s certainly been the case for Bass and Caruso.

The two have had a warm rapport over the years, as my colleague Ben Oreskes touched on in his excellent profile of Bass earlier this year. Caruso has financially supported Bass in the past, delivering maximum contributions during both the primary and general election of her first run for Congress in 2010 and donating an additional $1,000 in 2011.

When Bass — an architect of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — was trying to garner support for her bill in the House, Caruso was one of the surrogates she tapped for outreach to help lobby centrist members of the House.


The tenor of campaigning, however, has turned increasingly fetid in the full-tilt sprint toward Nov. 8. Which puts Caruso and Bass in an uncomfortable position: throwing knives toward and ducking blows from someone who is more frenemy than an actual foe.

Wednesday’s debate at the Skirball Cultural Center provided a potent illustration of that dynamic. Both candidates clearly showed up in the Sepulveda Pass ready for battle. But this was hardly the mutually assured loathing of, say, Joe Biden and Donald Trump on the vitriolic presidential debate stage in 2020.

Instead, Bass and Caruso seemed more like two people who had tacitly agreed that, well, we’ve reached the part of election season where nastiness is necessary and we have to read our scripts. But there was a slight degree of remove to it — and both players occasionally looked a bit amused as their scene partner said something particularly ugly.

Perhaps it was telling, then, that two of the more memorable — and arguably effective — strikes came when the candidates strayed out of the usual campaign muck and into the unlikely contours of their shared history.

After the topic veered to the recent burglary of Bass’ home and Caruso raised questions about the guns that had been stolen from her, Bass masterfully wielded a bit of emotion to say she was “disheartened” by Caruso’s response and reminded “the people of Los Angeles” that her home had been burglarized.

Her gun storage and registration were “100% legal,” but a letter from Caruso ally and Councilman Joe Buscaino calling for an investigation into the circumstances was an “act of desperation,” she said.

Then she twisted the knife: “The reason why I’m disappointed is because you remember when the Grove was burglarized, I called you to find out how you were,” Bass said, comparing her response after last fall’s smash-and-grab burglaries to the Buscaino letter and Caruso asking her “to prove one thing or another.”


About 20 minutes later, Caruso was the one to invoke their personal relationship, after Bass knocked him for his ping-ponging party registration history.

Caruso went on a quick tear about Bass “wrongly” comparing him to Trump, saying it was unfair and noting that he had never supported Trump or given him a dime. (The Trump comparisons have actually largely come from Bass surrogates, though the campaign has occasional made slyer Trump references.)

Then came his zinger: “When you asked me for donations, I supported you and gave you donations. Did you think I was Donald Trump when I was writing you a check?”

By leaning on their human interpersonal dynamic, both candidates succeeded, if only momentarily, at casting their opponent as the heartless, craven politician in the race.

State of play

— A CLOSER RACE? A new poll from the Caruso campaign shows the developer narrowing the gap between himself and Bass to just 6 points. The poll, which was conducted by the Global Strategy Group in late August, showed Bass with support from 43% of likely voters to Caruso’s 37%, according to a top-line summary of the poll shown to The Times. One in five likely voters remain undecided, according to the poll, which also shows Caruso with a slight lead among Hispanic voters and a strong advantage with Asian American voters, according to the summary.

— CARUSO’S LATINO CHARM OFFENSIVE: In this fascinating op-ed, Pilar Marrero details what it’s like being on the receiving end of Caruso’s massive play to court Latino voters, with two separate door-knockers coming to her Boyle Heights home: “I am surprised because, as a Latina who always votes — ‘a likely voter’ since becoming a citizen 22 years ago — I have rarely been contacted directly by local campaigns when I lived in other areas of L.A. This time, Caruso seems to want to be my personal friend.”

— COURTING ASIAN AMERICAN VOTERS: Caruso will be one of the grand marshals at the 49th Korean Parade (sponsored by the Korea Times) along Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown on Saturday. The event is expected to draw tens of thousands. Caruso also visited Koreatown earlier this week, where he met with dozens of his supporters, many coming from the Korean community, and emphasized his stance on public safety.

— AD BLITZ: Caruso is now slotted to spend more than $20 million on TV advertising through the election, according to data from media tracking firm AdImpact. His first ad, a 60-second biographical spot, began airing this week. Meanwhile, a PAC supporting Bass has put $500,000 behind a new 30-second digital spot calling Caruso a liar.

— BILLBOARD CITY: City Councilman Paul Koretz is lifting a page from the playbook of Kenneth Mejia — his rival in the race to be the next city controller of Los Angeles. Koretz has rented six billboards across the city that spotlight statements from Mejia and direct voters to

For his part, Mejia — who won big in the primary and has marshaled an impressive grassroots coalition — has been unsparing in his criticism of Koretz. He’s also used billboards, highlighting aspects of the budget he’s been critical of, such as the amount the city spends on law enforcement versus how much it spends on housing.

— SAN PEDRO WAGE CLAIMS: Businesswoman Danielle Sandoval is running for L.A. City Council as an entrepreneur, someone who faced the hard knocks of opening a restaurant. The Times found that her San Pedro restaurant, now closed, generated four wage theft complaints — each upheld by the state’s labor commissioner. Sandoval said she was unaware of the claims and hoped to resolve the situation. Her opponent, Tim McOsker, said the district needs a council member who helps working families, “not one who exploits them.”

And in non-campaign news ...

— NOT ENOUGH SHELTER: The website Politico took a look at the policy fights raging in California over homelessness policy, highlighting the views of L.A. Councilmember Nithya Raman and others. Raman criticized the city’s law that outlaws encampments in some locations, saying it moves people around. “I’m up against a wall,” she said. “I don’t have any available shelter. And I would imagine other council members are feeling the same way.”

— FOLLOW THE MONEY: Disgraced L.A. legal legend and self-described “limousine liberal” Tom Girardi gave millions to high-profile Democratic politicians and kept writing big checks even as his own financial situation grew dire. Was the money stolen from clients? This is quite an investigation from my colleagues Harriet Ryan and Matt Hamilton.

— LAPD RAISES RETURN: The plan to give LAPD officers the raises they postponed during the pandemic moved ahead by one notch, with the City Council’s personnel committee endorsing the idea. The plan, which would provide officers $44.5 million in bonuses and other benefits, was backed by Councilmembers Koretz and Marqueece Harris-Dawson.

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  • Who’s running the city? Still Eric Garcetti. His confirmation as ambassador to India awaits a Senate vote.
  • The latest in mayoral endorsements: Uber-attorney Gloria Allred endorsed Bass.
  • And other city/county endorsements: The California Nurses Assn. and Sunrise Movement Los Angeles endorsed Faisal Gill for city attorney, while the Los Angeles City Attorneys Assn. and county Supervisor Hilda Solis backed his opponent, Hydee Feldstein Soto. Former L.A. City Councilmember Ruth Galanter threw her support behind Erin Darling in CD 11, as did county Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell. The California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen backed Bob Hertzberg in the District 3 supervisor race.

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

  • Dig of the week: “I’m endorsing California Sen. Bob Hertzberg. ... As a state senator, he represents a constituency of 1 million people and is responsible for a $300-billion budget. This is significant when you compare it to his competitor, my colleague, who represents only 37,000 people and a city budget of just $100 million.” — West Hollywood Mayor Lauren Meister.

    Meister is attacking not just the significance of her own job in WeHo government but also her colleague Lindsey Horvath, a West Hollywood council member and supervisor candidate. (Meanwhile, Horvath has sought to distance herself publicly from the city she represents.)

  • On the docket for next week: Rosh Hashanah begins Sunday — shana tova to all who celebrate. UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor Darnell Hunt and Spectrum News 1 anchor Alex Cohen will moderate two debates at the Hammer Museum in Westwood on Wednesday night. CD 5 candidates Katy Young Yaroslavsky and Sam Yebri will square off at 7 p.m., followed by Hertzberg and Horvath at 8 p.m. The Central Hollywood Neighborhood Council will host a forum with CD 13 candidates Hugo Soto-Martínez and Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell on Friday night.
  • A poem to enjoy with your Saturday morning coffee: “The Window,” by Raymond Carver.

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