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Column: Will billionaire businessman Rick Caruso run for L.A. mayor, and could he win?

Rick Caruso says he is still deciding whether to jump into the L.A. mayor’s race.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Is Rick Caruso really in this time?

If so, Los Angeles will be in for an adventure in the race to succeed Eric Garcetti as mayor in a city struggling with entrenched social and economic challenges.

A white billionaire developer, generous philanthropist and owner of a nine-bedroom yacht that rents for $550,000 a week would be taking on traditional candidates in a city with massive income inequality and a population dominated by people of color.

Race, class, crime, homelessness and housing will be center stage.

I wouldn’t bet on Caruso joining the race just yet. When I asked if he’d like to talk about his plan on homelessness, he said he’s going to spend some time with his family while making a final decision on whether to run.

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But he looks more serious this time than he has in past flirtations with public office. He’s got a team in place, as he has in the past, but the former Republican has also changed his registration from “no party preference” to Democrat in a city whose registered voters skew heavily D.

Rick Caruso has considered running for L.A. mayor before but has never jumped in. For this year’s race, he promises a “final decision shortly.”

In a Twitter post that looked like the launch of his candidacy, Caruso said he would “prioritize the safety of our families,” create jobs rather than “chase them away,” and address homelessness as “an unprecedented, city-threatening crisis, with both compassion and firmness that ensures that those who are following the rules are not disadvantaged by those who refuse to do so.”

And then there’s his statement denouncing those in power:

“No one believes that the same group of politicians who allowed our city to become this unsafe, corrupt and cruel can solve any of the problems we face,” Caruso said.

So let’s say Caruso jumps in. With a bottomless campaign war chest, would he be in contention with the presumed front-runner, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass? Would he knock Councilmen Kevin de León and Joe Buscaino out of contention, along with City Atty. Mike Feuer and other contenders?

Not necessarily.

In denouncing local leaders, Caruso seems to be taking a page out of the Richard Riordan playbook. Riordan, a wealthy businessman who was elected to two terms as mayor beginning in 1993, ran on the premise that hapless city officials weren’t up to a job only a successful businessman could do.

But much has changed since then. The city was whiter at the time, the number of Republicans was far greater, the riots that followed the Rodney King beating by police worked in favor of the law-and-order candidate, and Riordan didn’t have as strong a slate of viable political opponents as Caruso would.

“The city has changed dramatically, not only demographically but also politically,” said Jaime Regalado, former director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. “It has many more Latinos, many more Asian Pacific Islanders and many more young liberals.”

Mayoral elections in Los Angeles are nonpartisan, but if Caruso goes head to head with Bass, Regalado said, Bass would have the advantage of being a true Democrat rather than one who conveniently just joined the club. Caruso has thrown money at politicians on both sides of the aisle for years, but Bass’ longtime record as a progressive who “stood tall against [President] Trump” will serve her well, in Regalado’s opinion.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a longtime public affairs commentator who now co-hosts the “Inside Golden State Politics” podcast with former Times columnist and city editor Bill Boyarsky, thinks Caruso’s path to City Hall could be loaded with potholes.

“The arithmetic for him is very iffy,” she said.

As she adds it up, Caruso would need strong support from independent voters, but given where he seems to be positioning himself on homelessness and crime, he’d be competing with Buscaino and perhaps Feuer, in her opinion.

Making headway on homelessness, Regalado said, means forming alliances with City Council members rather than brushing them aside, as Riordan sometimes did, with mixed results. That’s especially true given the shared power and limited mayoral authority, and the fact that many services are under county rather than city authority.

“If he tries to be Riordan, he’s in big trouble,” Regalado said.

But Caruso is, in some ways, a skilled politician and schmoozer who understands the value of power, money and access despite never having run for office. And he has no doubt thought all of this through, along with formulating a response to critics who are guaranteed to call him out as a luxury hotel and housing developer in a region with a housing affordability crisis, or for his role on the USC Board of Trustees during a series of scandals.

You can expect Caruso to argue that although he was a Trojan power player while the school made headlines for a shocking string of administrative failures amid abuses by a gynecologist and by the medical school dean — along with various athletic department embarrassments — he was the one who led a call for institutional reforms.

It might be a bit trickier for him to respond to questions about actress Lori Loughlin turning herself in to federal authorities in the college admissions scandal at about the time her daughter was aboard Caruso’s yacht. Mom, and her husband, were later sentenced to federal prison after the celebrity couple pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy involving payments that resulted in their daughter being admitted to USC as a coxswain despite having no rowing experience.

Rick Caruso says he has changed his registration to Democrat as he considers a run for L.A. mayor. He has donated to George W. Bush and other Republicans, as well as to Democrats.

Fernando Guerra of the Loyola University Center for the Study of Los Angeles says he’s not sure Caruso would make it to a mayoral runoff despite all his anticipated spending. Guerra said other candidates — including Bass and De León, if not others — will counter Caruso’s pocketbook with independent expenditures by organized labor and other groups likely to support longtime Dems.

And yet, Guerra said, Caruso is not your typical L.A. rich guy.

“If most billionaires were as civically active as he is, Los Angeles would be a better place,” Guerra said.

In addition to writing checks to politicians — a key part of the developer playbook in Los Angeles — Caruso has served on the police and water and power commissions and bankrolled multiple causes. I first met him when he and his wife, Tina, sponsored Para Los Ninos, an early education center on skid row. And every time I have a doctor’s appointment at Keck, I see his name on buildings.

“This is a guy who’s engaged and has put in not only his money,” Guerra said, “but his time.”

All things considered — race, class and demographics — the most important factor could be which candidate has the best plan and can sell it to voters.

If the ever-confident Caruso thinks he has the answers, maybe it’s time now to go all in.

Steve.lopez@latimes.com


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