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Caruso has loaned his campaign $10 million. It’s upending the mayor’s race

L.A. mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, shown last week, has loaned his campaign $10 million.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the very rich are different from you and me: They can bankroll their own campaign for mayor.

Billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso put $4 million into his mayoral bid this week, bringing the total that he’s loaned his campaign to $10 million. His willingness to tap his own fortune has profoundly reshaped the race since he officially entered two months ago.

While the other big-name candidates have not yet begun airing TV commercials, Caruso’s messages have blanketed the airwaves. His campaign has also purchased 30-second radio spots, sent voters glossy foldout mailers and paid for advertising on YouTube and other social media.

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“They’re buying name identification,” David Gould, a veteran campaign consultant who served as former Mayor Richard Riordan’s campaign treasurer, said of the Caruso campaign.

The decision to run by the developer of the Grove shakes up a race that so far has been led by Democratic elected officials.

Feb. 11, 2022

At City Hall, there is no recent precedent for the amount of money Caruso has put into his campaign at such an early date. The June 7 primary is still nine weeks away and the general election — which will feature the top two vote-getters — is set for Nov. 8.

By the end of the week, Caruso’s campaign will have spent $8.95 million on advertising, according to data from the analytics firm AdImpact. That total includes nearly $7 million in broadcast and cable television ads and more than $1 million in digital advertising.

By comparison, Mayor Eric Garcetti spent about $10.2 million in total on his winning bid for citywide office in 2013. That amount covered not just the primary election but also his runoff campaign against then-City Controller Wendy Greuel.

Garcetti won that race without relying on any of his own money, instead raising up to $2,600 from each donor.

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Caruso is currently competing against four established politicians — Rep. Karen Bass, Councilman Joe Buscaino, Councilman Kevin de León and City Atty. Mike Feuer.

In a statement, Caruso spokesman Peter Ragone sought to portray the reliance on personal wealth as a positive. Having politicians who accept donations from special interests has left the city with “historic homelessness, crime and corruption,” he said.

“Rick Caruso rejects the special-interest path,” Ragone said. “He will work for $1 a year and his only interest will be the safety and well-being of the citizens of L.A.”

Caruso’s money is not simply a boon for what it can buy. His personal funds allow him to free up his schedule at a time when other candidates are having to shuttle between fundraising events and spend many hours making calls to donors.

Under the city’s campaign finance laws, candidates for mayor cannot raise more than $1,500 from each donor during each election cycle — first the primary, then the general election.

By contrast, there is no limit under the city’s laws for how much a candidate can contribute to their own campaign for mayor, city attorney or city controller, so long as that money is coming from their personal funds.

In recent weeks, several candidates have sought to highlight the financial gap between Caruso and his rivals, and turn his vast wealth into a campaign liability.

Buscaino argued that in a city that “strives for equity and fairness,” Caruso is running for L.A.’s top job while using “the most unfair means possible.”

“Billionaire developer Rick Caruso will significantly outspend the entire field of candidates in his attempt to buy the election — all while campaigning from the comfort of his $100-million yacht in Newport Beach,” Buscaino said.

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De León, the son of an immigrant housekeeper who has highlighted his humble roots on the campaign trail, also took aim at Caruso’s spending.

“This is a reflection of the harsh reality so many Angelenos face today,” he said. “The super-wealthy use their immense fortune to buy power, while everyone else struggles just to pay their bills.”

Bass declined to comment.

John Shallman, campaign consultant to City Atty. Mike Feuer, predicted that Caruso’s efforts will not succeed.

“Voters are tired of a billionaire developer parachuting in to try and save the day,” he said.

Caruso’s campaign largesse remains well below the mayoral money high-water mark set by Michael R. Bloomberg in New York City. According to data from the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the three-term New York City mayor poured more than $108 million into his campaign in the 2009 cycle, when he ran for his final term.

However, Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential bid was far less successful. He dropped out of the race with no state victories after spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Mayoral candidate Rick Caruso said at a recent debate that Angelenos are ‘are scared to walk out their doors’ because of crime. Not everyone agrees.

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California has also seen ultrawealthy candidates attempt to make their mark, only to fall short.

In 2006, businessman Steve Westly put more than $35 million of his own money into his campaign for governor, yet failed to win the Democratic Party nomination. Four years later, billionaire Meg Whitman spent $144 million of her own money on a campaign for governor, only to lose to Jerry Brown by 13 points.

L.A.-based political consultant Mike Murphy, who is supporting Caruso and has worked for him previously, said he doesn’t think Angelenos will be turned off by the influx of spending.

“Voters don’t really care,” he said. “I don’t think it hurts Caruso at all.”

Riordan, the Republican businessman elected mayor nearly three decades ago, put $6 million of his own money into his 1993 campaign, but only $3 million of that was during the primary.

Gould said that he didn’t think Riordan, a two-term Los Angeles mayor, would have won his first election without that money.

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“He needed to get himself known,” Gould said. “That was what branded him.”

Caruso is not the only mayoral candidate in the race who’s relying heavily on his own funds. Businessman Ramit Varma loaned his campaign $1.5 million last year and has been running radio ads promising to “reboot L.A.,” according to the city campaign disclosures.

Varma said he believes that Caruso’s spending is exposing the unfairness in L.A.’s political system. While most of the nontraditional candidates have been left out of debates and struggled to get the attention of the local news media, Caruso has been able to “buy his way into the conversation.”

“I think it would be better if there was a more equitable way to get into the conversation,” he said.

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