Caruso vs. Katzenberg: L.A. titans bicker over ‘lying,’ bullying as election nears

Rick Caruso, shown in February
Rick Caruso, shown in February, is in a spat with Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is backing Karen Bass in the mayor’s race.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In recent days, the Los Angeles mayor’s race has seemingly devolved into a rhetorical brawl between two of the city’s richest men.

One is on a quest to run the city, the other is backing someone else and also has big designs on reorienting L.A.’s response to homelessness, its most pressing crisis.

Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, who supports Rep. Karen Bass, says Rick Caruso’s history of supporting Republican candidates and being registered as a Republican a decade ago disqualifies him from being mayor.

This comes after Variety published an interview with Caruso in which he attacked the former Walt Disney Studios chairman for “lying” about him in ads by a pro-Bass independent expenditure committee predominantly funded by Katzenberg.


“Rick’s attacks are an attempt to bully and squash the truth,” Katzenberg said in a statement to The Times on Wednesday. “He’s made it abundantly clear that he is way too thin-skinned and temperamental to serve as our mayor.”

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The duo have known one another for many years, but this quarrel between Caruso and Katzenberg began in earnest in recent weeks when the pro-Bass committee made its first television ad buy. The ad starts off by referring to “Republican Rick Caruso” and goes on to slam the candidate’s GOP ties and his record on abortion, and compares him to former President Trump.

Both are longtime L.A. power players, though they run in slightly different worlds. Caruso, a longtime Brentwood resident, has been a fixture in the real estate and business community of the city. Katzenberg, who has long lived in Beverly Hills, is a Hollywood mainstay who has also been a key powerbroker in national Democratic politics.

Less than two weeks from election day, polling from both the Bass campaign and the committee supporting her campaign last week showed that the race is essentially tied. One candidate would need a simple majority of the votes on June 7 to avoid a November runoff.

One poll has Caruso up by 2 percentage points with 37% support among likely voters, while the other shows Bass winning by 2 points with the backing of 34% of likely voters.

After the million-dollar buy went on the air, Caruso’s lawyers fired off a cease-and-desist letter — the second of the mayoral campaign — demanding that local broadcasters stop airing the ad, saying it misrepresented his history as a Republican.


Caruso changed his party affiliation in 2011, switching from the GOP to declined to state. In January, he re-registered again, shifting this time from no party preference to Democratic, before entering the mayor’s race the following month.

“Rick is a longtime Republican and 19 days prior to announcing his bid for mayor, he changed his party registration to conveniently become a ‘Democrat,’” Katzenberg said.

Caruso’s lawyers also said the ad incorrectly described his position on abortion. Caruso said he opposed the leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision that would invalidate Roe vs. Wade and was helping a campaign to enshrine abortion rights in the California Constitution.

Earlier, though, a 2007 article about Caruso in Los Angeles Magazine stated that Caruso “says he opposes abortion in most cases but would support some stem cell research.”

A lawyer for the pro-Bass committee said Caruso’s complaints were “without merit,” adding, “Caruso has billions of dollars to convince voters he is a real Democrat, but he should not be allowed to silence Democratic organizations … that question the sincerity of his switch.”

Then came the Variety article, which included Caruso’s reaction to being likened to Trump, and his comments about Katzenberg.

“I’m the farthest thing from Donald Trump and everybody knows that. What we’re seeing is an act of desperation, and they’re trying to throw Hail Marys and nobody’s buying it,” Caruso was quoted as saying.

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Setting aside the nearly $30 million Caruso has devoted to his own campaign, Katzenberg is the largest individual contributor in the mayor’s race — having donated $850,000 to the independent committee backing Bass.

The other major outside donor is the union for rank-and-file Los Angeles police officers, which has poured just over $3 million into ads and mailers attacking Bass.

Katzenberg, a co-founder of DreamWorks, has been a longtime national Democratic donor, but his giving this cycle to local races has far outpaced his largesse in the past.

He has poured a half-million dollars into a committee supporting Robert Luna’s candidacy for sheriff and has said current Sheriff Alex Villanueva “has created dysfunction and chaos which has put our public safety at risk,” according to a fundraising appeal for Luna he sent late last year.

Contribution records show that Katzenberg also has given locally in the past, donating $50,000 in 2017 to the campaign for Measure H, which raised taxes to pay for social services that help Los Angeles County’s unhoused. Caruso also gave $50,000 to this effort.

A year earlier, both Caruso and Katzenberg contributed $100,000 to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s campaign for Measure M, the half-cent sales tax to support public transit and transportation programs.

In 2013, Katzenberg put more than $101,000 into the effort to elect Wendy Greuel — who worked with him at DreamWorks — as mayor.

Last summer, Katzenberg met with numerous local elected officials and aides who work on homelessness policy in the run-up to a vote to impose new anti-camping rules, which would allow the city to remove encampments that are near key public facilities, such as libraries and homeless shelters, once offers of housing have been made.

He continues to be interested in the crisis — and part of his giving to Bass is based on the belief that she is best positioned to address homelessness.

“Karen knows soundbites will never solve our homelessness crisis and the rise in crime,” he said in the statement to The Times on Wednesday. “She has comprehensive plans that will address the root causes of our city’s homelessness, public safety and economic challenges.”