Column: A momentous L.A. election where 75% of voters didn’t care enough to show up

A voter casts a ballot in the California primary election
Janice Slattery casts her ballot in the California primary election on Tuesday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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Griselda Chapa stood in the street outside her Boyle Heights home, camera at the ready.

I asked if she was a supporter of Rick Caruso, the L.A. mayoral candidate who was expected to arrive any moment and cast a vote in the neighborhood where his grandparents once lived.

“I voted for him yesterday,” said Chapa.

When I asked why, the hospital admissions attendant said she’s lost hope in career politicians, Caruso looks like a nice guy, and he’s Italian.

“Are you Italian?” I asked.

“No,” said Chapa. “But I love opera.”

I think Caruso is more of a Sinatra guy, and I’m guessing he had something to sing about on election night. The results were still coming as my deadline approached, but it seemed a safe bet for me to assume that Caruso was headed into a runoff with U.S. Rep. Karen Bass.


At the start of the year, it looked like Bass — a former physician assistant, community activist and state and federal lawmaker — might have a clear path to City Hall.

But in February, Caruso finally scratched an itch he’s had for a long time and jumped in, saying he loves the city and can’t stand to see it in such miserable shape.

 Rick Caruso cast his ballot at the Boyle Heights Senior Citizen Center on Tuesday.
Rick Caruso cast his ballot at the Boyle Heights Senior Citizen Center on Tuesday.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

I still don’t understand why someone whose estimated net worth is about $4 billion would want to wake up in Brentwood every morning with no worries — other than perhaps a droopy petunia at the Grove — and report to work in a city with tens of thousands of homeless people and a million other problems, all of which will be piled onto his well-tailored shoulders.

But he couldn’t resist the temptation, and he had three things going for him.

First, the continuing human catastrophe on the streets, along with an uptick in crime.

Second, widespread voter dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Third, a ton of money, most of it spent on media blitz so intense, Caruso is on TV more than “Seinfeld.”

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In just a few months, he’s marketed himself into becoming a household name and a bona fide celebrity — so much so that when I visited him at the Grove in April, we kept getting interrupted by people wanting to be photographed with him.


“I really appreciate your support, and I’ll work hard for you as mayor, I promise,” Caruso told Chapa when he arrived to vote at the Boyle Heights Senior Citizen Center.

He posed for a photo with her, and as I began walking backward, asking him if he’s going to keep up the media blitz through the summer or take a break, Caruso told me he’s got to discuss it with his team, and cautioned that I should watch out for the dog poop I was about to step on.

“Some of the stuff you’ve written about me sort of looks like that,” he said.

His barb was in good fun, I think. What I’ve said about him is that his homeless plan is somewhat skimpy on details and a tad unrealistic, and that I wonder if one of the richest people in the city can really understand the struggles of the masses.

Mayoral candidate Karen Bass chats with a poll worker on Tuesday.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Caruso does seem to have broad appeal across the city, with significant Latino and Black support, if you can forget the fact that more than 75% of registered voters didn’t care enough to cast a ballot. But let’s not forget that although he spent roughly 12 times as much as Bass in an unprecedented binge, he was still in a tight race, which suggests that not everyone bought in.

In Boyle Heights, I met a Bass supporter named Ed Santiago, who was on his way to drop off his ballot even as Caruso was casting his own vote. Santiago, a retired geologist, said he didn’t have anything against Caruso, but fears that if Caruso were forced as mayor to side with either “business or the people,” he’s going to land with the former.


Well, we’ve got five months between now and November, and I’m going to keep an open mind. While Caruso voted in Boyle Heights, Bass voted in a Baldwin Hills mall, where she held her 7-year-old grandson in her arms.

“It is a tradition in my family and many other families to bring your children with you, so that it becomes a habit and they learn that voting is something that is critical,” Bass said. “In the African American community and in the Latino community, people have fought and died for the right to vote.”

Which is another reason the abysmally low turnout is discouraging.

One thing both candidates have going for them is that the city is not particularly well run as Eric Garcetti closes out two decades in power. So it’s not like being a painter and trying to follow Picasso. And voters — who are likely to turn out in far greater numbers in the general election — are worn down and hungry for change.

“Along with many, I am looking for someone who will offer a new way forward,” West L.A. resident Mike Eveloff, a software developer and longtime volunteer in various city causes, told me. “It doesn’t seem like we solve problems doing the same things with different people. We need to disrupt the bureaucracy, just as many other institutions have been disrupted by technology.”

Hermilia Bustamante takes a selfie with her kids after voting.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

I was struck last week by a comment from Hancock Park businessman Dwayne Gathers, who said “maybe voters are tired of ‘nuance’ and simply want to see some results that affect their day-to-day lives.”


Caruso has capitalized on that sentiment with a clear message about career politicians who’ve made lots of promises but not delivered.

“If you want more of the same, I’m not your candidate,” Caruso said after voting in Boyle Heights. “If you want real positive change, I’m going to be thrilled to be your mayor and I’m going to work damn hard every day.”

It’s going to be harder and take longer than he thinks, and in the next five months, he’s going to have to make a more convincing case for how he intends to get things done.

Bass has a different take.

“I know how difficult this is going to be,” Bass told me in a 90-minute interview last month.

And while, by contrast, it’s refreshing to know she understands the complexities, voters are impatient, and Bass is going to have to do more to convince voters that experience and connections are enough to get L.A. out of the rut it’s in.

The primary was just a pregame warmup.

Now, as we love to say in Laker land, it’s showtime.