Column: Bass has big lead, but Caruso supporters say race for L.A. mayor isn’t over

A woman speaks into a microphone at a podium
Rick Caruso’s supporters are citing Rep. Karen Bass’ free USC scholarship as ammo in the fight to lead Los Angeles. Above, Bass speaks at a news conference in May.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Is the race for mayor of Los Angeles already over, just as the sprint to the Nov. 6 finish line begins?

By some indications, yes.

But a Times story Wednesday about U.S. Rep. Karen Bass having been handed a full, free scholarship by USC while earning a nice salary as a lawmaker provides new ammo to developer and mall operator Rick Caruso.

So hold on, because the campaign just got a little more interesting.

The most recent poll says Bass has opened a double-digit lead over Caruso, who bombarded the airwaves in his $40-million primary blitz and then went quiet. So quiet that some wondered whether the Republican-turned-Democrat was slinking away.

But instead of popping up on your TV and your computer, Caruso has been popping up in a different neighborhood every day, making his case that Bass and other politicians have not and will not deliver the changes people are hungry for when it comes to homelessness, crime and the general state of the city.

A man greets people as cameras surround them
Mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, center, greets residents with Chester Chong, chair of Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, at Cathay Manor in Chinatown.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

“I’ve already done 40 events since July 4, I’ve got another 130 planned, and I’m doing four or five a day,” Caruso told me Wednesday afternoon at a Chinatown appearance where he was cheered by people who want big changes at City Hall.

Well, if he’s still in it to win it, what’s the strategy to close the gap? I asked Caruso.

“This is the strategy,” he said. “It’s to be with the people and actually listen to them.”

He’ll soon be back on the airwaves, Caruso told me, though he was coy about the focus. He’ll have plenty of material to work with, though, including current events.

This week’s Times report by Matt Hamilton laid out a connection between the federal corruption case against former L.A. County Supervisor and City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and a 2011 scholarship awarded to Bass.

On Thursday, Caruso had lots to say about that, and also about another breaking story on one of the biggest campaign topics: the latest homeless count showed a slight increase, albeit at a slower rate than in previous years.

“L.A. has a deepening homelessness crisis, and the current state of affairs is unacceptable,” Caruso said after the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported a 4.1% increase of homeless residents in the county (to 69,144) and a 1.7% increase in the city of Los Angeles (to 41,980).

At a news conference, Caruso blasted Bass over her USC freebie.

“She received a free scholarship simply because she was a powerful member of Congress,” said Caruso, who noted myriad recent investigations into what he called “systemic corruption in Los Angeles.”


Ridley-Thomas and former USC social work Dean Marilyn Flynn are charged with bribery and fraud. Prosecutors allege that Ridley-Thomas’ son, a former state legislator, got a scholarship from USC valued at nearly $100,000 in exchange for county contracts.

As Hamilton wrote: “To bolster their case, prosecutors have pointed to an email from Flynn in which she noted doing ‘the same’ sort of scholarship-for-funding with Bass.”

Bass, who has denied any wrongdoing, reportedly told congressional ethics officials she wanted to deepen her knowledge of child welfare policy — a longtime focus of hers — to better serve constituents.

That’s a good goal and a bad look, in my opinion. Serving in Congress is a job that pays $174,000. Why should a handsomely compensated elected official get a free ride when so many thousands of students take on crippling debt with student loans?

Given Caruso’s deep pockets, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if we see a tsunami of negative advertising in the next several weeks. All the candidate was willing to tell me about coming ads is that “they’re getting put together” and “they’re going to be great.”

Will they help him close the gap?

Longtime political consultant Garry South told me he thinks Caruso is “dead as a doornail,” and the story on Bass and her scholarship “certainly won’t cost her the election.” He said Caruso himself may be stained by his leadership role at USC during various scandals in recent years.

Not everyone agrees about what the free scholarship will end up costing Bass.

“I think it will be a factor,” said Mike McNealy, who lives near Runyon Canyon and supports Caruso, partly because he said he has never seen Hollywood in such poor condition. “Just think … of an up-and-coming ‘real’ student coming from an economically depressed area that could have benefited from that free admissions spot and degree. No, an insider politician was given the spot for free.”

“I don’t know that she did anything wrong,” said Arthur Kraus, who supports Caruso and has complained for years to various city officials about homelessness and crime in his Venice neighborhood. “But I would hope people think about it and come to their own conclusions.... It’s fair that both candidates get a character examination.”

Lety Perez, a Mid-City resident and Caruso supporter, had this to say:

“It won’t impact her support among her liberal base because they passionately oppose a candidate who was once a registered Republican.... However, it gives Caruso ammunition to poke holes in her purported ‘clean image’ and potentially sway some independent voters who don’t like the appearance of pay-to-play politics.”

Before the Bass story, I had reached out to Perez and other Caruso supporters to ask what they think he needs to do to pull out a win in the last two months of the campaign. Many of them had complained that I was too hard on Caruso during the primary campaign, when I said his homelessness strategy left much to be desired, and I wondered whether a billionaire with a $100-million yacht could win over a city filled with hundreds of thousands of people who have trouble paying their bills.

“He needs to heavily court the Latino vote with a strong ground game and media blitz,” Perez said. “The Latino vote is the only way I think Caruso can cut into Bass’ lead because she seems to have secured in large numbers the liberal/progressive and Black vote, which gives her a big advantage.”

Caruso was not helped by the Supreme Court reversal of abortion rights under Roe vs. Wade. Although he has said he supports choice, he had made campaign donations to politicians who didn’t.

On the issue of homelessness, Times reporters Doug Smith and Benjamin Oreskes have done a great job of spelling out differences between the candidates. Central to the Caruso plan would be a promise to dramatically scale up interim housing and bring 30,000 people indoors in his first year. Bass promises to wring greater efficiency out of existing strategies.

For each candidate, delivering the goods won’t be cheap or easy, partly because a mayor has limited authority in tackling a problem that involves dozens of agencies and massive social and economic forces.

You can expect Caruso, though, to keep hammering the idea that longtime elected officials haven’t delivered. Bass, of course, hasn’t been a city official, but she represents local residents who deserve better from their government, Caruso insists.

At the Wednesday event in Chinatown, Caruso promised to appoint an Asian deputy mayor to address the interests of the community, which he said was disproportionately hit by a rise in hate crimes. Caruso was introduced by supporter Chester Chong, chair of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, who told me that on homelessness, crime and housing, he’s tired of waiting for better results.

“Yeah,” said Chong. “We want change.”