Caruso takes slight lead in an L.A. mayoral race still too close to call
Businessman Rick Caruso held a razor-thin lead over U.S. Rep. Karen Bass early Wednesday morning in the historically expensive race for mayor of Los Angeles, with returns remaining far from definitive.
Initial returns gave Bass a slight lead, but the two traded positions throughout Tuesday night, with Caruso pulling ahead slightly Wednesday morning.
Caruso leads with 51.25% of the vote, with Bass trailing at 48.75%. Just under 500,000 votes have been counted.
As the contest seesawed, Bass emerged at 10 p.m. to address a crowd at the Hollywood Palladium. She led Democratic stalwarts and elected officials in chants of “We will win!” and then declared: “We will win because we’re going to build a new Los Angeles!”
“Together, we want to have a City Hall that serves all the people,” Bass added. “We want a City Hall that’s not just the City Hall for the powerful, not just the City Hall for the wealthy, but a City Hall that is for everyone so that we can have the quality of life that I know that we deserve.”
Businessman Rick Caruso and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass were in a tight battle in the race for mayor of Los Angeles.
About 40 minutes later, Caruso left a reception where he had been huddling with his family and advisors, and addressed supporters assembled at the Grove, his shopping center in the Fairfax district.
“We don’t know the outcome yet, but I’m happy to say that we’re starting out strong and we’re a couple thousand votes ahead,” Caruso said to raucous cheers from a crowd of about 1,500.
Caruso paid tribute to his wife and four grown children, then said he felt like his family had expanded with the many people he met during his nine-month campaign.
“They believe that life can be different, that it can be better. They believe that Los Angeles is where dreams come true, just like my grandparents when they came here,” he said. “We have dreams of a better life to make come true for so many. And I come here tonight in full anticipation and excitement about what is to come and what we can do together.”
The early totals on election night may not reflect final results.
The battle between the mall developer from Brentwood and the onetime community activist from South Los Angeles offered the sharpest contrast for the city’s top job in nearly three decades. Caruso’s $100 million in spending thrust him from relative obscurity to within reach of victory, while Bass’ firm hold on the city’s liberal political base still positioned her as the candidate to beat.
Tuesday’s final day of voting came with intermittent rain and with many Angelenos describing a deep malaise brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, a spiraling homelessness crisis, an uptick in some crimes and the release a month ago of an audio recording of three City Council members engaged in a raw and sometimes racist conversation about how they planned to maintain political power.
Both campaigns acknowledged that the outcome of their race might not be known for days or possibly weeks.
The inconclusive nature of election-day vote tallies was confirmed in the June primary, when Caruso jumped to a 5-percentage-point lead only to have Bass surge ahead when late mail-in votes were counted. Bass ultimately won the race by 7 points.
Clad in a purple suit, the 69-year-old Bass brought her 8-year-old grandson, Henry Lechuga, with her to vote just before 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw shopping center. Applause burst through the room after the congresswoman finished marking her ballot.
“We have run a campaign of hope,” Bass said, “a campaign that says, ‘This is the greatest city in the world, and yes, we have serious problems, but we can master those problems.’ ”
A day earlier, Bass said her immediate focus if elected would be homelessness and declaring a state of emergency. She worried about the closure in recent months of hotels that are being used to shelter homeless people. That effort had been funded in part through federal reimbursements, and she wants to see the program extended.
“On Day One, we will identify the most challenging encampments and we will get those people housed,” she said.
Bass holds a narrow edge, but tens of millions of dollars in negative ads have powered Caruso into striking distance.
Caruso, 63, his wife, Tina, and their four children drove by the businessman’s grandparents’ onetime Boyle Heights home before arriving at a local senior center to vote.
“I was just flashing back to what it must have been like: my grandfather’s gardening truck in that driveway,” Caruso said, choking back tears.
A win, he hoped, would push other people from the private sector who haven’t spent their lives in elected office to run as well.
“You can actually be Jeffersonian and have a career: Go serve your city, go serve your state, go serve your country and then go back to private life,” Caruso said. “And I think that’s the best form of democracy, to be honest.”
Not since Republican entrepreneur Richard Riordan’s winning bid for mayor in 1993 over Hollywood-area Councilmember Michael Woo have Angelenos been offered such a stark choice for mayor.
A Bass victory would make her the first woman to serve as mayor in the city’s 241-year history. She would also be just the second Black person elected to the post, after Tom Bradley, who served five terms beginning in 1973. Caruso also would be a rarity in the mayoral suite: a onetime Republican who registered this year as a Democrat and who never previously served in elected office.
Bass pitched herself to voters as an expert at building the kind of diverse coalitions needed to govern L.A., given her nearly two decades in the state Assembly and U.S. House and her years before that founding Community Coalition, a nonprofit focused on economic justice.
Caruso argued that his work in real estate development, as well as on commissions that oversee the Department of Water and Power and Los Angeles Police Department, had taught him how to buck the status quo to make real change.
But despite their stark differences in presentation and partisan history, Bass and Caruso put forward broadly similar policy platforms.
Bass outlined more modest — and, she said, more achievable — proposals on the main issues: reversing homelessness and increasing public safety. She spoke of creating housing for 15,000 unsheltered people during her first year in office. Caruso promised 30,000 new beds in his first 300 days. And while Caruso said he would eventually grow the LAPD to 11,000 from its current staffing of about 9,200, Bass said she would return the force to its currently authorized level of 9,700.
Caruso and Bass also confront the challenges ahead knowing that L.A. mayors famously have less power than other big-city chief executives — needing approval from the 15-member City Council to accomplish many tasks — and seldom find their way to higher office.
The mayoral contest began to take shape last year, when Nury Martinez, the council president at the time, and her fellow councilmember and former county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas declared they would not run. Businessman and former Los Angeles schools Supt. Austin Beutner also stayed out of the race.
Karen Bass and Rick Caruso have spent the final days of the campaign for mayor shoring up support and stumping for undecided voters.
That left a field made up mostly of veteran elected officials, including City Atty. Mike Feuer and Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León. They were joined by leftist activist Gina Viola, Central City Assn. President Jessica Lall and businessman Mel Wilson, among others.
When Ridley-Thomas, who was a close ally of Bass’, decided to stay out, it opened up an opportunity for the congresswoman to “come home,” as she said often on the campaign trail. Voters from the start expressed the most familiarity and comfort with her, while most of the rest in the field struggled to distinguish themselves.
When he entered the race this year, Caruso thrust himself from relative obscurity into contention using an unprecedented $100-million war chest, mostly of his own money. His opponents tried to slow him down by tarring him as an out-of-touch tycoon. But Caruso countered with endorsements from everyday citizens who said they benefited from his charitable giving.
The two finalists took some hard shots at each other on the campaign trail. Bass repeatedly portrayed Caruso as a rich interloper, trying to buy his way into the hearts of Angelenos. She zeroed on Caruso’s long-standing ties to the Republican Party, of which he was a member as recently as 2019, and how he become a Democrat only weeks before entering the race.
Caruso often hit back by painting Bass as just another member of the city’s corrupt and insular leadership class. A pro-Caruso ad also attempted to raise doubts about Bass’ judgment, using video of her comments praising the Church of Scientology.
But the harsh words never seemed to rupture an aura of goodwill between the two contenders, who often ended debates with a warm greeting and smile for each other.
Bass’ strategists insisted for months that her path to the mayor’s office fit with the post’s history and demographic trends. She would be the latest in a string of Democratic elected officials to win the seat. With nearly half of L.A.’s voters self-described liberals, the progressive Bass appeared to have a built-in advantage.
Caruso’s best hope was that people who do not vote as regularly would be so energized by the city’s struggles that they would support him in disproportionate numbers. Polls in the final days of the race showed the businessman seizing a significant lead among Latino voters.
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