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Column: No matter who wins the L.A. mayor’s race, here’s the perfect job for the loser

Separate photos of Rick Caruso, left, and Karen Bass, right, at campaign events.
L.A. mayoral candidates Rick Caruso and Karen Bass at recent campaign events.
(Los Angeles Times)
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It has been more than a week since the polls closed in the race for mayor of Los Angeles. We still don’t know for sure who won, but we do know a couple of things.

First, Karen Bass is on track to become the first woman and second Black person to lead this great, but deeply troubled city. On Monday and again on Tuesday, the longtime congresswoman expanded her lead over billionaire developer Rick Caruso, with 52.5% to his 47.5%.

Indeed, that she’s ahead at all, much less by 5%, is quite the political feat.

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Caruso dumped more than $100 million into his campaign, spending tens of millions advertising on every possible platform and hiring an army of canvassers to go door to door for votes. The unprecedented sum is the biggest reason — but, like it or not, far from the only reason — this race isn’t a Bass landslide. (Not yet anyway.)

Which brings me to the second thing we know: A whole lot of Angelenos liked both candidates.

At last count, 375,143 had voted for Bass, while 338,794 had voted for Caruso. I see this as less of a referendum and as more of an opportunity for L.A.

Throughout the campaign, Bass and Caruso were asked repeatedly whether they would offer their opponent a role in their administration. Or, if offered such a role, whether they would actually accept it. The most definitive response I heard from either candidate was a reluctant “maybe.” And most of the time it was just a shrug.

For the sake of a city where voters are clearly at odds over how best to solve an ever-growing list of intractable problems, this is what an enthusiastic “yes” could look like.

Rick Caruso: Housing czar

Listening to candidates deliver the same stump speeches, same clever quips, same pointed digs, again and again for months, can get really old. But this one from Bass never did:

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“I do have to say that for somebody who has spent his life as a builder,” she said during a recent debate, giving Caruso side eye, “he has never ever built one unit of affordable housing, let alone taken care of people who were homeless.”

Bass was, of course, referring to Caruso’s fantastical plan to provide shelter, whether it be sleeping pods or Boxabl pre-fab homes, for 30,000 unhoused people within 300 days. And how it was suddenly so important to him as a mayoral candidate, after spending so many years as a developer building shopping malls for the wealthy.

During the debate, Caruso responded to Bass the same way he always did: “That wasn’t my job.” And he’s right. It wasn’t and it isn’t his job. But what if it was in a Bass administration?

Now before you think I’ve lost my mind, notice I said “housing czar,” not “homelessness czar.” The two issues are interrelated, but are not the same.

Getting tens of thousands of unhoused people off the streets of Los Angeles — 17,000 in one year is what Bass is promising — will take a lot of work on a lot of fronts. More temporary housing obviously has to be part of the solution and the City Council seems to recognize this.

But more temporary housing can’t be the entire solution, or even most of it. Because no one wants to live forever in a tiny home or a hotel room, with a curfew and strict rules on what housed people would just call adulting.

L.A. desperately needs more permanent supportive housing and more affordable housing. And yet, I’m one of those voters who has little faith in the city’s ability to get out of its own way to make that happen, even under a Mayor Bass.

Hence, Caruso.

Karen Bass has opened up a 5-percentage-point lead over Rick Caruso in the L.A. mayor’s race.

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What if he could use his expertise in dealing with the city as real estate developer to untangle the bureaucratic mess that is the permitting, planning, zoning and financing processes that are driving up the cost of housing development? These costs, as Times investigations have found, often serve as deterrents to building what’s needed at the scale that it’s needed.

Why Caruso would trade his cushy office at the Grove for a job as L.A.’s housing czar? Take on all the headaches of government, with none of the prestige of being mayor?

It goes back to something he told The Times last week, as the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office was starting to count ballots.

“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.”

Karen Bass: Coalition czar

A recent UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, co-sponsored by The Times, found that nearly 70% of registered voters in L.A. believe racial and ethnic relations in city are “fair” or “poor.” Black voters are the most pessimistic, with 77% feeling that way.

Those are high percentages.

In the increasingly unlikely chance that Caruso does win the race for mayor, his first move should be to bring Bass on as L.A.’s first coalition czar.

Although it faded from the headlines during the election, the leaked racist recording of three Latino members of the L.A. City Council and a Latino labor leader plotting to dilute Black political power is still doing damage.

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On Wednesday, a coalition of community groups are planning a rally in Boyle Heights to demand, once again, that one of the council members involved, Kevin de León, resign. He has stubbornly refused, casting a shadow over city business.

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Fear and suspicion that the city is operating with a zero-sum political system that pits residents against residents for vital services won’t help L.A. solve homelessness or housing affordability or public safety.

Bass is the person best equipped to deal with that. It’s what she has emphasized throughout her political career, starting with founding the nonprofit Community Coalition, which works to undo decades of structural racism in South L.A. that has harmed Black and Latino Angelenos alike.

“We need a new direction in L.A. and new leadership that will make sure we reject the politics of divide and conquer,” Bass said during a debate last month, days after the leaked audio surfaced online and was first reported by The Times.

The same poll found 77% of Black registered voters and 54% of Latino registered voters believe it’s “strongly important” for the next mayor to prioritize “coalition building between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

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Luckily, if the current trend in election results continue, that’s the mayor we’re likely to get. And maybe even a housing czar.

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