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Column: What $104 million could buy, instead of a failed mayoral run

Rick Caruso Langer's
Rick Caruso gives a thumbs-up as a van of supporters shout their approval Nov. 9 at Langer’s Deli.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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$104,848,887.43 — Rick Caruso spent at least that much on his unsuccessful campaign to become mayor of Los Angeles, according to the latest campaign finance records.

That’s 11 times more than the $9 million spent by the victor, Karen Bass. It’s the largest amount a mayoral candidate has spent in U.S. history, just ahead of the $102 million Michael Bloomberg threw at his 2009 reelection in New York.

Caruso hoped to replicate the success of Richard Riordan, another L.A. rich-man-turned-mayor.

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Instead, the billionaire developer joined Al Checchi, Michael Huffington and Meg Whitman in California’s political bonfire of self-funded, fabulously wealthy losers.

In a concession statement posted on social media, Caruso expressed no regrets about his run, saying it “has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

You know who else got rewarded? A lot of people.

Radio and television stations and other media outlets (including this one) that collectively took tens of millions in advertising dollars. Millions to consultants. $10,000 to the Los Angeles Italian Festival. $2,500 to Canoga Park Elks Lodge #2190. $9,881 for a speaking engagement organized by the Men’s Forum of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church in Pasadena but held in Burbank — two cities where the L.A. mayor has no jurisdiction.

$104 million and change is, well, pocket change for someone whose fortune the Los Angeles Business Journal estimates at $5.9 billion. That’s what makes the amount so obscene. Once the final campaign finance tallies are in, it could soar even higher.

If Caruso wanted to change people’s lives through goodwill, there are many ways he could’ve done so with that same money.

Consider the possibilities.

A late endorsement from former President Obama, along with the Supreme Court decision striking down Roe vs. Wade, helped propel Bass to victory.

At Casa Vega, the legendary Sherman Oaks Cal-Mex restaurant where Caruso met with business owners in August, $104 million buys 3,851,851 #1 combo plates, with soup, rice, beans and your choice of two: cheese, chicken or beef enchiladas; chicken or beef taco; chile relleno. A free dinner would’ve gone further to warm up voters than any of Caruso’s incessant campaign ads, which Angelenos will remember with the same fondness that they have for former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt.

For what Caruso spent on his race, he could’ve given away 522,613 yearlong print-plus-digital subscriptions to the Hollywood Reporter or 581,005 to its rival, Variety. Both publications cover the goings-on of his celebrity endorsers, including Katy Perry, Snoop Dogg and George Lopez.

14,964,028 Dodger Dogs — fans would demand the franchise create a jersey number for Caruso, just to retire it!

Or if you prefer, 5,213,033 pastrami Reubens from Canter’s Deli.

Caruso’s $104 million could’ve paid for what L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti made last year — $283,827 — for the next 366 years.

He could’ve covered a year of tuition, housing, dining and books for 1,124 undergrads at his alma mater, USC — or gotten more bang for his beaucoup bucks by sponsoring 3,000 UCLA coeds.

Also on the education front, how about a year at the private Brentwood School, which his children attended, for 2,553 K-8 students or 2,158 high schoolers?

$104 million is good for 3,466,666 all-day parking passes at the Grove, Caruso’s most famous shopping mall. Or 24,452 Friday and Saturday stays in the cheapest suite at his Rosewood Miramar Beach resort in Montecito.

Or a year’s rent for 1,375 people at the most affordable apartment at his luxury 8500 Burton development. The $6,300 a month for those units is way above L.A.’s $1,532 median rent. If Caruso wanted to stretch out his cash, he could put up 5,690 people for a year at that median price — not the 30,000 people he promised to house in 30 days, but something.

The billionaire businessman is eclipsing the field with ads fueled by a $35-million outlay, spending likely to grow substantially in an anticipated November runoff.

In his concession statement, Caruso promised that “there will be more to come from the movement we created.”

Well, Rick, L.A. has a lot of bills to pay. Your $104 million almost matches the $105.5 million the Los Angeles Police Department is requesting in salary, overtime and recruitment increases in its upcoming budget. A good chunk of the cost overruns for the perpetually delayed Purple Line extension. About a third of Bass’ $292-million plan to house 17,000 homeless people. About a fifth of a mile of LAX’s upcoming people mover.

As the year wraps up, Rick could’ve spread $104 million on holiday cheer, the way he did on Thanksgiving, when he handed out turkeys to crime victims in South Los Angeles. The following scenarios are impossible in the real world — but, hey, so is a big guy on an airborne reindeer sled.

Caruso’s largesse could’ve bought 1,857 Patio Suite packages at SoFi Stadium for the Dec. 8 Rams-Raiders match. At $56,000, each package includes 28 tickets, five VIP parking spaces, food and beverages and a private restroom.

Next year, Caruso could make 742,857 families of four happy with a Dodger Stadium special that includes tickets and $60 worth of food credits.

This month, he could buy 13,500 courtside center seats for the Dec. 13 Lakers game against the Boston Celtics at Crypto.com Arena. He could give out 8,068,269 matinee tickets at the Grove for “The Fabelmans,” a Steven Spielberg tale about the unflagging love between a striving son and his imperfect father that would resonate with our man.

Rick Caruso Greg Caruso
Former Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso hugs son Greg Caruso after voting at Boyle Heights Senior Center.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

$104 million is such a huge amount that it makes some of Caruso’s other generosity seem downright miserly. The Caruso Family Foundation, which is the charitable wing of his empire, doled out $7.5 million to various causes in 2019, the last year for which there are publicly available tax filings.

The $5-million commitment Caruso’s foundation has made to Operation Progress, a nonprofit in Watts aiming to put neighborhood kids on the path to college, looks like a pittance. So does the $3 million the foundation has donated to Para Los Niños, which helps kids on Skid Row.

That’s the grand tragedy of Caruso’s campaign. As I’ve written before, he’s not an avaricious Mr. Burns or Scrooge. His commitment to helping those who need it, motivated by his own family’s immigrant history and his Catholic faith, is real. That same commitment to better L.A. is why he entered the mayor’s race and spent all the money he did, he says.

But his futile effort reminds me of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s warning that “politics must not swallow up all of a people’s spiritual and creative energies.” Caruso could’ve done better with his fortune. Here’s to hoping he does so in the future.

104 million six-month subscriptions to the L.A. Times — just sayin’!


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