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Rick Caruso’s interests may be hurdles in a run for L.A. mayor

Will the mayor of the Grove run for mayor of Los Angeles?

With the deadline for entering next year’s contest to replace Antonio Villaraigosa only weeks away, billionaire mall developer Rick Caruso is closing in on a decision.

The shopping center mogul has flirted with the idea for years, but interest in his intentions has intensified after another potential front-runner from outside City Hall, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, announced he was staying out.

Caruso has been conferring with a team of political consultants and recently told a magazine that “the timing is very right.” He previously signaled that he would decide by mid-September, but aides would only say an announcement was coming.

They are quick to note that Caruso’s newly disclosed plan for a sprawling mall near San Diego should not be read as a sign he’s lost interest in City Hall.

The entrance of Caruso, a former Republican who recently changed his party affiliation to “decline to state,” would shake up a field of candidates dominated by three veteran Democratic elected leaders, particularly if he was willing to draw on his estimated $2-billion personal fortune to finance a campaign.

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Caruso declined to be interviewed for this article. But he appeared to be testing a theme when he told Women’s Wear Daily last month that the contest’s front-runners — City Controller Wendy Greuel and council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti — were “part of the problem, not part of the solution.” In other venues, he has accused officials of doing too little to lower the city’s high unemployment rate and reduce the taxes he says are driving business away.

Should Caruso enter and win, he would stand out among modern L.A. mayors, controlling a high-profile portfolio of real estate holdings in the same city he would be trying to govern.

Caruso’s company is currently at work on a massive retail and condo development near the Beverly Center. And his signature shopping and dining venue, the Grove, occupies 17 acres of prime property in the Fairfax District, its winding streets, grassy park space and electric monorail channeling Mayberry more than a shopping mall.

Elsewhere, Caruso’s company is trying to significantly expand its holdings with several large developments, including a resort in Montecito and an elaborate outdoor mall in Las Vegas.

Ethics expert Judy Nadler said his Los Angeles real estate could pose conflicts of interest, even if Caruso appoints somebody else to lead his company, as he has vowed to do if he decides to run.

“Hypothetically, if there were some other place in the city that someone wanted to develop that might compete with the success of his property, that would make it very difficult to have an unbiased opinion,” said Nadler, a senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University.

Caruso would potentially have to recuse himself from decisions on a range of transportation, infrastructure and other issues that could affect his business interests. An aide to Caruso said the mogul had researched the issue and was confident he could avoid ethical dilemmas and govern effectively.

Others have successfully parlayed strong business backgrounds into running big cities, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan among them. But a Caruso candidacy could face special challenges, some stemming from controversies during his service on local government commissions.

As president of the city Police Commission a decade ago, Caruso drew fire from the black community for his role in denying a second term to then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and for a slur he allegedly directed at U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters.

More recently he withdrew from the Coliseum Commission after alleged financial improprieties by former managers of the venue.

There’s also the potential political liability of his past Republican Party affiliation — he’s helped raise money for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney — in heavily Democratic Los Angeles. But aides note he’s also given to Democrats. And there’s the fact that his name recognition outside business and political circles is limited, a point underscored last week in a random sampling of shoppers at the Grove.

“Who is that?” Xavier Ortiz responded when asked if he thought Caruso should run for mayor.

Ortiz visits the mall often — he and his girlfriend had their first date there six years ago — but like many visitors he said he knew nothing about the man who built it. Political analysts say that if Caruso runs, he’ll have to spend heavily to correct that deficit before the primary in March.

The son of the wealthy founder of Dollar-Rent-a-Car, Caruso’s stylized outdoor shopping centers have been praised by supporters for re-imagining the consumer experience. Shira Siegal, who was eating a hot dog with her daughter last week at the Grove, was familiar with Caruso and said she would support him if he ran. His shopping malls, she said, show “he has vision and he’s able to follow through on his vision.”

Zach Thomas, a limousine driver in a Dodgers hat who was taking a break to get coffee, said he wished the rest of the city felt more like the Grove. “I think what he has done is quite amazing,” Thomas said. “Everything is clean and safe.”

Indeed, some of Caruso’s ideas about the city’s future sound like a developer’s pitch for a new project. Speaking to a roomful of business types at a Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. luncheon last year, Caruso said he envisioned neighborhoods organized around shopping centers, each of which would be linked by a light-rail system.

Not everyone is enthused about Caruso’s vision. Some architecture critics have panned the Grove and the Americana at Brand, a similar development in Glendale, as sanitized simulations of urban life.

Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said the success of a Caruso campaign would “revolve around people’s opinions on growth.” Because voters often associate real estate developers with traffic congestion, Caruso “could run as a job creator or he could be challenged as a traffic creator,” Sonenshein said.

Former LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said he thought Caruso’s business background is what Los Angeles needs as it faces an ongoing budget crisis and shrinking services. Bratton would not say who he might endorse, but he said a Caruso candidacy would make the race more interesting.

“He will provide a singular alternative to the other candidates,” said Bratton, whom Caruso backed for the chief’s job. “It would broaden the discussion.”

Rami Marz, a shopper who was hanging out with his sister at the Grove, said he thought it would be presumptuous of Caruso to enter the race given his limited experience in government. After all, he said, the city’s financial and demographic complexities make running it more complicated than building malls. “L.A.,” he said, “is like a jungle.”

kate.linthicum@latimes.com


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