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Is LA really going to have a billionaire former Republican for a mayor?

Rick Caruso forced sitting LA Rep. Karen Bass into a runoff to lead the country’s second-largest Democratic stronghold.

Los Angeles Democratic mayoral candidate Rick Caruso speaks a primary night event
LA mayoral candidate Rick Caruso hosts a primary night event at the Grove in Los Angeles.
Apu Gomes/Getty Images

Votes are still being tabulated in Los Angeles County, but one thing is certain: The contest to lead the country’s second-largest city will be decided in a November runoff between longtime Democratic Rep. Karen Bass and billionaire developer Rick Caruso.

Pre-election polls showed Bass with a slight lead over Caruso, and the votes counted on election night showed her slightly behind (37 percent to Caruso’s 42 percent share), but she has since overtaken him, leading 43 percent to 36 percent two weeks later. She appeared to have split progressive and activist-minded voters’ preference with other left-leaning Democrats on the mayoral ballot.

That’s led to a closer race than expected, and likely not the outcome Caruso supporters might have wanted: Candidates win the mayor’s office outright if they win a majority of the vote in the primary. Caruso exited the primary as the candidate with the second-most votes, and now that progressive voters, party activists, and community organizers will be able to rally behind Bass, training their attention on just one candidate, Caruso faces an uphill battle to win over voters who may be more amenable to Bass’s liberal track record and platform.

Who is Rick Caruso?

Caruso’s strength in the primary is still shocking, given how long Bass was seen as the frontrunner in the race. Up until Caruso announced his candidacy on the final day he could file to be listed on the ballot, Bass was the clear favorite to win the election. But Caruso’s support quickly climbed in the final weeks of the campaign.

That surge in support is due to both his outreach and the issues that motivated the dismal number of voters who turned out: crime, perceptions of public safety, homelessness, and affordability.

Caruso is a Los Angeles institution, born into a family that first settled in the city in the 1920s. He’s well known for his massive shopping mall developments, which blend high-end stores with movie theaters, various restaurants, and housing. He hosted his primary night returns party at one of these malls — the Grove in the Fairfax district of Central LA — and has deep ties to a number of schools in the city as an alumnus, donor, and parent, including the University of Southern California.

Well known in the city’s business community, Caruso has a conservative political history. He was long a Republican, before becoming an independent and, just before the mayoral race, a Democrat. And he’s dabbled in politics before: He’s served in the city’s bureaucracy, on the board of the Department of Water and Power and as president of the LA Police Commission.

Overall, he’s a respected businessman and fairly well-known figure in wealthy LA circles. USC’s student paper may have had the aptest description of how many elites in Los Angeles see him: “Caruso is a modern day Willy Wonka … and everyone wants a piece of the chocolate bar.”

How Caruso turned the primary into a two-person race

Caruso amassed massive personal wealth that he’s used in this primary. He’s spent more than $35 million of his fortune, pouring $24 million of that into digital, radio, and television ads that flooded the city’s expensive media market and swamped Bass’s spending. Based on current vote totals, Caruso spent nearly $300 per voter he won, a massive amount of money that swamps the dollar amount usually spent per vote in a presidential election, for example.

But that spending might have boosted his name recognition among voters of color, where he appears to have had some success. In the final poll before election day, the Los Angeles Times reported that Caruso had consolidated support from conservative, white Angelenos early in the race, and built up support among Latino and Black men over time. Bass, on the other hand, did better among loyal Democrats, white liberals, and Black and Latina women. The parts of the city that saw the highest turnout were the whiter and more affluent hill and coast communities, not the city’s Black and brown core.

Bass may have been hampered a bit by that low turnout among minorities. One traditional explanation for low turnout in Los Angeles is the supremacy Democrats have in elections — because one party is expected to win, some voters see no reason to vote in uncompetitive elections. There are also structural disadvantages, such as access to reliable news sources, language barriers, and transportation to voting centers, that may have limited minority voters’ awareness of what issues were on the ballot and their willingness to vote, while more affluent, more conservative, and white voters were more viscerally motivated by the perception of declining public safety.

Bass’s Washington credentials also might have hurt her efforts to convince voters dissatisfied with the local and national Democratic establishment. A longtime Congress member, former state assembly member, and community organizer in South Los Angeles, Bass had to fight the image that she would just be more of the same kind of Democratic insider who has run the city for the last two decades (the termed-out Mayor Eric Garcetti succeeded two-term Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa).

She also angered some progressives for her willingness to stake out a more moderate tone on crime and policing — refusing to defund the police (she called it “probably one of the worst slogans ever” in 2020) and proposing the hire of more police officers to restore the full strength authorized by the city (albeit 1,000 fewer officers than Caruso has promised to hire if he wins).

Polling leading up to the election showed homelessness and public safety were top of mind for many voters, and voters supported growing the size of the Los Angeles Police Department. Caruso capitalized on this in his ads and campaign mailers, where he cast himself as an outsider and a disruptor.

After an election with very low turnout, both candidates — but especially Bass — must energize voters for November’s election. Voters on Tuesday signaled concern with crime, homelessness, and the rising cost of living in California, and though both Bass and Caruso have signaled that public safety will be their top priority, they have five months to make their cases to a city that has seen an uptick in property crimes and homicides — and plenty of media coverage of brazen crimes.

For Caruso, that will mean expanding his base of support beyond his current coalition by convincing voters he’s not really a Republican, but a different kind of Los Angeles Democrat; and for Bass, consolidating progressives while cutting into Caruso’s support among moderates and men of color. Both have a lot of work to do.