In the lead-up to Election Day, observers framed Los Angeles’s mayoral race as a referendum on rampant homelessness and crime. But residents failed to reject the city’s current path. Eight days after the polls closed, the Associated Press called the race for the ultimate political insider: progressive Democrat Karen Bass. A sitting congresswoman, Bass has spent the last 17 years as an elected official and earned the endorsements of prominent L.A. political figures. She won with almost 55 percent of the vote.
Bass defeated Rick Caruso, a billionaire developer and former president of the city’s police commission. Caruso spent $100 million of his own fortune in a crusade against Bass and the city’s political establishment. He even garnered high-profile celebrity endorsements from such figures as actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Pratt. Why, then, did he lose? Two reasons stand out: Caruso’s mixed messaging and the power of the city political machine.
First, Caruso’s push to broaden his appeal may have compromised his voice. Though he touted his credentials as a political outsider, the former Republican also tried to reinvent his political identity, changing his party affiliation to Democratic before filing to run. In a city where looks are everything and money can be the ultimate cosmetic enhancement, even $100 million wasn’t enough to persuade left-leaning voters that he had become a true believer. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, voters appeared to see Caruso as the candidate of change and Bass as the candidate of continuity. Perhaps a campaign more straightforwardly opposed to one-party rule—and more faithful to Caruso’s own views—could have fared better.
Past candidates have drawn such contrasts. In 1993, Richard Riordan became L.A.’s first Republican mayor in 36 years, winning with 54 percent of the vote. The year before had been shadowed by the 1992 riots and was the deadliest year in L.A. County history—with 2,589 killings, fueled by gang violence, civil unrest, and the proliferation of guns. Riordan appealed to voters of all persuasions fed up with the status quo. His message was simple: crime is ruining the city. A venture capitalist with a net worth of $100 million, Riordan triumphed in a bitter race. Though his opponent, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “sought to portray him as a right-winger unsuited to govern a diverse city bristling with racial tension,” Riordan evoked an aspirational vision of Los Angeles as a clean, well-run city, where opportunities abound.
Caruso’s attempts to deliver a similar message were muddled. Posing as a Democrat, he pushed a policy agenda not different enough from Bass’s. For example, shortly after Roe v. Wade was overturned, Caruso tweeted that he was “heartbroken and outraged by the decision of the supreme court” and affirmed his support for abortion rights. Activists were quick to point out that he had supported pro-life organizations in the past. Instead of focusing mostly on crime, the Caruso campaign spent too much time and resources defending the candidate’s new identity.
Meantime, opponents of Caruso’s plan to hire more police officers and his tough-on-crime stance resorted to a familiar talking point: “Crime in L.A. is not as bad as it was in the 1990s.” That’s true, but native Angelenos who lived through the city’s earlier violent-crime period are not eager to relive such days. In 1993, my mother and I drove up to a McDonalds to order a happy meal; shortly after we ordered in the drive-through lane, I witnessed a man put my mother into a chokehold and hold a weapon to her head. Eventually, the man crashed our car and took off on foot, later holding another mother and child hostage before being apprehended by the police. No rational Angeleno who lived through the city’s crime surge would want to wait until conditions regressed in order for their mayor to act.
Also dooming Caruso was the difficulty of fighting the city’s political establishment. Caruso spent $100 million because he knew that the Democratic Party, the Times, and organized labor form a political triumvirate that only money can challenge. What he overlooked is that the machine is better oiled than ever. California now sends a vote-by-mail ballot to every registered voter. Ballot harvesting is legal in the Golden State, where the shift to mail-in balloting has dramatically changed the electoral process, with voting beginning weeks before Election Day and results taking days to trickle in. Nearly 80 percent of ballots cast in the November election were by mail. Campaigns no longer need to have the best candidate; they simply need to collect the most ballots.
Caruso’s money proved no match for the dominance of the local party. Though life for working-class Angelenos is difficult, Caruso had little practical means of reaching them other than through a costly campaign led by top Democratic consultants.
Here, too, Riordan’s example proves instructive. He appealed, neighborhood by neighborhood, to moderate and conservative voters. A devout Irish Catholic, Riordan leaned into his religious roots, using the Catholic Church as a key political ally. Riordan’s opponent, Michael Woo, relied heavily on support from black Angelenos, organized labor, gay-rights activists, abortion-rights groups, environmentalists, and tenants. Like Caruso, Riordan was attacked for donating money to pro-life groups, but he was unrepentant. He turned to the Church as his community partner, gaining the support of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, then the leader of the nation’s largest Roman Catholic diocese, who hosted a private mass before Riordan’s inauguration.
Could a similar playbook have benefited Caruso? Winning Latino voters was central to his strategy, yet Latino turnout disappointed on Election Day. Perhaps Caruso’s high-paid Democratic consultants failed to understand that churches represent community anchors and provide many Latinos with social, educational, and spiritual resources. With Hispanics now representing nearly 47.5 percent of the city’s population, the religious Latino vote was a squandered opportunity.
Riordan won as a Republican at a time of exceptionally high crime and with the support of influential religious organizations. That same approach may not work anymore in today’s Los Angeles. But the lesson of Caruso’s expensive loss is that any successful challenge to the city’s political establishment will require a new grassroots model.
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