West Coast Showdown: The Organizer Versus the Oligarch

West Coast Showdown: The Organizer Versus the Oligarch

West Coast Showdown: The Organizer Versus the Oligarch

Karen Bass, Rick Caruso, and the race for mayor of Los Angeles.


Los Angeles—“He can outspend me, but he can’t out-organize me.”

That’s Representative Karen Bass, a longtime community organizer, talking about Rick Caruso, the billionaire developer who is her rival to become Los Angeles’s next mayor.

“This city is at a crossroads,” Bass said in a wide-ranging recent interview with The Nation. “We’ve spent the last three or more decades moving LA in a progressive direction. But if we’d learned anything from the Trump era, it’s that we cannot take our gains for granted.”

In the June preliminary election, Bass came in first among 12 candidates. She garnered 43.1 percent of the vote, followed by Caruso with 36 percent—but neither won the 50 percent needed to avoid a November 8 runoff.

In LA, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, 58 percent to 29 percent. In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Senator Bernie Sanders won more LA votes than any other candidate.

All this would appear to guarantee a Bass victory, but she is not a slam dunk to replace Eric Garcetti, who can’t run again after serving two four-year terms under the city’s term limit law. The issues of rampant homelessness and increasing crime have triggered cries for “law and order” that could mobilize Republican and independent voters—as well as some anxious Democrats—to support Caruso. That’s what he’s counting on. His ads say he’s running to “clean up LA.”

For most of the 20th century, LA was a conservative, Republican, anti-union, and majority white city. As recently as 1993—after the civic uprising in the wake of the acquittal of four LA cops who brutally beat Black motorist Rodney King—LA voters elected a business-oriented Republican, Richard Riordan, as mayor, on a campaign slogan that he was “tough enough to turn LA around.” Riordan was reelected in 1997.

LA has moved leftward in the past three decades—thanks in part to the growing number of Latino voters, the political resurgence of the labor movement, and the kind of community organizing and coalition building that Bass pioneered.

“LA’s electorate is very different than it was in 1993,” explained political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, who heads the Pat Brown Institute at California State University in LA. “What’s similar, though, is that right now LA is a very unhappy city. Just as in 1993, that leaves an opening for a Republican who claims ‘I can fix it.’”

Caruso, 63, was a Republican for most of his life. In 2019, he changed his registration to “no party preference” and in January, a month before the filing deadline, he switched to Democrat.

The mayoral contest is officially nonpartisan, but Bass, 69, says, “I’m the only ‘pro-choice Democrat’ in the runoff.”  Caruso claims he is pro-choice, but he’s been under fire from Planned Parenthood for his financial support of anti-choice organizations and politicians.

Until recently, Caruso was barely known to most voters—although well-known to insiders as a result of his campaign donations and service on various elite boards and commissions. To gain visibility, he’s dipped into his fortune to fund his campaign. He spent $43 million in the preliminary and at least another $30 million so far in the runoff. His TV and radio ads and mailers play to fears about homelessness and crime. In total, he’s spent ten times more than Bass—mostly on media and paid canvassers.

Caruso’s attacks on Bass have had an impact. An August poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that Bass led Caruso 53 percent to 32 percent among likely voters, with 14 percent undecided. A poll in late September, however, found that Bass’s lead had narrowed to 46 percent to 31 percent. Among all registered voters, Bass led by only three points—34 percent to 31 percent, with 31 percent still undecided.

The city’s powerful labor movement—which mostly stayed neutral in the preliminary because liberal Democrats were competing against each other—is now fully behind Bass, providing money and ground troops to increase turnout. Most of LA’s community organizing, civil and immigrant rights, LBGTQ, and feminist groups are also solidly behind Bass.

A statewide referendum enshrining the right to abortion in the state Constitution, an LA ballot measure to fund affordable housing, and several competitive races for city council, city attorney, and county sheriff are likely to bring out pro-Bass voters: liberals, renters, union members, women, and people of color.

The two candidates present a contrast of personal trajectories and policy views.

Caruso—whose father Henry made a fortune as founder of Dollar Rent-A-Car and car dealerships—earned a BA from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1980 and a law degree from Pepperdine University three years later. He worked as a corporate real estate lawyer before starting a company that develops and owns real estate properties, including high-end shopping malls, luxury apartment and condo complexes, and the upscale Miramar beach resort near Santa Barbara. Forbes magazine estimates Caruso’s personal wealth to be $5.3 billion.

None of his developments include any affordable housing. Monthly rents for one-bedroom apartments in his 87-unit building at 8500 Burton Way in LA range from $6,500 to $8,000. Two-bedroom units go for $10,000 to $15,000, according to an employee reached by phone. Caruso himself owns homes in LA’s wealthy Brentwood Park and Sherman Oaks neighborhoods, a $40 million oceanfront mansion in Malibu, and a beachfront compound in Newport Beach—as well as a $60 million Gulfstream jet and a $100 million, 216-foot yacht.

His family’s wealth and connections helped catapult Caruso onto several high-profile boards. In 1985, Mayor Tom Bradley named the 26-year-old Caruso to the LA Department of Water and Power board. In 2001, Mayor James Hahn appointed him to the LA Board of Police Commissioners, including two years as president. In 2002, local civil rights activists demanded that Caruso resign from the LAPC after referring to Representative Maxine Waters as “the bitch Waters,” but he refused to do so. In 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to the board of the LA Memorial Coliseum board, but he was pressured to resign over a conflict of interest.

He’s also served on the boards of the Irvine Company, the Pepperdine School of Law (which the university renamed the Rick J. Caruso School of Law after his $50 million donation), the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation, St. John’s Hospital, and Loyola High School (where he served as chair).

Caruso joined the USC board in 2007 and became chair in 2018. During that time, USC—the city’s largest private employer, whose board is a who’s who of the Southern California corporate establishment, including 19 billionaires—became enmeshed in several headline-making corruption scandals, including a medical school dean who used methamphetamine and partied with young addicts in local hotels, but whose prodigious fundraising caused university officials to look the other way. Nor did university officials take action against a gynecologist in the student health center who for years was known for abusing female patients.

In 2019, USC became linked to the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal. The US Attorney charged at least 50 individuals with paying or receiving bribes to officials at top universities (including Stanford, Yale, and Georgetown) to admit their children. Of the 32 parents named in the FBI affidavit, more than half bribed their way into USC. Among them were actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, who paid $500,000 to get their two daughters—Olivia and Isabella—into USC. On the day the indictments were announced, Olivia Giannulli, then a USC freshman, was spending her vacation in the Bahamas on Caruso’s yacht with his daughter Giana.

In contrast to Caruso’s life as a corporate plutocrat, Bass has been a progressive activist throughout her life. Born in 1953 and raised in LA, she learned about the civil rights movement from her father, a mail carrier who grew up in Jim Crow Texas.

“We watched the lunch counter sit-in protests on TV together,” she recalled. “I was only 7. The protesters were just college students, who were getting beat up and food thrown on them. I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I knew that I wanted to grow up and be like them.”

At 14, she was a precinct captain for Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. At California State–Dominguez Hills, she was an anti-war activist while earning a degree in Health Sciences. She worked as a nurse and physician’s assistant, while raising her daughter, and participating in local politics as a volunteer.

In the 1980s, South LA was hit hard by the loss of factory jobs, the rise of gangs, and growing hopelessness. Bass’s job in the emergency room at LA County’s USC Hospital—the nation’s largest trauma center—gave her a close-up view of how the crack cocaine epidemic was destroying lives. In 1990, she founded Community Coalition (CoCo) to find a humane alternative to the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration.

“I wanted to shift the policy agenda away from law enforcement toward a public health and economic response,” she explained. “I thought it was a health and economic issue.”

CoCo recruited teenagers to work on community improvement projects as a way to steer them away from gangs, gain leadership skills and self-confidence, and provide incentives to stay in school.

CoCo’s campaigns secured $153 million to repair South LA schools, reduced the overconcentration of tobacco and alcohol advertising in the area, and improved code enforcement in slum housing.

After the 1992 civil disorders destroyed more than 200 liquor stores (many of them magnets for drug dealing), CoCo helped the mostly Korean owners start other businesses, including laundromats and grocery stores that didn’t sell liquor.

Like Caruso, Bass has close ties to USC, but in a very different way. She served on the faculty of medical school’s physician assistant program and led its efforts to recruit students in health professions from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In 2004, Miguel Contreras, head of the LA County Federation of Labor, recruited Bass to run for the state legislature. She won the race, and in 2008 her colleagues elected her Assembly speaker, one California’s three most powerful elected officials (along with the governor and state Senate president). She was the first Black woman in the country to lead a state legislative house.

Bass built coalitions to expand funding for children’s health insurance, public schools, and urban parks. She reorganized and increased funds for the state’s foster care system. During negotiations with Schwarzenegger over the state’s $100 billion budget, she pushed successfully for a more streamlined and progressive tax system.

Bass was elected to Congress in 2010 and has been reelected five times. She served as chair of the Black Caucus and a leader in the Progressive Caucus. She was one of the first members of Congress to support the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, coauthored the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (which passed the House), sponsored the Community-Based Response Act (to fund community-based emergency response by trained mental health professionals, not cops), and introduced legislation to require the federal government to reunite families who have been forcibly separated at the border. She secured hundreds of millions of dollars in Covid relief and vaccine outreach funds to provide relief for communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

In 2018, she led successful campaigns to change the nation’s child welfare systems by providing services to children at risk of entering foster care, end the inhumane practice of shackling women prisoners during pregnancy, labor, and delivery, and allow cities and counties to prioritize hiring local residents for federally-funded infrastructure projects.

In August, President Joe Biden, who usually doesn’t take sides in local political races, endorsed Bass for mayor. So did Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

In 2011, Bass was awarded a scholarship to earn a master’s degree from USC’s social work school, which she received in 2015. She requested and received an exemption from the House Committee on Ethics to accept the financial assistance. Caruso has tried to turn this in a controversy, claiming that the scholarship was a “bribe” orchestrated by the social work dean to get Bass to support a bill to increase federal funding for social work schools, including USC. Bass has denied the accusation.

Last week, public attention on the mayoral race was diverted after the LA Times reported the contents of a leaked audio recording of a conversation between three Latino City Council members and the head of the LA County Federation of Labor that included racist comments about a white city council member and his Black son as well as disparaging comments about other public officials. Those comments occurred during their discussion about redistricting and how to secure Latino representation on the 15-member council in competition with Black districts in a city with rising Latino and declining Black population.

The LA Times, activists, and many other local politicians, as well as President Biden, called for all of them to resign. Both Bass and Caruso did the same. The controversy has shaken up LA’s political world, but it isn’t clear if, or how, it will impact the mayoral contest.

One of the council members on the call, Gil Cedillo, who was defeated for reelection in June by a progressive community organizer, had endorsed Caruso. Council President Nury Martinez (who has resigned her council seat), council member Kevin de León, and labor leader Ron Herrera (who quickly resigned his post) have backed Bass. If the outrage over the controversy among Black residents leads to higher Black turnout, it could help Bass.

According to polls, LA voters consider homelessness the city’s most pressing problem. At least 42,000 people in the city are homeless. Most low-income tenants spend more than half their income on rent and are often just one missed rent check away from becoming homeless. More than any other major city, most homeless people in LA literally live on the streets—in cars, in tents, or park benches—not in shelters.

Caruso has promised to “end street homelessness.” His plan is to declare a state of emergency and use police to sweep people off the streets. He plans to build temporary housing—primarily so-called “tiny houses”—on 300 underutilized government parcels, for 15,000 people. He would put another 15,000 people in temporary “sleeping pods” placed in empty warehouses and other buildings. The Los Angeles Times estimated that Caruso’s plan would cost about $660 million a year (about $22,000 per person). Caruso hasn’t explained where the money will come from.

He told the Times that he modeled his plan on Ft. Bliss, an Army camp in Texas where the Trump administration used to detain children who were separated from their families. “If Rick gets elected, I think we’ll see a criminalization of poverty,” Bass said. “You don’t get people off the street by arresting them. You get people off the street by getting them into housing.”

Bass plans to rely primarily on expanding housing vouchers (for homeless veterans and others), leasing and purchasing motels and hotels, and increasing mental health and social services for those homeless who need that support. She’s against crowding homeless people into large shelters, “for health and safety reasons.”

“We have to deal with this in a comprehensive manner,” she explained. “We have to prevent people from becoming unhoused to begin with.”

She favors providing current vulnerable renters with vouchers, strengthening existing tenant protection laws, and increasing construction of new affordable housing.

Rising crime is also a hot-button issue. Last year’s 397 homicides was a 15-year high—although it was worse in the 1990s, when some years saw the total go over 1,000. Violent crimes associated with robberies are also up.

Caruso conflates the homeless and crime problems as both symptoms of growing disorder. He has called for 1,500 more police officers—a dramatic expansion. The Police Protective League, the cops’ union, endorsed Caruso and paid for TV ads lambasting Bass.

“Rick knows good and well that you can’t hire 1,500 additional police officers,” Bass said. “The city would go broke. They can’t even fill a class of recruits now. His plan doesn’t focus on prevention or intervention. When we do that, crime goes down.”

As a community organizer and as a legislator, Bass focused on police reform and public safety. She was a leader in opposing California’s 1994 three strikes law, saying it led to the incarceration of Black and brown Californians. In 2020 she co-authored the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to ban abusive police practices—such as choke holds, carotid holds, and no-knock warrants—and make it easier to prosecute police for breaking the law. After her bill passed the House (but stalled in the Senate), Bass persuaded Biden to issue an executive order incorporating several core parts of the bill.

Bass would add a few hundred officers to restore the LAPD to its authorized force of 9,700, but wants to hire civilians for desk jobs to free several hundred officers to patrol neighborhoods seeking increased police presence. She’d also move more cops to serve as detectives and investigators to reduce the number of unsolved murders. (The LAPD solves only 55 percent of murder cases, disproportionately those with white victims).

Two prominent local Black Lives Matter leaders, Melina Abdullah and Patrisse Cullors, criticized Bass’s call to increase the number of police, claiming that it “harkens to a 1994-crime-bill-style pro-police system that puts targets on the backs of Black people.”

The BLM criticism hasn’t hurt Bass among likely Black voters, who preferred her over Caruso by a 67 percent to 16 percent margin (with 17 percent still undecided) in the late September poll.

Although a persistent critic of racist police practices, in 2020 she described “defund the police” as “probably one of the worst slogans ever”—a view she’s repeated during the campaign.

“We can’t ignore the reality of crime in our communities,” Bass told The Nation. “Many people want to see a strong police presence, but they want the police to be accountable.”

Bass wants fix bail laws to end “bloated jails full of people that don’t pose a risk to public safety,” and expand mental health care, and addiction recovery, and jobs programs.

“One of the things I learned at the Community Coalition is that city services—whether police, or potholes, or maintaining parks and playgrounds, or bike paths—aren’t deployed in an equitable manner,” Bass said. “So I’m going to push for an equity agenda.”

“We have multiple crises in Los Angeles. But I don’t subscribe to the idea that ‘I alone can fix it,’ even though my opponent says that,” Bass noted. “The only way we’re going to deal with this is to organize a citywide effort.

“Elected officials can play a leading role, but we also need the masses to demand more housing, better policing, better schools, and other public services. That’s how you get things done. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.”

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