Over coffee at Siren’s Java & Tea after a walking tour of the San Pedro neighborhood near the Port of Los Angeles, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso couldn’t stop marveling over the cleanliness of the streets as he listened to Yolanda Regalado’s story of starting her coffee shop in this tidy corner of Los Angeles.
For months, Caruso — the Republican shopping mall magnate turned Democratic mayoral candidate — has been traveling the city, fielding the frustrations of LA business owners as they deal with the city’s rise in crime and its staggering homelessness crisis, with more than 41,000 people living on the streets. They have told him stories about stepping over needles and human waste in the gutters; tent encampments that have overtaken the city’s parks; and police officers too spooked by potential lawsuits to force people to move and clear entryways.
But here — in a part of the city where City Councilman Joe Buscaino has been unapologetically vigilant in his drive to clear tent encampments and enforce the city’s anti-camping law — Caruso sees an example of what the city can be: “The minute you allow people to start taking back the community, it just continues,” Caruso says to Regalado. “It becomes contagious.”
At a moment when Angelenos are unnerved by the rise in violent crime and eager to reclaim trash-strewn public spaces, the simplicity of that argument has found an audience. Caruso has surged to the top of the polls in the mayoral race by presenting himself as an optimistic Mr. Fix-it.
He quickly caught up with Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, the front-runner, by pouring a stunning $34 million into his bid by mid-May, mostly financed by his loans to his campaign. His ads and mailers have blanketed the city, presenting him as a kind of superman in an impeccably tailored blue suit and striped tie.
“Who can curb crime?” his website blares as huge white letters flash across the screen, “Caruso Can!”
Having served in other civic roles as a former city police commissioner and the former head of the USC Board of Trustees, he’s long eyed the mayor’s race, all while donating generously to both Republicans and Democrats. But he is best known for the meticulously groomed, open-air malls that he has built in Los Angeles that are awash in 1950s Americana, with splashing fountains, trolley cars, valet parking and a seemingly unending loop of Frank Sinatra.
In this overwhelmingly Democratic city, political strategists point out that Caruso might have struggled in previous cycles given that he is a former Republican.
His political affiliations have changed over time: He became an independent in 2011 while weighing a mayoral run. Later, he told LA Magazine in 2016 that he had reregistered as a Republican to support former Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president, but stated that “under no circumstances” would he support Donald Trump, adding that he “couldn’t think of anything more horrifying” than putting Trump in charge of his future.
Then, he said he was registering as a “pro-centrist, pro-jobs, pro-public safety” Democrat a month before he announced his mayoral candidacy in February.
While Bass and other rivals have accused him of trying to “buy” the office — with her campaign putting out a digital ad in the final weekend comparing him to Trump — his outsider argument has proven effective at a time when confidence in elected leaders has plummeted. He and Bass are headed into the city’s mayoral primary on Tuesday as the likely top-two vote getters who would advance to the November ballot if no candidate wins a majority outright. Bass, Caruso and LA City Councilman Kevin de León are the three most prominent candidates vying to replace term-limited Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Despite the city’s political leanings, this moment of collective unease about crime and homelessness “created an opening for somebody who will say that they can turn things around very dramatically,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA.
Sonenshein noted the historical parallels to the political climate in the early 1990s when voters elected two Republicans — Rudy Giuliani and Richard Riordan — as the mayors of New York and Los Angeles, respectively. Both cities were grappling with crime and upheaval, concerns that were especially pronounced in Los Angeles after the riots that followed the acquittal of four White police officers of all charges in the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King. Like Riordan, who financed a significant portion of his own campaign as he touted his entrepreneurial skills as a self-made millionaire, Caruso has used his wealth to create a gigantic financial imbalance with the other candidates.
“His effectiveness is in dominating the scene to where a lot of voters think he’s the only candidate in the race,” Sonenshein said. “They are literally getting so much mail and there’s so many ads — that it really is kind of a shock and awe campaign.”