The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Los Angeles, public anger drives an identity-focused mayor’s race

Frustrated voters in a left-leaning city are seeking a new leader in a time of “crisis,” with the leading candidates a former Republican billionaire and a prominent Democratic congresswoman.

People ride electric scooters near a homeless encampment in downtown Los Angeles last year. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES – This is a troubled city, unsettled, with much of its grievance directed toward the Democrats who run it.

There’s plenty to be mad about. Close to 50,000 people do not have permanent housing, according to homeless advocates and elected leaders, with a likely majority living outside on a regular basis. The Los Angeles Police Department is confronting both a rise in gun violence and a deepening contempt among liberal activists over recent responses to civil rights demonstrations. City Hall is a venue for pay-to-play investigations.

Then there is the up-all-night worry that, even with a place to live and a good job, Angelenos find it increasingly hard to secure a financial handhold here. Rents rise quickly, the housing market is exorbitant, and in a city of endless highways and long commutes, gas now costs more than $6 a gallon.

People have been voting with their feet in an unhappy exodus from the nation’s second-largest city. U.S. census numbers released earlier this year showed that Los Angeles County saw more people leave in the pandemic’s first year than any county in the nation.

Now those who remain have a chance to vote Tuesday in the first open mayor’s race in nearly a decade. The campaign is providing a vivid X-ray of a famously sunny city, founded on a pioneer optimism, made wary by recent history and wallowing in uncertainty. The results could suggest the potential trajectory for establishment Democrats elsewhere in the nation this midterm season.

In this overwhelmingly Democratic city, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso has emerged as a front-runner, harnessing deep public anger over homelessness and crime. Caruso registered as Democrat just this year, and for much of his public life, has given to Republican causes. He has spent more than $25 million of his fortune in a bet on himself, as he has through much of his business life.

Paying the price is Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who has served six terms in Congress and was a shortlist finalist to be President Biden’s running mate. She emerged from years of community organizing in activism, particularly in South Los Angeles, but the abiding public animus to those in power now has her fighting hard to keep up with Caruso and his message that the city leadership must change.

There may not be a clear winner on Tuesday. If neither candidate secures more than half the vote — and there are others in the race, making that very unlikely — then the top two candidates will compete in November. The winner will replace Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is prevented from seeking reelection because of term limits, but who will leave behind an unhappy city and a confused Democratic Party.

“We’re the most pessimistic we’ve been in the last decade,” said Fernando Guerra, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Guerra said that as recently as 2015, two-thirds of Angelenos believed the city was heading in the right direction, according to a social-study survey the school conducts, making it one of the most optimistic in the nation. Today the figure is 42 percent.

“We’ve come back to being like every other city in our outlook,” Guerra said. “Angelenos are anxious, concerned in ways they have not been before. And it’s overwhelming.”

Recent polling and focus groups financed by leading business groups show homelessness as the chief concern and deepest source of frustration.

“I don’t see this as ideological, I don’t see it as one party over another,” said Miguel A. Santana, a former city administrator who now heads the Weingart Foundation, an influential grant-making organization involved in homeless advocacy and anti-poverty efforts. “I see this as a failure of leadership and management.”

Santana calls homelessness “part of the L.A. brand now, like the weather and food and traffic.” On a recent 20-minute walk to the Metro station from his home near downtown, Santana said he saw six homeless sites — encampments, lines of parked RVs, a couple of tents outside his house.

“And this is a street where one home is currently for sale for $1.9 million,” Santana said. "What we need as Angelenos is leadership that focuses on outcomes and is honest about the scope of the problem.”

In broad ways, the race has become a referendum on the Democrats’ ability to govern here and in similar big cities across this giant blue state of essentially one-party rule. Nearly 60 percent of the city’s eligible voters are party members.

Caruso, 63, first turned from the Republican Party a decade ago when he first considered a run for mayor. This year he officially changed his “no party preference” affiliation into Democratic registration. Even in announcing that he was joining the party, Caruso sought some distance, insisting that he would “not be a typical Democrat, that’s for sure.”

The Caruso phenomenon, as puzzling as it is to some Democrats, has caught on very quickly, even if his sales pitch is typical of campaigns led by wealthy, politically connected candidates.

“This city is at a major inflection point about how it's going to be led,” Caruso said during a recent interview. “Career politicians have failed us, and we've got these problems that have been getting worse under their watch.”

Although he has never held elected office, Caruso has long been a Los Angeles insider, serving on influential city commissions and working within the power structure to build his commercial real estate properties.

At 26 years old, the wealthy son of the owner of car dealerships and founder of Dollar Car Rental, Caruso was appointed by Tom Bradley, the city’s only Black mayor and a Democrat, to the Department of Water and Power board of commissioners. He later served as president of the city Police Commission, a less than popular credential today among the city’s young Democratic voters, but one that may resonate as other voters worry about crime. Crime rates, already falling, continued to drop during his time on the commission in the early 2000s.

The commercial real estate developments that made him rich are often characterized by a bit of fantasy, a certain urban-dream quality mostly unavailable on the streets just outside his mall properties. His signature development is the Grove, a glamorous enclave in Los Angeles walled off from the surrounding neighborhood where shoppers can dine and drink and buy luxe goods.

His spending — in some cases eight times his rivals’ outlay — has made his “Caruso Can” message as inescapable as the city’s summer fog and tent camps.

“Everything I did in the community was very quiet,” Caruso said. “I'm running against people that have spent the last 20 years in political office, that have had name recognition. And, frankly, they've done it on taxpayer dollars.”

The ads pop up on TV, and on YouTube, and in online windows of local media sites. Many offer a dark picture of the city, emphasizing homelessness and crime, which his opponents say he has exaggerated for political purposes. (The LAPD has reported more homicides this year than last year at this time, but the numbers were nearly three times higher in the early 1990s.)

“He is promising, essentially, that the world can be just like the Grove,” said Manuel Pastor, a distinguished professor of sociology and American studies at the University of Southern California. “And that we can sanitize our streets from homelessness.”

Pastor said the pandemic, which has exacerbated the rate of gun crimes and homicides in the city, “is a disease which revealed our larger sicknesses” around inequality.

“Caruso has clearly tapped into something, and this is an unsettled city now facing very stark choices,” Pastor said. “What has happened is that the center of political life here has shifted so far to the left in ways that have now become dramatic and unpredictable.”

Caruso’s positions on homelessness are not that different from those of his rivals — to build more affordable housing but with an edge of accountability from those on the street — but his views on solving crime are. He has called for adding 1,500 LAPD officers, far more than anyone else in the race.

The two issues have become intertwined, crossing ideological lines, as even liberals grow frustrated with the city’s problems. In some ways Caruso is counting on the same cross-party support won by Donald Trump, although he denies any similarity between them.

Theo Henderson, Black and homeless himself and an activist-in-residence at UCLA’s Luskin School, calls the Caruso candidacy a form of “white saviorism” that the city and country has seen and endorsed through the decades.

“This is the same siren song that Trump played,” said Henderson, creator of the podcast “We the Unhoused.” “And look where we are in the system, and in this society, where a lot of this unrest has been let loose, and the discontent is causing much harm.”

Christian Arana, the vice president of policy at the Latino Community Foundation, a philanthropic institution that promotes Latino civic action at the grass-roots level, needed to point only as far as his parents to explain how Caruso has gained ground.

His father delivers car parts. His mother works in a call center. Both Democrats, neither has ever voted for a Republican. Both are also worried about themselves and the city. They are undecided but leaning toward Caruso.

“It’s because he is not a politician,” Arana said.

Guerra, the Loyola Marymount professor, said he no longer argues with his liberal friends now considering Caruso, saying the failure of what he calls the city’s “one-party” Democratic government makes any shift “a completely legitimate choice.”

“The Democrats are fat and happy,” he said. “And what happens to animals who are fat and happy? They get roasted.”

That is an argument it is tough for Bass to counter.

Raised in West Los Angeles, Bass is a six-term congresswoman who represents a central slice of the city. Now 68, she was chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and, earlier, the first Black woman to serve in the powerful post of state Assembly speaker.

Bass, who worked to rebuild Los Angeles in the aftermath of racial violence here three decades ago and founded Community Coalition, an organization committed to creating economic opportunities in South Los Angeles, emphasizes consensus in the way she would govern. She is openly derisive about Caruso.

“If you have $25 million you can do a lot,” Bass said in a recent interview. “That and playing into the frustration with the city and people’s fears.”

Bass has made the homeless her campaign centerpiece, outlining new spending to build more housing and pledging to house 15,000 homeless residents in her first year in office. But she also acknowledges — and sympathizes with — the public fury in recent years.

Twice since 2016, Angelenos have voted for bond measures and local tax hikes to raise billions of dollars specifically for housing and homeless programs, only to find more people on the streets. That has backfired on Democrats.

“It’s an exasperation with leadership,” Bass said. “People tax themselves and have seen nothing in return.”

Yet Bass has failed to galvanize the liberal vote here, in part because she has called for more funding for the LAPD, if far less than Caruso has. Her plan includes shifting 250 people from desk jobs to the streets, among other measures.

“I would describe this city right now as one in crisis,” Bass said. “I mean we have 50,000 people without homes, many living outside, living outside, living outside. I’m sorry but just saying that is shocking.”

Bass also strongly defends her party and believes that, despite the criticism, voters will see through Caruso’s sudden partisan turn.

“There is more to being a Democrat than just filling out forms,” Bass said. “Being one also means you subscribe to a set of values.”

Jessica Lall, president of the Central City Association, a downtown-advocacy group, ran briefly for mayor before determining that she could not raise enough money to stay viable. Lall said the race, in some ways, has turned into one about “the ‘Rick Way’ and the ‘Karen Way’.”

“This election has become a much more symbolic race than I had first thought,” said Lall, whose group, which comprises 300 businesses, nonprofits and other civic organizations, endorsed Caruso this week. “And I think right now, looking at the undecided numbers, people are not necessarily seeing themselves in either of the candidates.”

In a different moment a third option might have been City Councilman Kevin de León (D), given that Latinos make up nearly half of Los Angeles’ population. De León is perhaps the most liberal candidate in the race, a former state Senate leader who pushed through California’s “sanctuary state” legislation to protect undocumented immigrants from federal agencies, and has driven environmental policy at the state and local levels. He is also, according to public polling, losing to Bass and Caruso.

He has worked to thin encampments on the city’s east side, get people into at least temporary housing, and usher the sick into care. His reward: opponents within his own party criticize what they call his “coercive approach,” limiting his mayoral ambitions.

“Once you are in a position of power you have a responsibility to govern,” de León said. “People’s lives are at stake. I mean this city is not ‘Lord of the Flies.’”