UPDATED: When voters go to the polls Tuesday for Los Angeles’ primary election, they are likely to advance two mayoral candidates to the general election: Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) and developer Rick Caruso.
If so, Hollywood’s unusual split in its loyalties between the two could be an indicator of a highly contentious and massively expensive November general election.
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Both candidates have courted the industry for support, pledged to retain and boost film and TV production and have trumpeted their support from some of showbiz’s most prominent donors.
Just in the past few weeks, Caruso’s campaign has highlighted his endorsements from social media juggernauts like Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian and Elon Musk, and from industry figures such as Bryan Lourd and Dana Walden. Bass has drawn recent contributions from Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, Octavia Spencer and Jennifer Garner, and a recent event at Bad Robot Productions drew 300 people including Norman Lear, 99, and with J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath introducing her and Shonda Rhimes among the co-hosts.
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Industry-specific issues are a sidelight compared to what has dominated the race and driving much of the attention: the perception of a city in crisis, with an out-of-control homelessness problem and brazen and tragic incidents of crime. That is where the two candidates differ, with different means and approaches to a solution.
Another major candidate in the race, city councilman Kevin de Leon, former president pro tem of the state Senate, also is well known in industry political circles, but he has lagged in the polls. At a debate in the spring, he has positioned himself as the candidate who has already implemented housing solutions within his district.
The top two vote getters advance to the November 8 general election, but there also is the chance that one of the candidates breaking the 50% threshold. Such a scenario is possible, but not probable, but the wildcard is in turnout.
“It is theoretically possible but not likely,” said Fernando Guerra, professor at Loyola Marymount University and founding director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles. He notes polls that show the race pretty closely tied between Bass and Caruso. A UC Berkeley-Los Angeles Times Poll published Sunday showed Bass with the support of 38% of likely voters, and Caruso with 32%.
Citywide races have typically engaged few beyond the most stalwart of the industry’s donor classes, yet that is not the case this year, as the city moved its mayoral election to coincide with the heavier-turnout midterms.
The city’s woes undoubtedly are driving interest, but also the presence of candidates who come with extensive political and industry connections and, at least among political insiders, substantial name recognition.
“Historically Hollywood votes somewhat unanimously in one direction,” said Jay Sures, co-president of UTA, who is backing Caruso. “What is unique about this race is they are not. They are very split.”
Caruso’s ability to self-finance his campaign has allowed him to blanket Los Angeles’ media market, perhaps in ways that have never been done before. His campaign has spent more than $40 million, much of its his own money, and that has made him a ubiquitous presence in the Los Angeles market, introducing himself to voters who may not otherwise have known who he is — a real estate developer responsible for The Grove, among other projects, who also has served as president of the Police Commission and member of the board of Water and Power commissioners.
His entry into the race drew endorsements from figures such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who taped a video message, and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, who said on Facebook that Caruso is “a decent man who loves our city and has a successful history of doing hard things that make it a great place to live and work.” It was an indicator that Caruso, a former Republican in a left-leaning city, was drawing support among longtime loyal Democratic donors. Sarandos’ wife, producer Nicole Avant, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the Bahamas, also has given her endorsement.
“These are two candidates who have really starkly different points of view, different management styles and different public personas,” said Sures, who hosted Caruso’s first event after he announced his campaign in February.
Sures credits a focused message. “At the end of the day, his message is so clear — more housing, more officers on the street. That is a message that just makes sense, that people can comprehend and understand.” He said that he was introduced to Caruso through John Kasich, the former Ohio governor who is a UTA client and a CNN commentator.
Caruso’s recent donors including Sean Bailey and Adam Aron, and others who are backing his campaign include Maria Shriver and George Lopez.
Snoop Dogg’s endorsement came at an event last month in which Caruso appeared with community activist “Sweet Alice” Harris. “This is what a mayor has got to be about,” the rapper said.
“She is the community, and he has been standing by her side for 40 years. There is no question that I endorse the real, and that is real.”
Bass, meanwhile, has also highlighted celebrity support on social media including Ken Jeong, who wrote that she was “the real deal and the right choice for L.A.,” and other figures such as Yvette Nicole Brown and Tracee Ellis Ross. Ariana Grande has posted pro-Bass messages on Instagram, and one warning of the potential for Caruso to get over 50%. Recent Bass donors include Jackson Browne, and she also has drawn backing from figures such as Ari Emanuel, David Nevins and Michael Eisner. In a statement to Deadline, Bass said that “the film and television industries have been the backbone of our city’s middle class for more than a century — and as mayor I will continue my decades-long commitment to keeping film and television right here in Los Angeles.”
Having represented a Los Angeles congressional district since 2011, Bass generated national recognition in 2020 when she was on Joe Biden’s list of potential vice presidential contenders, with praise for her ability to work across the aisle. In her campaign, she has highlighted her experience as a coalition builder, as founder of the Community Coalition, formed to address crime, addiction and poverty in South Los Angeles, and later as speaker of the California state assembly.
Last summer, when it looked as if the mayor’s race would be dominated by City Hall insiders, there was an effort to recruit her in the race. Jeffrey Katzenberg was among those who encouraged her, and a poll was circulated that showed that she would enter the race as the undisputed front-runner.
At the time, Caruso was mulling getting in the race — as he has in previous cycles — but the poll showed that he still had to establish name recognition.
This time Caruso took the plunge and was willing to pour tens of millions from the start to build up his ID.
Guerra notes that in polls, Caruso started in the single digits but quickly grew. “He is like a door-to-door salesman who just kept coming around — TV, online, billboards. It is just incredible, and effective.”
By contrast, Guerra said, Bass’ strategy appears to have been to “make no mistakes and just get into the runoff…from that perspective, her campaign is very effective.”
But there is obvious concern over Bass’ ability to match or even respond to Caruso, particularly on the airwaves. Her campaign has spent just a fraction of what Caruso has, $3.3 million, and she has taken his resources a bit in stride. According to the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, Bass was asked last week about her ability to respond to Caruso on the airwaves, she told a UCLA class, “I don’t have $37 million.”
Lara Bergthold, principal at communications and issue advocacy firm RALLY, and who is backing Bass, said a challenge for the candidate is that she recognizes the complexities of issues like homelessness, and “it is hard to talk about complexities.” “We know that the solution to homelessness is to build more affordable housing,” she said. “Caruso has never built a single unit of affordable housing. He has no track record of that.” L.A. does not empower its mayor like other major cities, Bergthold notes, while solving homelessness involves issues of zoning, financing, land availability and bureaucratic coordination. “That is ultimately the problem and ultimately the solution.”
Katzenberg is backing an independent expenditure committee to try to level the playing field a bit. He donated $600,000 to Communities United for Bass for L.A. Mayor 2022, with other six-figure contributions coming from Abrams and McGrath and Monica Rosenthal, and recent donors including Rob Reiner, Barry Meyer and Marta Kauffman.
The IE also has generated one of the highest-profile tiffs of the primary contest, after it ran a spot that compared Caruso to Donald Trump, called him a “fraud” and ran abortion opponent, and referred to him as a “lifelong Republican,” among other things. Caruso’s campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to station, contending that he had not identified as a Republican “for over a decade,” and in an interview with Variety, Caruso accused Katzenberg, as the IE’s largest bankroller, of “lying.” Katzenberg told the Los Angeles Times that Caruso was “way too thin-skinned and temperamental to serve as our mayor.” (Caruso registered “decline to state” from Republican in 2011, and then re-registered as Republican in 2016, then “decline to state” again in 2019, before registering as a Democrat in January, according to voter records and the Times.)
In a statement to Deadline, Katzenberg said, “Karen knows soundbites will never solve our homelessness crisis and the rise in crime. She has comprehensive plans that will address the root causes of our city’s housing challenges as well as address rising crime without exacerbating racial inequities. As Mayor, I trust her to lead our city toward a safer, brighter future for all its people.”
The Caruso-Katzenberg tiff may be an indicator of what is to come if both candidates advance to the general election.
Debates have been relatively civil, far from what we have seen on the national stage, and within the entertainment community the split has yet to produce the kind of bitterness that has divided the town previously, as in 2008, with the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for industry support.
If the race does head to November, expect what Los Angeles has seen in the past: courting of neighborhood groups, building coalitions and lining up more endorsements. But indicators are that the campaign, perhaps more than those in the recent past, will play out in commercial spots and via social media influencers, with candidates doing their best to warn of the other.
Mike Murphy, the political strategist and co-director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, is backing Caruso. He sees the race as “change vs. more of the same.” The general election, he said, could come down to who fits the stereotype the other has tries to create. Does Caruso look more like a partisan Republican with no experience, or does Bass look like more of the same from City Hall? “I think she is closer to what Caruso wants her to be, than he is what she wants him to be,” Murphy said. Sures said that efforts to paint Caruso as a right-wing Republican are “complete nonsense.” “The guy is pro-choice. He cares about social issues, he is fiscally responsible. He wants to make this city a better place to live.”
Mathew Littman, political strategist, challenged the portrait of Bass as “more of the same,” and noted her work in Congress on issues like police reform “and the person helping her was Rick Caruso. “She is a ‘buck stops with me’ sort of leader and she knows how to get things done,” he said. He’s supporting Bass, but he’s also not knocking the candidate who could be her chief rival, as he added, “By the way, the same could be said about Rick Caruso.”
Political consultant Bill Carrick noted that the race has had relatively little polling and just two debates where all the candidates were present. Despite the fracas over Caruso’s past political affiliation, or efforts to characterize Bass as linked to City Hall establishment, Carrick said that voters are instead laser focused on solving homelessness — and that won’t change come November. Everyone sees the crisis, almost anytime they leave their homes, he noted.
“It is not like an issue that has no visual narrative,” he said. “It is a constant visual narrative.” The next mayor is likely to be the person most trusted to solve it.
This story was updated with additional details of Caruso’s voter registration status.