In L.A. mayoral race, competing visions of the golden dream

Rick Caruso, a former Republican and a political outsider, is taking on progressive Rep. Karen Bass to lead Los Angeles. Their Jewish outreach strategies offer a hint at the different coalitions they’re trying to win over.

Last Tuesday, a group of Israeli Americans arrived at Los Angeles City Hall for a tour of the seat of government of the country’s second-largest city. They did get a lesson in how municipal government works, but not the buttoned-up, mundane version one might expect of city council.   

The group’s long-planned visit coincided with an outpouring of local outrage after The Los Angeles Times released a tape of a meeting in which the since-ousted Los Angeles City Council president, Nury Martinez, spoke disparagingly of Blacks, Mexicans, Koreans, Jews and Armenians. The afternoon of the Israelis’ tour, the city council was meeting for the first time since the tape leaked — and dozens of angry Angelenos showed up, chanting “fuera” (out) and “shut it down.” 

“It was literally a circus,” said Dillon Hosier, CEO of the Israeli-American Civic Action Network (ICAN), a political advocacy group that works with Israelis in the U.S. The tour was one of several Hosier has organized to help Israeli immigrants in L.A. “get acclimated to what it means to lobby and to talk to elected officials,” he explained, and last week, they got a different kind of lesson in the messiness of American democracy. 

The back-room conversation captured on tape has shaken up the city’s local government and its high-profile mayoral race in the final weeks of what was already a heated and expensive campaign. The two candidates — Karen Bass, a longtime activist and public official who has served in Congress for more than a decade, and billionaire real estate developer and political newcomer Rick Caruso — both condemned Martinez, along with the labor leader and two other city council members who were in the meeting. 

Bass has responded to the shake-up by touting her experience building interracial coalitions, going back to her work as a community organizer bridging ties between the Black and Latino communities in the 1980s. Caruso has asserted that the tape proves the city’s local government is corrupt, and only someone like himself, who isn’t part of the political machine, can fix it and rebuild trust.

“The focus in the campaign has changed,” said Dan Schnur, a longtime L.A. political observer and a professor at both the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. Until now, the race has largely centered on public safety and homelessness, amid rising crime and one of the largest unhoused populations in the country. “The choice between experience and an outsider is still exactly the same.”   

Bass came out ahead of Caruso in the June nonpartisan primary, defeating him 43% to 36%. But she did not win a majority, as her campaign had hoped for, which would have avoided a run-off. 

“He definitely has the celebrity factor, because he’s a big developer that has projects that are really large-scale that are attractive, both to Angelenos and to tourists,” said state Sen. Sydney Kamlager, an ally of Bass who is running to succeed her in Congress. 

Bass has blasted Caruso for spending tens of millions of dollars of his own money in the race, alleging that his outsized spending and the resulting relentless advertisements on the airwaves are unfair. He spent $40 million during the primary, and as of late September, Caruso had already spent an additional $20 million in the general election campaign, according to campaign finance reports. Bass has spent $6 million in the race through September. 

“It’s not unfair at all. She’s had 20 years in office,” Caruso, 63, told Jewish Insider in a phone interview last week. “To get your message out is incredibly expensive, and I view it as an investment in the future of this city. It is a lot of money. But let me tell you what is even more important: the freedom that I get that I’m not beholden to anybody other than the residents of Los Angeles.” 

For Bass, criticizing Caruso as an out-of-touch political novice trying to buy the election is part of her stump speech. On one afternoon in August, she told a group of Latino community activists that “the power of the people is stronger than the power of the dollar.” Later, at the brightly painted restaurant Hecho en Mexico, she echoed the line to an enthusiastic crowd: “$40 million could not win the election, because we can win the election with the power of the people.”

In interviews with JI, both Caruso and Bass touted their commitment to reaching the many diverse segments of L.A.’s population. 

“Bass’ campaign has drawn most of its support from African Americans and white liberal and moderate voters, white Democrats,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of Cal State LA’s Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, which has conducted polling in the race. “[Caruso] is going to make a heavy push for Latino and AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] voters.” 

The candidates’ outreach to Jewish voters reveals important differences in whom they view as their winning coalitions.

Bass, a progressive, has found common cause with liberal Jews on the city’s West side. One of her closest Jewish supporters is Rabbi Sharon Brous, an outspoken Democrat who leads the pluralistic synagogue IKAR. In a statement, Brous called Bass “an incredible friend to the Jewish community.” Bass has also been endorsed by nearly every Democratic official in the state, including current Jewish Reps. Brad Sherman and Adam Schiff, and former Reps. Henry Waxman, Mel Levine and Howard Berman. 

Caruso, a moderate who was not registered as a Democrat until early this year, has close ties with several Chabad rabbis and has found a receptive audience among Orthodox Jews and Israelis.

“I don’t think anybody will disagree that our local community is really a place that’s going to be fully backing him,” said Rabbi Zushe Cunin, who runs a Chabad center in Pacific Palisades, an upscale neighborhood whose commercial center was redeveloped by Caruso’s real estate company. Cunin, who is not endorsing either candidate, has known Caruso for years; the developer once gave Palisades Chabad free space to use, and he has made regular appearances at local menorah lightings on Hanukkah. “He’s not of our faith, but he was very respectful of the Jewish community,” added Cunin.

Caruso has heard from some Jewish Angelenos that they feel “very unheard, especially with the growing rates of hate incidents,” he told JI. “I also hear the same thing in the Latino community with crime.” 

Both of the candidates are natives of Los Angeles, and Bass, who is 69, grew up in the Fairfax neighborhood at a time when it was a hub of Jewish life in the city. She attended predominantly Jewish public schools; it was before busing became an official policy to integrate the city’s school system, but her mother opted to drive Bass to better-performing schools. 

“I didn’t know it was a [majority] Jewish school until I went to school on Yom Kippur and there was nobody there,” Bass, laughing, told JI in August in the backseat of a campaign staffer’s car, en route to an event in Boyle Heights, now a heavily Latino neighborhood where Caruso’s grandparents, who were Italian immigrants, once lived. Bass first got involved in politics in middle school, serving as a student representative to the school board and then volunteering on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. 

“The Jewish community where I went to high school, the parents were very political — far to the left,” said Bass. “It was during the middle of the war in Vietnam, it was a lot of anti-war protests and all that, and the parents, the teachers and the students were all involved.”

In L.A., 68% of Jewish voters identified as Democrats in a 2019 survey

“I’ve always appreciated that she’s had a very proactive approach of reaching out to the Jewish community and working with the community, which makes a big difference,” said Andrew Lachman, an L.A. attorney who leads Democrats for Israel California and lives in Bass’ congressional district. “For being someone who’s generally progressive in her voting record, she’s been a remarkable unifier and been willing to sit down with people to understand the issues and bring people together.” 

ICAN, the Israeli-American advocacy group, endorsed Caruso in the race. “Congressmember Bass’ positions on Israel are concerning to our communities,” said Hosier, referring to Bass’ support for legislation that is more critical of Israel, such as her sponsorship of a 2019 bill, introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), that would ensure U.S. aid to Israel does not lead to human rights abuses against Palestinian children. 

“Our priority is to get Israelis more integrated into civic life in America,” Hosier explained. “They see her [Bass’] position on Israel from a foreign policy perspective as concerning as to how she would relate to them domestically on domestic issues, and Caruso understood that and kind of addressed those concerns and understood the unique immigrant identity of the Israeli community here.” 

Lachman called Bass a “staunch supporter” of Israel, but pointed out that “she does take a social justice approach to it, so she’s a supporter of the two-state solution. But even in doing so, she’s generally voted the right way on a lot of things.”

The biggest reason ICAN opted to support Caruso is his stance on public safety. “We do have concerns about an elected official leadership having awareness about what it means to be Jewish, and what it means to be Jewish and Israeli in this community, and how things over there can affect us here,” Hosier explained. “Public safety was, I would say, the big defining factor for us.”

Concerns about antisemitism in the city have grown, especially since a group of Jewish diners was attacked outside a West Hollywood sushi restaurant in May 2021, during the 10-day war between Israel and Gaza. 

“Hate crimes are up in every category here, and this is the liberal bastion. So anti-Asian hate, antisemitism, anti-Black, immigrants, trans, you name it,” Bass told JI. She called for an “aggressive response,” including encouraging minority communities to report the crimes to police. But, Bass noted, Jews generally already do so. “The Jewish community is highly organized, highly aware and has defense mechanisms in place,” she said, ​​emphasizing that she would work to raise public awareness about antisemitism.

Caruso, who until this year chaired the University of Southern California’s board of trustees, has faced scrutiny in the Jewish community for his response to antisemitic incidents at USC. In 2020, several pro-Israel organizations held a protest at the Grove, the large retail and entertainment center Caruso developed, after USC student government vice president Rose Ritch stepped down from her position citing harassment she faced over her support for Israel. 

In his role as USC board chair, Caruso released a statement last year condemning antisemitism after a student senator came under fire for several incendiary tweets, including one that said, “I want to kill every motherf—ing Zionist.” Some Jewish alumni said Caruso had not done enough, since the student was not removed from her position in student government. 

“I couldn’t get ahead of the president of USC, and the complexity that she was trying to manage is that you have so much diversity in a student population campus. But the lesson, I think, for all of us was … condemn it very quickly,” Caruso told JI. “We need to be doing that in this city because our hate incidents, like I said, are up 200%, and that’s just unacceptable, not only for the Jewish community, but obviously for every community.” (Caruso was citing LAPD data showing that hate incidents — which are not necessarily all crimes — increased by 202% from 2020 to 2022.)

At a televised debate last week, days after the city council tape leaked, Caruso interrupted the moderator when she said that L.A.’s next mayor “will be either an African American woman or a white man” to offer a correction regarding his ethnic identity: “I’m Italian,” Caruso said. “That’s Latin.” 

“I continue to be very proud of being Italian, and I raised it last night because on the heels of very senior elected officials making fun of people’s ethnicity and religion, including the Jewish religion, I want people to feel open and proud and vocal about whatever their heritage is, whatever walk of life they’re from,” he told JI the day after the debate. He grew up near his Italian grandparents, he said, noting that “there was a lot of Italian spoken around the dinner table.” 

The increase in bias incidents is also one reason “we need more officers on the street,” added Caruso. Both candidates have pledged to hire more police officers, but the specifics of their plans differ. 

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when Bass was working as a community organizer, “the only thing policymakers were doing was locking everybody up, and that’s, I feel like we’re in one of those moments again, that the electorate is frustrated. They’re demoralized. They don’t see a way out, and so the default is just bringing the hammer,” she noted. She believes that arresting people, without changing the city’s approach to mental health and economic inequality, won’t actually stop crime, but she opposes the “defund the police” movement. 

“Because crime has increased, I can’t say that I would cut money from the police. But what I can say is that I will bring in much more money for the communities,” particularly in supporting and helping young people so they don’t turn to gangs, Bass said at the Boyle Heights event.

Caruso, who was endorsed by LAPD’s police union, has more of a classic tough-on-crime approach, although he, too, calls for increased training for LAPD officers, especially around unconscious bias. He also points to his experience as president of the city’s police commission, the body overseeing the police force, at a time when crime decreased in the city. He was endorsed by Richard Riordan, a Republican who was elected mayor in 1993 during a period of concerns about drugs and crime. 

“L.A. is much different than it was 30 years ago, so the tough-on-crime, lock ‘em up message that worked for Riordan is not one that Caruso can employ. He has a much more complicated challenge,” said Schnur, the USC and UC Berkeley professor.

In the past, L.A. has elected mayors in political off-years (current Mayor Eric Garcetti was first elected in 2013 and reelected in 2017), but the city has since aligned its election schedule with federal elections. 

“If this was a stand-alone election, on city issues, I think [Caruso] would have a very good chance of winning,” said Cal State LA’s Sonenshein. But because there’s also a gubernatorial race and congressional elections, “you’ve got the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, which basically is blotting out the sun in American politics right now and is going to continue to do that. You’ve got Democratic versus Republican. All those issues play overwhelmingly to Bass’ favor. And the city is much more Democratic and liberal than it was when Mike Woo lost to Richard Riordan.” 

Caruso’s overarching pitch is that the city needs a new leader, someone who knows how to manage big budgets and big projects, to fight crime and to come up with new solutions to the city’s homelessness crisis. “I view things through the lens of a business person. Let’s find what’s actually working and expand on it,” noted Caruso. “She’s never been a chief executive. She’s never had management responsibilities. There’s no way she could do this job. It’s just impossible,” he said of Bass. 

President Joe Biden appeared with Bass last week, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) plans to campaign with her soon. Bass served as speaker of the California State Assembly during the Great Recession, and she worked with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, to solidify a budget deal that ended a state financial crisis. She chaired the Congressional Black Caucus for two years, and currently serves as chair of the Africa subcommittee in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

“I want to bring Africa here,” said Bass, who described her perspective as “internationalist.” “We have a very backward view of the continent of Africa. We view Africa, in my opinion, like we view inner-city America, which is, you know, helpless, hopeless and needs charity, as opposed to a partner.” The hardest part about leaving Congress, she said, is wrapping up her work on Africa. (She won’t mind leaving the “Neanderthals” she served with behind, Bass added.) 

When asked whether any particular issues led Caruso to take up the mantle of public service, he said he was motivated by a general desire to help the community rather than a commitment to any one issue. In the 1980s, he served as a commissioner for the city’s Department of Water and Power, and he and his wife have donated tens of millions of dollars to educational institutions in the city. 

“I have this core sort of value that I really do love people, and I love bringing joy in people’s life. It’s what has fueled my properties that I built,” he explained. “I think of public service that way. There’s an opportunity to enrich lives and make people’s lives better. I’ve been very fortunate in my life, and abundantly blessed, and I do believe that there’s a duty, but also I have a passion for giving back, and that’s what excites me about being mayor.” 

Both Bass and Caruso say they would declare a state of emergency related to the city’s homelessness crisis, and they each want to build more housing. Ten years ago, roughly 32,000 people were unhoused in L.A. County; this year, that number ballooned to more than 69,000 people. On the drive to Bass’ campaign event in August, she paused occasionally to point to encampments on sidewalks and under overpasses. “Look at all this,” she said, shaking her head. “This is incredible.” 

“The only way to deal with that and deal with the fact that L.A. has become unaffordable, [is] we have to build more housing,” Bass pledged. But she acknowledged that she’ll face difficulties from people who don’t want housing built near them — the so-called NIMBYs, or “Not In My Backyard” proponents.

“I have to lead an effort and bring people together so that we change the spirit of the city, so that they are more welcoming of people, as opposed to the folks in the affluent areas wanting to wall themselves off, and not wanting anybody to move into their area,” Bass said. She’s engaged in a delicate dance: Some of those affluent liberals are reliable supporters and, more importantly, her key donors. (Voters “recognize the incredible human toll that the crisis takes, but in some ways they’ve become very fatalistic about it,” Schnur noted.)

Bass’ argument against Caruso is, essentially, that someone so wealthy can’t possibly understand the everyday trials of people living in poverty in L.A. 

“We have this really rich guy who’s running,” Bass said at the Boyle Heights event, “and I don’t believe that people who don’t know how we live and what our lives are like are going to actually help us.”

Caruso’s response is that Bass has been active in L.A. politics for decades, and homelessness has only gotten worse. “What we’re doing is we’re spending a billion dollars a year, and we’re doing it through the lens of a broken government, and nothing’s getting better, and it won’t get better under Karen, even if she’s well-intentioned,” Caruso said. “If you’re in the system like Karen Bass is, like [current Mayor] Eric Garcetti is, you will never fix the problems because the system doesn’t allow you to fix the problems, and you can never go against the system.” 

In the final weeks of the election, it’s anyone’s race, according to a late September poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies that showed Bass leading Caruso by just three points among registered voters. When the poll looked only at likely voters, Bass was ahead by 15 points.

Bass and Caruso are out making their final pitches to voters, and they showed up at synagogues during the Jewish High Holidays to reach this demographic that votes at a higher rate than the general public, according to a 2019 survey of Jewish voters in L.A. Bass went to two Reform congregations — Stephen Wise Temple in and Leo Baeck Temple — on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Caruso, for his part, also visited Stephen Wise, as well as the Conservative Temple Beth Am and Eretz Synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue serving the Persian community in the San Fernando Valley. 

The two candidates don’t even agree on their favorite delis. 

“Factor’s,” Bass said definitively, referring to Factor’s Famous Deli, a Pico-Robertson mainstay that she went to often growing up. For Caruso, it’s Langer’s Deli. “Now that I’ve mentioned that,” he said. “I’m craving a pastrami.”

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