The L.A. Mayoral Race Is a Dead Heat Between an Ex-Republican Billionaire Shopping Mall Tycoon and a Career Politician

The sidewalks were crowded with people. Karen Bass was happy, and somewhat surprised, to see them. “What made it fun was I actually didn’t knock on many doors,” she tells me. “People came out of their houses and came up to meet me and talk with me. They had been notified via email that I’d be in the neighborhood. But they could have easily just hunkered down and thought, Eh, I don’t want to talk to her. No. They didn’t wait for me to come by. When they knew I was there, they came out looking for me.”

The enthusiasm in Encino, California, was certainly an encouraging sign for Bass’s campaign to become the next mayor of Los Angeles. But the contentious race to succeed term-limited incumbent Eric Garcetti—whose job approval rating has slid, and who has suggested he may not endorse any of the contenders, per the Los Angeles Times—is being driven by a very different group of people on the street: the estimated 40,000 homeless who are living in alleys and parks and under highways all over Los Angeles. How to help them—or how to get them off the street—and how to turn around L.A.’s crime surge are the top priorities for voters, and the top issues dividing Bass and Rick Caruso, who in recent polling were essentially tied. The primary is June 7.

A whole lot of other things also separate Bass and Caruso. He is fabulously wealthy, a billionaire, thanks in part to a successful career developing high-end shopping malls. She is not. Bass grew up in the working-class Venice–Fairfax neighborhood, the daughter of a mailman and a hair-salon owner turned stay-at-home mom, and began her political career in the early ’90s as a grassroots organizer fighting the crack epidemic. Caruso is white and male; Bass, Black and female. He was a longtime Republican, then an independent, until registering as a Democrat in January. Bass has been a Democrat since she was a teenage volunteer on Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign.

Yet the current mayoral contest will likely turn on a more fundamental difference, between an outsider and an insider. Bass, 68, has been in public office since 2004, the past 11 of those years as a congresswoman; in 2020 she made Joe Biden’s short list of possible vice-presidential nominees. Caruso, 63, is running for office for the first time and is arguing that it is career politicians like Bass who have gotten L.A. into its current mess.

Bass agrees there’s a crisis. But she believes it’s Caruso, promising a rapid turnaround and leaning heavily on law enforcement, who will repeat destructive mistakes. “Our problem is that we have treated homelessness like a chronic disease,” Bass tells me. “Well, it has gotten so far out of control it is now an emergency, and you can’t treat it like, say, normal high blood pressure and just keep using the same medicine. We’ve got to do something radically different.”

But isn’t that making Caruso’s point for him? Haven’t Bass and her government colleagues already had plenty of chances, and failed? The congresswoman, naturally, doesn’t see it that way. “Absolutely, elected officials could have done more,” she says. “I think a local billionaire could have done more too. Rick does give a lot of charitable money—but he builds luxury housing!” (“Blah blah blah,” a Caruso adviser responds.)

Bass’s definition of how her becoming mayor would offer a “radical” change is nuanced. She is hardly a stereotypical soft-on-crime progressive; she sees a significant role for the LAPD in restoring order. But Bass also proposes a sustained, coordinated, multilevel approach to the homelessness crisis that tackles its many underlying reasons—from teens fleeing abuse to mental illness and drug addiction to soaring rents—with a multifaceted response that incorporates everything from the city buying small hotels to use as temporary housing, to funding more treatment facilities, to ramping up job training and education. Bass believes her deep experience in government gives her the skills needed to forge an unprecedented collaboration between city, county, state, and federal programs, and that she could get 15,000 people off the streets in her first year in office.

As policy prescriptions, Bass’s ideas are unassailable, and she argues that Caruso’s proposals—more low-income housing, but also more cops—would only repeat an inequitable history. “I watched this happen in the ’90s when the problem was addiction to crack cocaine,” says Bass, who at that time was a social worker and community organizer. “And the only thing policymakers had was sentencing laws, not drug treatment. They didn’t view it as a health problem. They viewed it as a criminal problem. And so if you combine mass incarceration with shredding the social net, that equals to 40,000 tents today. A quick fix is not going to deal with this problem. But what I’m saying is, I don’t believe it takes that long.”

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