After months of jockeying, an epic fanaticism scandal at City Hall, a prolonged drought and monsoons of TV commercials, the great and troubled city of Los Angeles, 4 million strong, straddles a fault line as election day approaches, deeply divided over the choice of its next leader.
There’s Karen Bass, who has had three careers in public service — first in health care, second in community organizing, third as a legislator in Sacramento and Washington.
And there’s Rick Caruso, the lawyer-turned-business mogul and philanthropist who made his fortune reinventing a classic Californian cultural institution: the mall.
Ironically, each represents a declining population in a city now half Latin American. The latest poll gives Bass a tiny but shrinking lead among likely voters, with a mere 13% undecided about running a rambling metropolis in which mega-mansions share zip codes with tent cities.
Through the primary and beyond – with homelessness, affordable housing, ransacked streets and crime dissected in the town square – I found residents were quite attached to who they loved and in whom they trusted.
“I mean, he’s not a politician,” Andrea Burman told me in May at the Northridge Fashion Center, where she said that on all major issues, Caruso is the obvious choice.
“We want change,” Caruso supporter Chester Chong told me last month in Chinatown, where he touted Caruso as the man who can offer what City Hall doesn’t have.
Law student Miriham Antonio, who led a voter registration campaign when she was a student at Fairfax High and later worked part-time for various public officials, said she understood the outward appeal of Caruso. Homelessness has worsened in her neighborhood of Koreatown, she said, and frustration with city hall has grown over it, affordable housing and crime.
And yet Antonio — who was furious with the City Hall scandal that exposed grievances against blacks and Oaxacas, among others — thinks Bass is best prepared to move the city forward.
“Her background shows that she cares about building coalitions,” said Antonio, who also likes the idea of a woman of color leading the city.
From the moment Caruso entered the race, Bass has been running against him and his money. Caruso poured tens of millions into advertising and door-to-door campaigns, spending 13 times Bass and creating a sort of David and Goliath storyline.
I recently had lunch in North Hollywood with Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks and former president of Walt Disney Studios, who donated nearly $2 million to an independent spending committee called Communities United for Bass. To most people, that’s a small fortune, but it’s a paltry sum compared to Caruso’s expenses, which approached the price of his $100 million yacht.
Also at that lunch was Matt Johnson, an entertainment attorney and Bass supporter who, like Caruso, once served as Los Angeles Police Commissioner. The revelation earlier this year that Caruso had missed 40% of meetings when he was commissioner did not sit well with Johnson.
“Your most basic responsibility is to show up weekly and show up on time,” Johnson told The Times earlier this year.
At our lunch, Katzenberg and Johnson said they think Caruso’s plans to hire 1,500 more police officers and house 30,000 people in 300 days are ridiculously unachievable, no matter how much money the candidate spends trying. convince voters otherwise.
Another high-profile Bass supporter, developer Steve Soboroff, also sat on the police board and spent over an hour explaining why he loves Bass, even as he gulped down a #19 pastrami sandwich. at Langer’s Deli in MacArthur Park. In fact, Soboroff brought scribbled notes with him, highlighting examples of personal interactions with Bass that trusted and admired her.
The first came in the 1990s, when Soboroff served on a school bond monitoring committee and Bass worked as a co-founder of the Community Coalition, which was created to organize black and Latino residents and lobby for the necessary services.
Bass argued that in deciding how to spend the bond money, the oversight committee should consider student perspectives. So she brought two dozen kids from different schools to a meeting, Soboroff said, and they pleaded their case, after doing their own interviews with janitors and arts program providers.
“It was my first experience with her and she was outstanding,” said Soboroff, who recalls money being taken from a budget to “renovate parking lots that didn’t need it” and instead was invested in some of the programs the students sought after.
The second experience involved Soboroff’s time on the city’s parks commission. There was a proposal to keep lights on at night for supervised activities at recreation centers, in an effort to keep children safe and reduce neighborhood crime. Soboroff said he knew Bass had created a successful program along similar lines and told the city to copy his plan before approval was granted.
Soboroff, who served as a big brother during his college years in Arizona and later became involved with the program, also became a foster parent. He said he tapped into Bass’ experience in these areas, which she spent a lot of time on in Washington while reforming the country’s antiquated child welfare system.
“Rick is charismatic,” Soboroff said. “When he walks into a room, he sucks in the air from the room… but that means no one else can breathe. We don’t need that right now.
The city needs a collaborator with close allies in Sacramento and Washington, all the way to the president’s office, he said, and that’s what Bass will provide.
“It’s his time,” Soboroff said.
Equally passionate about their candidate, Caruso, are four women I met in South Los Angeles, three of them victims of street violence.
“My only son was murdered,” LaWanda Hawkins said of 19-year-old Reginald.
“I was shot four times at Nickerson Gardens on May 27, 2007,” said Rose Smith, who uses a wheelchair and told me she still had a bullet stuck in her jaw.
Barbara Pritchett, wiping away tears, said her two sons – DeAndre, 30 and Dovon, 15 – were shot nine years apart. Pritchett and the other women said the motives remain a mystery.
Two of the women said they were on Bass’s side before Caruso entered the race, but they weren’t shy about switching allegiances. They don’t have much faith in those who have held public office because crime, homelessness and other issues are not improving despite years of promises.
The women developed personal relationships with Caruso, which supports a number of nonprofit community service centers, including Strive in South LA, where I interviewed the women.
When Caruso arrived, he exchanged hugs with each of the women. Hawkins held up her phone and said she had her cell number and could call if she needed anything. Smith said Caruso helped send her daughter to private school.
“Do you know what this means for us in the community? Smith said. “It means the world.”
But Caruso promises to be there for every community. Can he deliver? I asked.
He has already given birth, said the women.
Since the start of his campaign, Caruso has frequently named two supporters in particular: Snoop Dog and Sweet Alice Harris. I couldn’t connect with Snoop, but Harris was open to a visit to the South LA nonprofit she’s run for nearly 60 years, Parents of Watts.
Harris was sitting on the porch when I arrived and she led me inside her office, a converted house, the walls lined with awards in her name and pictures of the presidents she’s met – Carter, Clinton , the two Bushes, Obama. Harris wore an “I voted” sticker and said she supported the man she first met decades ago when Mayor Tom Bradley walked by with Caruso.
“He had told me… whatever I want, let him know, so I don’t feel bad asking him what we need,” said Harris, who plans to donate 80 turkeys for Thanksgiving and 400 bicycles for Christmas.
Harris said she grew up in poverty in Alabama and knew all about the resulting mental anguish, which is why she started Parents of Watts. She said that although many politicians and luminaries came or sent support, she never met Bass, whose congressional district does not include this area.
“I voted for Rick because I know he’s going to help us,” said Harris, who spoke of a recent visit to Skid Row. “Do you know how many homeless people are dying on the streets? I cried for three days. Pitiful, pitiful, pitiful. It shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be.”
Harris was busy coordinating mental health services with a visitor, so I didn’t stay long. I thanked her for her visit and drove north on the surface streets, along the spine of the city and through the row of skates, shocking every time and asking for relief.
Is this Bass time, as Soboroff suggested? Or is Sweet Alice’s faith in Caruso well placed?
Soon, one of the two will take on the glory and the heartbreak for the next four years, and possibly eight, with enormous challenges ahead, high voter expectations and exhausted patience.
In Los Angeles, the race comes to an end, a new era begins.
Los Angeles Times