Billionaire developer Rick Caruso enters race for L.A. mayor

Rick Caruso, the billionaire developer of the Grove and other luxury properties, has officially jumped into the contest to become Los Angeles’ next mayor, shaking up a race that to this point has been led mostly by Democratic elected officials.

Caruso, 63, filed papers Friday with the city clerk declaring his intention to run in the June 7 primary, beating Saturday’s deadline.

Caruso, who switched his affiliation to Democrat last month, has never held elected office, though he has been active in the bureaucratic machinery of the city since his appointment to the Department of Water and Power board in the mid-1980s. He also has served as president of the L.A. Police Commission.

The former USC Board of Trustees chair has said he believes that politicians with long track records in elected office have failed voters on crises such as homelessness. Similarly, Caruso has pointed to the rise of crime in some areas in recent years as something he would focus on if elected.

His entry and ability to self-fund a campaign will likely upend a field that looked to be fully formed. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) emerged as an early front-runner and City Councilmen Kevin de León and Joe Buscaino and City Atty. Mike Feuer are also leading candidates.

All four have already spent several months fundraising and laying out positions on the dominant issues of crime and homelessness. With her nearly $2-million war chest and national profile, Bass is likely to make it to the November election — making the June primary largely a question of who else will join her on the ballot.

Buscaino, a Democrat, has tacked to the right of other candidates in a largely progressive field, staking out the most distinct alternate lane. Caruso’s candidacy will make that path more difficult for Buscaino, said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

Guerra said Caruso’s candidacy might benefit Bass, giving her a clear opponent during the primary whom she can target without alienating other Democrats.

“It will be easier for Karen Bass to use him as a foil, as compared to Feuer, De León or Buscaino,” Guerra said.

Forbes has pegged the Brentwood resident’s net worth at $4.3 billion. In addition to the 575,000-square-foot Grove shopping center in the Fairfax district, Caruso also developed Americana at Brand in Glendale and Palisades Village, as well as the Rosewood Miramar Beach, a posh oceanfront hotel in Montecito, among other properties.

His candidacy has drawn comparisons to that of Richard Riordan, the Republican businessman who was elected as mayor in 1993.

Caruso was a Republican for decades before switching to no party preference in 2011. Upon changing his registration in January, he described himself as a “pro-centrist, pro-jobs, pro-public safety Democrat.”

Even with the switch in registration, Caruso’s conservative history will likely loom large over the race. The central question remains whether Los Angeles — a place that has grown far more progressive and increasingly diverse in recent decades — has the stomach to put a billionaire former Republican in charge of the city.

Guerra said that even a few months ago his answer would have been “absolutely not.” But, he continued, “the narrative with homelessness and crime has really shifted.”

“There’s a lot of voters who would consider voting for Rick Caruso today that would not have considered voting for him just six or nine months ago.”

Still, Sonja Diaz, director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, cautioned that the Los Angeles of today is starkly different from the L.A. that elected Riordan. Among other factors, Diaz cited the success of recent housing and criminal justice reform-related ballot measures that she said showed a preference for data-backed policy interventions aimed at root causes, rather than “penalizing people and going back to a broken windows regime.”

In a city that is nearly 50% Latino, the success of any mayoral candidate will also depend, at least in part, on their ability to appeal to Latino voters.

“Obviously COVID-19 has had a disparate impact on Latino households in this city,” Diaz said. “So a mayor is going to have to articulate a policy agenda that centers Latino workers and Latino households in ways that they can remain in the city and not just survive, but thrive.”

Friday’s filing follows months of heated speculation about whether Caruso — who has toyed with the idea of a mayoral run for nearly two decades — would enter the race. The native Angeleno came close to launching a campaign in 2013, but ultimately decided that a grueling race wasn’t something he wanted to put his four children through, people involved said. The youngest of the four is now in her 20s.

The Times previously reported that Lex Olbrei, who left a position as Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez’s policy director in late January, would be the top campaign official, along with a cadre of high-powered advisors such as Ace Smith and Mark Fabiani.

Caruso’s significant business interests in the city he hopes to lead will undoubtedly raise questions around conflicts of interest. But government ethics experts say that his business holdings do not prevent him from holding office, as long as Caruso properly discloses his financial interests and carefully follows protocol around potential conflicts as they arise.

“If there’s anything specifically involving one of his properties, [such as] an ordinance or a contract, he might have to disqualify himself,” said Bob Stern, a coauthor of the state’s 1974 Political Reform Act and former general counsel for the California Fair Political Practices Commission. “But if it’s just generally dealing with development, he wouldn’t have to disqualify himself.”

It’s unclear how Caruso would handle control of his business interests should he take office.

During his campaign for mayor, Riordan said he would place his private holdings in a blind trust to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. Issues were occasionally raised during his tenure, and he paid a $3,000 fine for violating the state’s conflict of interest law in 1996.

The matter, which Riordan’s office called an inadvertent, honest mistake, involved the then-mayor acting on matters regarding the tenant of a downtown building that he partially owned.

“There should be enough of a wall between him as a potential mayor and him as a business person that people aren’t wondering, ‘Who is he making this decision for, us or himself?’” said Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola Law School and former Los Angeles City Ethics Commission president.

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