L.A. on the Record: R.I.P., election day. It’s election month now

Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our local elections newsletter. It’s Ben Oreskes and Julia Wick coming to you live from Los Angeles with some help from Dakota Smith and David Zahniser.

The concept of “election day” in California died on an unremarkable September day last year, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that made the state’s pandemic-inspired switch to mailing a ballot to every registered, active voter permanent.

For the first time, every Los Angeles voter will automatically get a mayoral ballot in the mail — something they previously had to request.

Election month begins now (ballots are already on their way) and ends June 7.

This mayoral race is unprecedented in several respects: Money has flowed like never before, and turnout remains a serious wild card.

The new mail-in ballot system could drastically increase turnout. This will also be the first mayoral primary in more than a century held in an even year to coincide with state and national elections, which could also boost turnout.

At the beginning of the year, many saw the race as Rep. Karen Bass’ to lose. Now, she and a slew of other candidates face off against billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who has spent four times more than all his competitors combined in a self-funded pursuit of a position he’s flirted with for years.

There have been big comebacks in the past in which someone emerges from the pack and makes the runoff or gets close. That is the hope for candidates like City Council members Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León, City Atty. Mike Feuer and activist upstart Gina Viola, who all are polling in single digits.

Caruso — who has poured $25 million into his campaign — has been all but alone on the airwaves in English, Spanish and Korean since entering the race in February, blanketing television, radio and social media with a simple message:

“I’m running for mayor, because I love L.A. Starting Day 1, we’re going to get it cleaned up. … And we’re going to do it together.”

That eight-figure ad blitz had gone all but un-rebutted until late April, when Feuer and Buscaino put their own ads on TV, albeit in far smaller increments.

Despite recent polling showing Caruso and Bass firmly in the lead, nearly 40% of likely voters reported being undecided.

“The other candidates have really struggled to distinguish themselves,” said Sara Sadhwani, an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College. “They each have their own impressive resumes and accomplishments behind them. But campaigns are about communicating with people that don’t already know you, and that’s the challenge that they have in front of them.”

Over the next month, candidates will need to get their names out through a mix of advertising, events and canvassing. Bass recently opened a campaign headquarters and is having volunteers make calls for her and knock on doors.

De León and Feuer have traveled around the city meeting voters to combat the financial disadvantage they face compared with Bass and Caruso.

The billionaire regularly emails and texts appeals to voters, and this week he poured an additional $2.5 million into the campaign. The other candidates all benefited from the city’s generous public finance campaign matching program.

The result is that Bass has nearly $3 million, which she must spend before primary day or else give the money back to donors. A separate independent expenditure committee supporting Bass has raised just under $1 million, and released its first negative digital ad last week about Caruso’s ties to Republicans who have opposed abortion rights.

Things will likely only get uglier as June 7 approaches and candidates vie for the two spots in the November runoff.

Melina Abdullah, a leader of Black Lives Matter-L.A. and a Cal State L.A. professor, is removed by police from Sunday’s mayoral debate on the campus.

(Ringo Chiu / For The Times)

State of play

— DEBATE NIGHT IN LA: The week started with the mayoral race’s third televised debate. Like other debates and mayoral forums, the discussions of issues were briefly overtaken by protesters. Sunday’s session at Cal State Los Angeles began with a leader of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles being forcibly removed from the auditorium by multiple campus police officers just before cameras started rolling and ended with the candidates sharing their favorite locations to visit in the city.

Melina Abdullah — a professor at Cal State L.A. and former chair of the school’s pan-African studies department — told The Times she was carried out of the room by police officers because she did not have a ticket to the event. Cal State L.A. faculty have decried the incident.

The debate itself covered a lot of well-traveled ground — with heated conversations about homelessness, public safety, climate change and other issues. At times, the candidates appeared almost as frustrated as the voters of Los Angeles.

STATE OF THE CITY ATTORNEY’S RACE: The Times’ Marisa Gerber looks at the field vying for one of L.A.’s three citywide elected offices. In a break from recent tradition, there’s not an incumbent or a well-known elected official among the candidates.

CARUSO AND ABORTION RIGHTS: The monumental news out of Washington this week about Roe vs. Wade likely being struck down had a decidedly local angle. Caruso took heat from fellow candidates and the political arm of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles over his past financial support of politicians and causes opposed to abortion. (Caruso in this campaign has said he supports abortion rights and put out a statement pledging his financial support for Newsom’s plan for a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights.)

LIKELY HEADING TO THE BALLOT: A coalition of unions, homeless services providers and activists looks to be on its way to getting a new tax on the fall ballot that would support building more housing in the city. The group, known as United to House L.A., wants a 4% tax on property sales above $5 million that would rise to 5.5% on transactions above $10 million. The buyer or seller would owe $200,000 on a $5-million sale, for example. The proceeds would go to a variety of housing initiatives in Los Angeles.

The group submitted nearly 100,000 signatures. Now, the city clerk’s office is tasked with signing off on the ballot. Just over 60,000 signatures are required to make it onto the ballot. The group has raised at least $985,000, mostly from unions, according to city ethics filings.

And in non-campaign news …

CHECKING IN: Nine months after the City Council adopted the new law allowing council members to designate areas as off-limits to homeless camps, permanent metal signs setting deadlines for all homeless people to leave have been posted at more than 100 locations. Dave and Ben, with help from fellow reporters Doug Smith and Ruben Vives, went deep and looked at why tents and makeshift shelters remained at many of these sites even weeks or months past the deadlines, as outreach workers struggle to persuade people to move voluntarily and the Los Angeles Police Department has issued tickets sparingly.

Plus: New research from the Rand Corp. suggests that group shelters — the type of housing that multiple candidates have as the centerpiece of their homelessness plans — is not a preferred destination among homeless people.

INTERIM LEADERS AT LAHSA: Molly Rysman and Kristina Dixon will temporarily co-lead the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority after the previous executive director abruptly resigned due to conflicts with the joint-power authority’s board. Heidi Marston said she’d remain in her post until late May, but last week, the organization’s board said she would step down immediately yet “remain with the agency until May 27, 2022, to ensure a smooth transition.”

BACK IN THE BUILDING: After 26 months of being closed to tourists, residents and other visitors, Los Angeles City Hall is open again. But security is much more restrictive than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Special interest money floods council races

What do landlords, hotel workers, cops and carpenters have in common?

Unions or trade groups representing them have all been pouring money into City Council races, with independent expenditure committees buying ad time, dropping mailers and lining up canvassers.

A fair amount of that special interest advertising has been negative.

Things have gotten particularly nasty in Council Districts 5 and 13, where a political committee operated by the California Apartment Assn. has put out negative ads and mailers attacking Katy Young Yaroslavsky as a flip-flopping lobbyist and hitting Hugo Soto-Martínez in CD 13 for having described himself as a police abolitionist on a Democratic Socialists of America questionnaire.

Soto-Martínez described abolition as “an eventual goal” on that form but has been more muted on the issue in other forums.

The California Apartment Assn. — a major player so far in council races this year — has spent more than $860,000 across five council races, supporting Councilmember Gil Cedillo in CD 1, Sam Yebri in CD 5, Councilmember Monica Rodriguez in CD 7, Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell in CD 13 and Tim McOsker in CD 15, and opposing Yaroslavsky in CD 5 and Soto-Martínez in CD 13, according to ethics filings.

Candidates can be wary of launching their own attacks — mudslinging, after all, often leaves everyone looking a little dirty. But independent expenditure committees (which cannot legally communicate with the campaigns they support) offer some distance.

“Where an I.E. can be most effective is coming in and telling the story that candidates may want to tell but they probably shouldn’t,” a veteran political consultant who runs such committees locally and statewide explained. “We can come in and be the heavy.”

Independent expenditure committees also have specific agendas that typically link the candidates they choose to support or oppose.

When asked why CAA (the apartment association, not the talent agency) was pouring so much money into the race and what its goals were, Fred Sutton, the organization’s senior vice president of public affairs, provided a statement characterizing candidates who had been open to defunding the police or did not want to outlaw encampments near parks and schools as “irresponsible” at a time “when crime and homeless encampments are on the rise.”

Unite Here Local 11, a union representing hotel workers where Soto-Martínez worked for many years, has also gone negative in the CD 13 race. One mailer targets incumbent O’Farrell for his developer donations, including donations from a developer who ran afoul of campaign finance restrictions, while others have touched on specific council votes.

Unite Here Local 11 has spent nearly $300,000 in five council races, supporting Rodriguez, Soto-Martínez, McOsker, Greg Good in CD 11 and Councilmember Curren Price in CD 9, and opposing O’Farrell.

Kurt Petersen, Local 11’s co-president, says the union looks for candidates “who are going to support workers and working people,” with a particular focus on housing and wages. According to Petersen, the bulk of the union’s support comes in the form of canvassing, with members knocking on doors for various candidates. (CAA did not respond to interview requests.)

The Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters has put nearly $250,000 into three races, supporting Cedillo, Price and O’Farrell.

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the Los Angeles Police Protective League and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce have also put independent expenditure money into council races, among other groups.

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Quick hits

  • Who’s running the city? Still Eric Garcetti. His confirmation as ambassador of India awaits a Senate vote. As of Thursday, Garcetti hadn’t met with the investigators compiling the report on alleged sexual harassment in his office that’s being done for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

    “Our investigative staff have made multiple requests to speak with the mayor,” said Taylor Foy, communications director for Grassley. Garcetti told The Times last week that he had offered to meet with Grassley and his investigators.

    Asked to clarify, Garcetti spokesman Harrison Wollman provided a statement that suggested Garcetti was looking to meet with Grassley and his staff at the same time.

    “From day one the mayor has been an open book, including meeting for hours to discuss this very issue with Republican and Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after which he passed easily through committee,” Wollman said. “The mayor has offered twice to meet with Sen. Grassley personally, and would expect the senator to include relevant additional staff.”

  • The latest in mayoral endorsements: Bass received the coveted endorsement of The Times’ editorial board. “No other candidate can match Bass’ experience, track record, sophisticated grasp of the problems plaguing Los Angeles and her vision of how to move forward,” wrote the editorial board, which operates separately from the newsroom. La Opinión, the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, has endorsed De León. Caruso picked up nods from Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez and the Israeli-American Civic Action Network.
  • And other city endorsements: The Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. endorsed Bob Blumenfield, Rodriguez, O’Farrell and McOsker in their respective council races. The Sierra Club Angeles Chapter also endorsed McOsker in CD 15. The Daily News backed Hydee Feldstein Soto for city attorney. Traci Park picked up the support of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City in her bid to replace Councilman Mike Bonin. La Opinión also backed Cedillo in CD 1. The Times’ editorial board has also endorsed Yaroslavsky for CD 5, Rodriguez in CD 7 and Danielle Sandoval for CD 15. The Black Los Angeles Young Democrats endorsed Faisal Gill for city attorney.

(If you have an endorsement you’d like to flag for next week, please send it to us.)

  • Dig of the week: “Unless you were a wunderkind … it’s wealth and privilege that got you there. You have been a consummate insider.” — De León on Caruso’s appointment to the Department of Water and Power board at age 26, during Sunday’s debate.
  • On the docket for next week: The Empowerment Congress will host a forum with city attorney candidates on Thursday.

Stay in touch

That’s it for this week! Send your questions, comments and gossip to LAontheRecord@latimes.com. Did a friend forward you this email? Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Saturday morning.

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