How Rick Caruso Became L.A.’s Biggest Star

Rick Caruso at Grand Central Market
Billionaire L.A. mayoral candidate Rick Caruso. Photo: Robert Gauthier/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
June 5, 2022

Los Angeles is one of the bluest metro areas in the country, but the mayor’s race this year increasingly feels like Rick Caruso’s to lose. The billionaire real estate developer is running what amounts to a law and order campaign, in a city grappling with a rise in violent crime and an intractable homelessness problem, far and away the top concerns for Angelenos of all races and income levels. Since joining the race in February, Caruso has spent more than $30 million of his own money on advertising promising to “clean up L.A.,” a message that has vaulted him to the top of the field, even according to internal polls released by his rivals.

Ahead of Tuesday’s nonpartisan primary, Caruso’s tanned and smiling face has been inescapable, showing up on screens from Brentwood to Boyle Heights. His campaign ads run between innings of Lakers and Dodgers games, during local news commercial breaks, before YouTube clips. The spots pledge—in big, bold font—that he will not defund the police. Instead, Caruso says he will increase police funding and hire 1,500 more cops, along with 500 new sanitation workers to clean up the piles of trash on the streets. For the homeless, Caruso is promising to build 30,000 shelter beds in his first year in office, an audacious pledge that annoys his critics who wonder how he plans to pay for it, and magically fix a human rights disaster that’s vexed Los Angeles leaders for years.

Unable to punch through the advertising blitz, or articulate much of a message beyond their prior service in city politics, several Democrats have dropped out of the race. One of the remaining contenders is Kevin de León, a Berniecrat city councilman and former state senator with some Latino support, but he is unlikely to make the runoff. Caruso’s one true remaining rival is south L.A. native Karen Bass, the former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who is returning from Washington to run for mayor. Bass is also promising to tackle crime and homelessness, but she’s taking a more cautious approach that befits her career as a socially-conscious progressive and experienced legislator, saying she can get the job done by shifting resources around and building coalitions. Bass has spent barely more than $3 million so far in the race, but she makes up for her relative lack of money with support from the city’s institutional Democrats, progressive activists who revere her roots in community organizing, and Hollywood players like J.J. Abrams, Ari Emanuel, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the legendary producer and Democratic donor who is paying for a slashing TV ad campaign comparing Caruso to Donald Trump. (Caruso told me that Katzenberg is “desperate.”)