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.”)

But Caruso is paying for more, much more. He has spent so much money on advertising, so fast, that the Los Angeles Times, which has covered Caruso’s campaign with unusual hostility, ran a front-pager last week theorizing that he might win Tuesday’s mayoral primary outright, with more than 50 percent of the vote. The paper dropped a new poll over the weekend suggesting that the race is actually much closer, shaping up as a head-to-head between him and Bass heading into Tuesday. But only a fraction of Angelenos have returned their ballots, and most of them are old and white, suggesting a primary electorate that favors Caruso’s no-nonsense message. The voters who care about “cleaning up LA” are motivated—and they’re voting for Caruso. The situation has caught the city’s progressive establishment flat-footed, aghast, and terrified—including, lately, an array of white liberals venting on Twitter and Instagram that not enough of their people are paying attention to the primary. Caruso’s opponents are worried because while Caruso is campaigning as a Democrat, he is no one’s idea of a progressive—and he’s getting interest from Black and Latinos here, especially men, who tend to be a little more conservative than national Democrats assume. Caruso, in fact, thinks that the activist left is fundamentally part of the country’s problem. “I don’t think people care what party you are,” he told me. “The far right or the far left? That’s not where people want to be governed from. I’ve always believed in being a centrist.” 

Caruso isn’t just a moderate. He seems almost custom-built to make leftist brains explode, designed in a secret lab by Elon Musk—who just endorsed him—to trigger both Bernie and A.O.C. economic progressives as well as the identity politics left. Caruso doesn’t have detailed policy plans; he’ll figure that stuff out later. He proudly celebrates big business. He refuses to call homeless people “unhoused,” a word really only used by activists and reporters. He talks openly about his Catholic faith, a wink at the city’s culturally conservative and huge Latino population, which will likely decide the election. It’s a little murky, but based on his past G.O.P. donations and a paraphrased 15-year-old quote in Los Angeles Magazine, Caruso might have once opposed abortion, though he now supports abortion rights and is helping fund a statewide effort to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. The Los Angeles mayor, a relatively weak executive office, doesn’t have power over abortion protections, but Planned Parenthood wants him to explain and apologize anyway. He’s not. Caruso, too, is a rich white man cutting the line, pushing aside other Democrats who have been laboring in the trenches of party politics for years, including Bass, who would be the city’s first Black female mayor. When I asked Caruso to name a national Democrat he admires, he said Pete Buttigieg—another proud white guy moderate who surged in the polls despite being hated by progressives.

Nor is Caruso trying to downplay his rich guy image. The opposite is true. He flaunts it. The “Mr. Fix It” story he’s selling is based on his lucrative career in real estate. He made his fortune, in part, by building upscale malls like The Grove, just near Beverly Hills, where he once said, “you’re not going to have crime, you’re not going to have graffiti.” Caruso lives in the tony Palisades, on the city’s westside, where he works out with a trainer every morning. He has showcased campaign endorsements from celebrity friends like Kim Kardashian, Wolfgang Puck, and Snoop Dogg—who endorsed Caruso in Watts alongside “Sweet Alice” Harris, a legendary activist in the predominantly Black neighborhood. Snoop called Caruso “a real one.” Caruso seems to know everyone. Later, told me that one of his favorite musical acts is The Chainsmokers. Why? The music is great, he said, but he also knows them personally. “They’re super nice. Great character. Very smart. And they’re not only great musicians, they’re great businessmen. And they know they’re entertainers and they know how to put on a show. I’ve known them for a long time. My son performs with them from time to time, so I’ve been on stage with them and they’re just good people.”

It probably goes without saying that Caruso, like most Americans, disagrees with the progressive notion that billionaires shouldn’t exist. He owns a 200-foot yacht called Invictus, which includes a movie theater, a beach club, nine guest cabins, and “a bespoke Lalique bar on the owner’s level and a piano in the high-ceilinged main salon.” Back in 2013, Caruso told the luxury magazine Haute Living that he prefers Battaglia suits, Tom Ford loafers, and french cuffs. Flaunting such expensive taste is usually a no-no for Democrats, a lesson John Edwards once learned about his $400 haircuts. But Caruso is fine wearing his tailored suits and polished black loafers on the campaign trail, even while stepping around tent encampments and trash while inspecting the Venice boardwalk. “I’m disappointed in men nowadays; they don’t present themselves as well as classic actors like Cary Grant and Clark Gable,” he told the magazine. He doesn’t run away from comments like those. They’re highlighted on his company’s very own website, a link that any other cautious Democratic campaign would have scrubbed from Google before the campaign launch. 

With unlimited funds at his disposal, Caruso has hired a pricey team of presidential-level Democratic campaign advisers to guide him through the primary: Ace Smith, Sean Clegg, Juan Rodriguez, and Peter Ragone. It’s the same team that advised Kamala Harris on her way to the Vice Presidency, and helped lift Gavin Newsom to the governor’s mansion and through his tricky recall election last year. It’s also the team, Democrats here like to whisper, that peddled negative stories and research about one of Harris’s rivals for the Vice Presidency when Joe Biden was sorting through the options. That rival was Karen Bass.

Rick Caruso

Photo: Genaro Molina /Getty Images

As the primary approaches, Caruso is unmistakably on offense. It seems clear that he’s learned some lessons observing the Democratic party’s vibe shift in recent years. The left had a heady moment that began with the rise of Bernie Sanders in 2015 and pulsed throughout the Trump years, often revealing itself on social media as progressives cheered on radical concepts and academic-sounding terminology that had little popular support beyond New York media companies and Bushwick bars. By the end of 2020, all the socialist bravado, language policing and sloganeering about police abolishment had been weaponized by Republicans, horrifying enough swing voters that once-safe Democratic candidates lost elections up and down the ballot, even as moderate champion Joe Biden won the presidency. Caruso likely observed, too, how many Black and Hispanic men—wary of elite culture and ideological fights that have little impact on their everyday lives—drifted ever so slightly in Trump’s direction. He probably saw what happened the following year in cities, too, like New York City’s mayoral race, in which Eric Adams, a Black former cop, won as a public safety moderate in a huge Democratic metropolis. Or the City Attorney’s race last November in deep blue Seattle, where a Republican won the office for the first time in 39 years by defeating a progressive who wanted to abolish the police department. Or this February’s recall elections in San Francisco, where enraged parents booted a trio of progressive board members who prioritized changing politically-incorrect school names over actually re-opening the schools after the pandemic. 

“People want to be governed down the middle where there’s a balance,” Caruso told me when I asked him to articulate his view of the Democratic Party. “We care about making a community safer. We care about creating jobs. We care about allowing people to be well educated. We also care about giving people the freedom to live their life the way they choose, however that may be. Give women the right to choose, be fiscally responsible. To me, that’s the future of this country. It’s in the middle. And I hope as a Democrat, I continue to convince the Democratic party to move more to the middle, and have a big camp and bring people in. And if the nation is anything like I’m seeing in Los Angeles, that’s where people want to be.”

The Times poll over the weekend indicated that Bass is consolidating support from Black women and white liberals, which should be enough to send her to a head-to-head runoff against Caruso in November. But Caruso is hoping for a larger coalition of white moderates, Black men and Latino voters, a group that might decide the election. Right now, they slightly favor Caruso, thanks to growing support from Latino men. In April, the Caruso campaign circulated an internal polling memo showing him also surging with Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, a voting demo alarmed by the flurry anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. In public polls, too, the city’s voters have made it clear that crime and homelessness are their main concerns. Homicides, armed robberies and car thefts in L.A. have all spiked over the last two years. Gun violence reached a 15-year high in 2021. “Fireworks or gunshots?” has become a common refrain in households when loud bangs in the distance pop off at night. Most of the violence has affected Latino and Black men, in the same neighborhoods that were ground zero for the gang wars of the 1990s. But the ambient threat of violence has crept into whiter and upscale enclaves, too, with a series of headline-grabbing crimes that have rallied wealthier Angelenos to Caruso’s side—and not just the brazen smash-and-grab robberies on Rodeo Drive. 

In December, 81-year-old philanthropist Jaqueline Avant, the wife of celebrated music producer Clarence Avant, was murdered in her Beverly Hills home during a home invasion. Clarence Avant has endorsed Caruso. The following month, 24-year-old U.C.L.A. student Brianna Kupfer was working in a designer furniture store on La Brea Avenue when a random assailant walked into the store and stabbed her to death. Soon after the killing, UTA superagent Jay Sures hosted Caruso and his daughter, Gigi, for a meet-and-greet with potential supporters at his home. When the Kupfer murder came up in conversation, Sures told me, Gigi began to cry, and so did Caruso, who revealed to the crowd that Kupfer was a friend of his daughter’s. “It was this incredibly painful moment,” Sures told me. “But this has become such a dangerous city. People I know are scared to go outside, to go to restaurants. And the homelessness situation is a disaster. Rick just seems to have a clear point of view.” 

Sures, one of Caruso’s top Hollywood backers along with Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, and Disney’s Dana Walden, said Bass and her supporters have no answer for Caruso’s “clear point of view” on crime and homelessness. “This is all they have to throw at him, that he’s rich, that he’s white, and he’s Donald Trump,” Sures said. “Well, we all know that’s fucking bullshit.” 

Caruso’s promises are brash and sometimes impractical, and he’s vague about how he’s going to pay for everything. But in Los Angeles, there isn’t a lot of patience to go around, and his slogans sound good enough. Even in one of her own ads, Bass says that she is returning home to Los Angeles to run for mayor “because the house is on fire,” an acknowledgment that Angelenos are angry. Still, she’s also caught between those real-world frustrations and the demands of the city’s progressive activists, muddying her attempts to push a message. 

In March, back when Bass was the frontrunner, the Times wrote that advocates for the homeless were frustrated with Bass’s defense of a city law that would create no-camping zones around schools and parks. Others were furious with Bass for suggesting that the city hire 200 more police officers. Melina Abdullah and Patrisse Cullors, two founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, accused Bass of siding with cops and putting “targets on the backs of Black people” in the process. “Pandering to affluent white Westside and Valley voters at the expense of Black, Latinx and working-class ones can cost her a base that she cannot afford to lose,” they wrote. (The B.L.M. activists did not mention, at the time, their own affluent tendencies: Cullors is now being scrutinized for using B.L.M. funds to purchase a $6 million mansion in Los Angeles).

As she tries to keep up with Caruso’s money and growing lead, Bass lately has fallen back on comparing her opponent to Trump—a strategy that fell embarrassingly short for Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race last fall. Another line of attack: Caruso doesn’t have the years of government experience one needs to be a successful mayor. In a recent debate, Bass asked Caruso to “stop denigrating career politicians,” saying that her long experience in public service allows her to build coalitions and work with the city council. But that argument, too, might be a risky self-own, reminding voters of Caruso’s outsider status and his argument that career politicians and a “corrupt” City Hall have done almost nothing to fix homelessness. Bass likes to point out that as a developer, Caruso never bothered to build a single bed for the unhoused. Caruso fires back by saying Bass never sponsored any bill in Congress addressing homelessness. (In March, Bass did end up scoring $5 million in federal funds to combat homelessness back home, slipping the appropriation into Biden’s $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill.) 

Whatever the case, the two candidates are still talking about homelessness, an issue on which Caruso has the edge. The Times poll found that a huge 90 percent of likely primary voters said “homelessness in California had worsened in the last few years.” Against that backdrop, some days it feels like Bass can’t catch a break. On Thursday, Bass appeared in Los Angeles with HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, her old House colleague. In front of a bank of TV cameras, Bass at her side, Fudge declared L.A. the country’s “epicenter of homelessness.”

On a recent cloudy afternoon, as I followed Caruso along a stretch of the Venice boardwalk, he was shepherded by a pair of local business owners who pressed him to get rid of the lingering homeless encampments that lined the beachfront shops. During the pandemic, the Venice boardwalk surpassed Skid Row as an emblem of the city’s failure to provide basic services. The tent encampments along the oceanfront became notorious for drug use, fires, sexual assaults, and even one man who was repeatedly filmed wandering around the tourist-heavy area in broad daylight brandishing a machete. Last summer, volunteers, police, and park rangers removed homeless people from the boardwalk, offering them shelter in temporary housing in shelters and hotels procured by the city. But it was only a temporary solution—many campers simply relocated to other pockets of Venice. Just last week, a large tent encampment by the Venice public library became another flashpoint, when someone lit part of the library grounds on fire. When firefighters arrived to put it out, some of the campers hurled objects at the firetrucks, as Venice residents filmed the episode from the windows of their expensive homes. These incidents happen so often they often go uncovered by the city’s news organizations, documented instead by NextDoor posters, anonymous Twitter accounts like “Venice Wasteland,” and hyperlocal websites like “Shacked,” usually a surfing mag. 

Caruso was, as usual, on message when I asked him about the situation in Venice. “Whether it’s Venice or Watts or East L.A., obviously down on Skid Row, the Valley, the West Side, everybody has the same concerns,” he told me. “They’re concerned about crime. They’re concerned about the amount of homeless. They’re concerned about how people are living on the streets, that it’s inhumane. They’re concerned that nothing’s happened. They hear a lot of promises and a lot of excuses. Promises go unfulfilled. It’s every part of the city where people are talking about this, and that’s why my campaign has done so well. We are leading in the polls because I’m listening to people and I’m talking about what they’re worried about. And they’ve got confidence based on my track record that I can help and get things fixed.”

Just before Caruso’s boardwalk tour concluded, a pair of shaggy-haired Venice residents on bicycles, both retirees who first moved to Venice in the 1980s, spotted Caruso from a distance in his suit and spotless black loafers. The two men rode over to shake his hand and snap a photo, before the candidate hopped in an S.U.V. and zoomed away. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a pair of proud Venice weirdos, the cyclists would only identify themselves as “Rick in the Marina” and “Jimmy Photo.” Rick told me, gesturing around the boardwalk and seemingly also on message, that “Caruso is gonna clean this shit up. Bass is a career politician, and what does she have to show for it?” I asked Jimmy if it seemed discordant to see a guy like Caruso walking past the Venice smoke shops and burger shacks in a fine bespoke suit, french cuffs and expensive designer shoes. “I really don’t care what you wear,” he replied. “This is Venice. He could show up in a thong and who cares what else. As long as you clean all this up, you’re okay with me.”