The Los Angeles mayoral campaign has become an exercise in misinformation, clouding the public’s muddled perceptions of how municipal government actually works in this state.
The problem emanates from the upside-down narrative that has developed around the top two contenders: U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who is framed as the race’s establishment insider, and billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso, who is considered the businessman outsider.
This widespread public misunderstanding of the mayor’s race is largely the product of the candidates’ own campaigns.
Bass has relied on a slew of endorsements from Democratic figures, inside and outside the city, who emphasize what a safe, seasoned choice she is. “I have never seen someone with such depth of experience, clear vision, and relentless work ethic,” longtime L.A. civic leader Steve Soboroff says in a typical endorsement.
Meanwhile, Caruso has used his own money to produce an onslaught of inescapable ads (my children complain they can’t watch YouTube without seeing his ultra-tan face) that suggest he is an outsider to local politics, with plans to sweep Los Angeles clean.
This narrative is the very opposite of reality—for two reasons that reflect fundamental misconceptions of how local democracy works here.
The first misconception influences perceptions of Bass. Federal and state legislators like Bass may be familiar to Angelenos and other Californians as political figures—and thus seem like local insiders—but their work lives have very little to do with local government. Bass has spent the past two decades in Sacramento, where she was Assembly speaker, and in Washington, D.C., where she was part of the Democratic Congressional leadership.
Bass has been very good at these legislative jobs—doing difficult work during state budget crises in Sacramento, and finding ways to make progress on criminal justice reform and defend democracy during the Trump years in D.C. But that does not make her an L.A. insider.
While she founded and ran an important community organization decades ago, she has never served in local elected office. She is admired in City Hall but she isn’t particularly well-known there. And her campaign’s rocky rollouts of key policies on public safety and homelessness suggest that she is still familiarizing herself with the peculiarities of local government in California’s largest city.
The second misconception involves Caruso. While he is a real estate developer and not an elected official, in California developers often function as the most important leaders in municipalities. They are the true insiders.
This is not a matter of corruption or money. It’s the structure that California voters have created over many decades. Californians have consistently voted to make their local elected officials very weak; most notably, Prop 13 and successor measures have stripped local officials of much of their power to tax. And state open meetings rules, which limit the ability of local official to talk with each other, make governance and planning more difficult.
This creates a void in local governments that developers fill—they actually have more freedom and opportunity to talk to different officials, connect interests, and come up with plans to raise revenues than elected officials do. The best California cities are often run by developers who embrace their public responsibilities. Caruso has been one of the better ones. To his credit, he has jumped into public roles involving police oversight, the Coliseum, and the Department of Water and Power.
This, of course, makes him an insider. Caruso probably knows as much about how L.A.’s City Hall works as anyone. He would take office with far more intimate knowledge of, and better contacts in, local government than Bass.
Of course, Angelenos wouldn’t understand any of this from watching ads, attending debates, or reading accounts of the race. And that’s the candidates’ own faults.
Bass, whose campaign has seen personnel turnover, has sabotaged herself by not developing a clear message of how she would change L.A. And Caruso has cynically played on the confusion; one recent ad accuses Bass of not acting on L.A.’s homelessness crisis “on her watch”—though she’s never been in charge of homelessness in Los Angeles, nor in charge of anything else for that matter. She’s a legislator.
For the record, I think either candidate could be an excellent mayor. But the strongest arguments for Bass and Caruso are entirely at odds with their campaign narratives.
Bass appeals not just because she is a thoughtful, wise, and experienced public official—but also because she is new to City Hall. She has the ability to bring new perspectives and new people, and more change. She might be a higher-risk candidate than Caruso, but also offers the higher upside. She is a potentially transformational mayor.
The strongest case for Caruso is that he is likely to be a steady hand, after the breakdowns and drift of Eric Garcetti’s unfocused mayoralty. Caruso knows where bodies are buried, in part because he buried some himself. He knows how L.A. works and knows the people within local government who can get things done. The city is in crisis, and he would take office with a head start on a City Hall outsider like Bass.
What’s maddening about this campaign is that these two distinguished, public-spirited people are not making reality-based arguments about their real advantages. They are instead basing their campaigns on our misperceptions and ignorance about how L.A. and California work.
That’s a problem for local democracy across our state. And in Los Angeles, it will be a big problem for whichever of these two contenders ultimately wins. Whether it’s Bass or Caruso, the next mayor is destined to disappoint, because she or he will be a different sort of leader than who they promised to be.