Los Angeles voters are preparing for a major election cycle, with primaries to be held in June. The mayoral election could represent a turning point for the city.
A recent UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, cosponsored by the Los Angeles Times, shows billionaire developer Rick Caruso earning support from 24 percent of likely voters in the nonpartisan primary for mayor. That gives him a one-percentage-point lead (within the poll’s margin for error) over Congresswoman Karen Bass, whom many had deemed the favorite. City councilman Kevin de León finished third, with 6 percent of the vote, and none of the remaining nine candidates received more than 2 percent support from likely voters—though roughly 40 percent still say they are undecided.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will advance to a runoff election in November. Bass and Caruso seem poised for such a finale. Los Angeles observers attribute Caruso’s recent surge to his massive media blitz and ability to fund himself, but voters may also perceive a stylistic and substantive contrast between the two candidates.
In one corner stands Bass, who has spent the last 17 years as an elected official and was even considered as a possible running mate to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. With strong ties to California, Washington, D.C., and the L.A. political establishment, Bass, who is African-American, is doing well among black voters and liberal white voters, attracting 50 percent and 40 percent support, respectively, from each group. A social worker by training, she already enjoys the endorsement of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. All expectations are that she will garner support from the traditional Democratic base in L.A., including environmentalists, abortion-rights advocates, and trade unions.
In the other corner stands Caruso, a billionaire developer and former president of the Los Angeles Police Department Commission who changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat before launching his self-funded campaign. He courts an expanding bloc of voters exasperated with the demise of their city due to homelessness and the deterioration of public safety. In a recent debate, Caruso touted his credentials as a political outsider. While Bass seeks to recreate the old Tom Bradley coalition of blacks and affluent whites, Caruso is testing a new model, reaching out to disaffected moderates and conservatives. He receives the most support among likely voters who prioritize crime and public safety, with 38 percent of them favoring Caruso in the Berkeley poll—a four-to-one lead over Bass in that category. Caruso has also picked up an endorsement from the LAPD police union.
That leaves Latino voters as a potential swing group. They represent one-fourth of likely voters but turn out in low numbers in city elections. Caruso has been running Spanish-language ads, but neither candidate has yet to take a notable lead among Latinos. Roughly half of Latinos reported in the poll that they were undecided, while one-third of white and black voters said the same. Many had expected Latino councilmember de León to poll better with Latino voters, but—perhaps because he said he would not hire any additional LAPD officers, with violent crime in L.A. near its highest point in a decade—it hasn’t materialized. (Bass says she will add 200 officers; Caruso, 1,500.)
As in other cities, voters are understandably concerned with crime and public order. Homelessness was by far the top issue for respondents to the Berkeley poll (cited by 61 percent) followed by crime and public safety (38 percent). Follow-home robberies, smash-and-grab robberies, rail-car thefts, and murders of innocent victims now plague Los Angeles on a daily basis. In his latest column, Dennis Zine, a retired city councilman and law enforcement officer, compares the crime rate in 2020 to that in 2022. Arrests are down nearly 30 percent citywide, yet homicide (up 23.2 percent), robbery (9.75 percent), aggravated assaults (19.5 percent), grand theft auto (43.6 percent), shots fired (61.6 percent), and shooting victims (68.2 percent) have all risen.
A series of unprovoked, horrific, and high-profile murders have disproportionately affected women, causing Los Angelenos to question the cost of lax prosecutions and inept management of the city’s homeless population. Brianna Kupfer, a 24-year-old UCLA graduate student, was stabbed to death at her workplace by a mentally ill homeless man in the middle of the day. Sandra Shells, a 70-year-old nurse, died from injuries sustained from an attack by a homeless man while waiting to catch a bus to her job at Los Angeles County–USC Medical Center. Jacqueline Avant, an 81-year-old Los Angeles philanthropist and wife of legendary music producer Clarence Avant, was fatally shot and killed in her Beverly Hills home during a home invasion. Will women emerge as a distinct bloc of L.A. voters who favor stepped-up law enforcement?
Los Angelenos are ambivalent about the state of the city. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s handling of the city earned approval from 48 percent of poll respondents and disapproval from 46 percent. Those supportive of Caruso were more likely to disapprove of Garcetti’s performance, while those supporting Bass were likely to approve of the mayor. Caruso, then, may come to be seen as the candidate of change, and Bass the candidate of continuity. It will be up to L.A. voters to decide whether they want more of the same.