THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Is the L.A. mayor’s seat for sale?

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By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

Billionaire developer Rick Caruso almost certainly will break the record for spending on a mayor’s race. That’s any mayor’s race that’s ever been run in this country.

When the financial dust settles, he’ll probably spend or exceed $100 million. That figure is the kind of money typically spent not on a mayor’s, congressional or even gubernatorial race, but a presidential race. Caruso has been relentlessly pounded for essentially trying to buy the seat.

He has outspent his opponent, Karen Bass, by a staggering total, anywhere from 10 to 15 times or more to one.

The other criticism — question? — repeatedly asked about Caruso’s spending is just what is he up to spending that kind of money for a political office? After all, he’s already a well-connected, well-positioned, major financial and political mover and shaker in Los Angeles.

Isn’t the mayor’s seat a demotion of sorts for someone who’s already got a solid handle on the reins of political and financial power in the city?

The short and long answer is no, no, no. Now it’s true that Caruso is not the only wealthy guy or woman who has dumped millions out of their pocket into trying to win a political office.

More than a few of them have failed miserably in trying to steamroll their opponent with their cash. In other words, the old adage that money can’t buy everything occasionally even applies to a political office.

Still, there is no question that money plays an outsized role in just about any election, be it local or national. It’s been that way for decades.

Caruso is a near textbook example of that. In the initial stages of the race, he was barely a blip on the chart among the pack of L.A. mayoral aspirants.

He was derided as just a rich guy trying to stoke his ego by plopping his name on the ballot as a candidate. He was branded a Republican conservative who had only recently converted to a Democrat in an overwhelming Democratic city.

He was shaky on choice in a city where liberal, pro-choice is the watchword among most Democrats. He is white in a city where the majority is Latino, Black and Asian.

He has no real roots or ties within impoverished communities of color. These were heavy-duty strikes against him that seemed to virtually render his candidacy stillborn, if not a joke.

That quickly changed. And money did it.

By spending big, Caruso whittled the field down and surged from the bottom of the pack of candidates to near the top. Bass topped him in the primary and steadily widened the gap over him heading into the general election.

However, the sheer weight of money and his aggressive presence and attacks plopped him into a statistical dead heat with Bass with nearly a quarter of L.A. voters still undecided about which one they will vote for.

The big knock is that if a big money candidate such as Caruso grabs City Hall, it will open the floodgates wide open for an even bigger wave of corporate developers to pepper the city with even more high-end retail and commercial developments. Many critics and affordable housing advocates warn that this will make housing costs skyrocket even further, sharply reduce the amount of affordable housing in the city and increase the homeless numbers in the city.

It will reinforce the notion that City Hall is for sale to the highest bidder. This also does much to answer the question: What’s in it for Caruso to spend that kind of money to buy City Hall.

It’s a plum job. Los Angeles is the nation’s second-largest city. It has a budget and an economy that surpasses that of many nations.

Los Angeles is the glamor capitol for entertainment and sports. It’s the gateway to the big, economically muscular China, Japan other Pacific Rim nations and Mexico. The names of L.A. mayors are sometimes bandied about as possible presidential timber or as national administration cabinet officials.

However, beneath the glitter, glamor and prestige, there are problems — lots of them — that will confront the next mayor.

Caruso makes the obligatory promise that he is the best one to tackle the problems. But that’s easier said than done.

And since homelessness is by far the number one problem and concern of voters, the constant knock of Caruso is that he’s a high-end developer with no track record on developing affordable housing in any part of Los Angeles.

Attacking homelessness is the prime litmus test for any mayoral candidate. Caruso remains permanently on the defensive side of this issue. That’s especially true since it’s the virtually unchecked high rent or lease developments that make housing and apartment affordability in L.A. a bad joke and swells the homeless numbers.

Despite the fair knock of Caruso on the homeless issue, his money has ensured that he’s positioned to make the case that as mayor he can deliver on his many promises to tackle the homeless crisis. True or not, what’s beyond dispute is that his money made the question: Is the Los Angeles mayor’s seat for sale more than a question but seemingly a fact.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “The Midterms: Why They Are So Important and So Ignored” (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m. on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.


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