THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Money, developers and the mayor’s race

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Writer

There are three words that describe politics in America and that especially includes politics in Los Angeles. They are money, money, money.

How else to explain how one candidate, billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who was wallowing in single digit numbers in the mayor’s race a few weeks back has now barged nearly to the front of the pack of contenders for the top spot at L.A. City Hall?

Caruso has flooded social media and other outlets with a barrage of ads and promotional spots touting his candidacy. He is now in a statistical dead heat with U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who had been the runaway frontrunner in the race for months.

The outsized role that money plays in any election, be it local or national, is hardly a revelation. It’s been that way for decades.

There have been lots of attempts at the federal and local level to put some checks on how much can be spent on a contest. So far, the efforts haven’t done much to tighten the money spigot that candidates can spend on a race.

It’s now a well-established truism that the presidential contest is a billionaire’s derby. Now with big spending Caruso at or near the top of the mayoral candidate pack in L.A., it can be honestly said that the L.A. mayor’s race is almost a billionaire’s derby, too.

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 would reinforce the notion that City Hall is for sale to the highest bidder. Certainly, it was a foregone conclusion that a lot of big names in local politics would jump into the 2022 race for Los Angeles mayor.

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.

It is the glamor capitol for entertainment, music and now 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 top City Hall occupant. Caruso, like the other candidates, all make the obligatory promise that they are the best to tackle the problems. But that’s easier said than done.

That brings it back to the problem that is the greatest eyesore, and has defied every plan, solution, program or action to eliminate. That’s homelessness.

On any given day or night, many of L.A.’s streets, parks, and freeway overpasses look like Calcutta at its worst. There have been bond measures, ramped up spending, hotel and resident vouchers, and sheltering, ordinances banning the homeless from this or that place. And police crackdowns. Yet the battered makeshift tents and encampments that dot L.A. are everywhere.

It will take a mix of ramped-up approaches — strategic spending, land-use changes, housing subsidies and the expansion of support services — to dent the problem. The homeless crisis doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has a nefarious twin.

That’s virtually unchecked, high rent or lease developments that make housing and apartment affordability in L.A. a bad joke and swells the homeless numbers.

The new mayor must craft and push the City Council to enact a solid land-use plan to rein in upscale development. That means taking checkbook politics out of the development process while ensuring the building and subsidizing of more affordable housing.

There is no guarantee that this can be effectively done. As Caruso has sadly proven, it takes lots of money to win an office, almost any office. The L.A. mayorship tops the list of big money jobs.

It’s practically a given that corporate developers would play a colossal role in the city’s political process. Their high-end development projects represent hefty tax revenues for L.A. and other major cities.

Those revenues are constant and often make up for revenue shortfalls that periodically hit cities in times of economic downturns in the economy. Developers such as Caruso will always have a loud voice in saying what policies city agencies will adopt toward development.

Caruso is certainly no stranger to L.A. politics. He has teased in the past that he would run for mayor. This time it’s no tease.

He has the deepest of deep pockets to ensure that he will be a major player in the race. The troubling question though is with a Caruso in City Hall how much of future, and how much access will South and East L.A. residents have to City Hall? Put another way, whose City Hall will it be?

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, 9 to 11 a.m. on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.