Billionaire, congresswoman in close match in LA mayoral race

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Developer Rick Caruso and Democratic U.S. Rep. Karen Bass were nearly tied in early returns Tuesday in their battle to become the next mayor of Los Angeles, as voters considered a stark choice between candidates with City Hall in turmoil.

Caruso held a slim edge, with both candidates hovering around 50% of the vote, with just a sprinkle of mail-in votes tallied.

Bass, a progressive Democratic congresswoman, could become the first Black woman to hold the job. The billionaire Caruso, a Republican-turned-Democrat, would represent a turn to the political right for the liberal city of nearly 4 million.

At an election night rally with supporters, Bass warned that tabulating the votes could take several days but she expressed confidence, “We will win.”

“We are in a fight for the soul of our city,” Bass said to thunderous cheers. “We will win because we are going to build a new Los Angeles.”

Caruso appeared before a boisterous crowd of supporters, where he thanked his family and spoke about being inspired by the city’s diverse communities. While the outcome in the race is unclear, “We’re starting out strong,” he said.

On the campaign trail “you develop a larger family along the way,” he added. “We’ve all come together for a cause. And that’s a very uplifting thing.”

The election has historical dimensions, coming as the City Council contends with a racism scandal that led to the resignation of its former president and calls for the resignation of two more members, an unabated homeless crisis, corruption probes and widespread concern with crime that has ranged from daytime robberies on city sidewalks to smash-and-grab thefts at luxury stores.

The favorite is Bass, a former state Assembly leader who has the advantage of being a lifelong Democrat in a city where Republicans are almost invisible. She’s backed by President Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment and has been promising to use her skills as a coalition builder to heal a wounded city.

Caruso is campaigning on an abrupt change in direction, arguing that Bass and other longtime politicians are part of the problem that has led LA into multiple crises. He is promising to expand the police department to deal with rising crime rates and quickly get ubiquitous homeless encampments off the streets.

The winner will replace beleaguered Democrat Eric Garcetti, who will conclude two uneven terms with his nomination to become U.S. ambassador to India stalled in the Senate, apparently over sexual misconduct allegations against a former top Garcetti adviser.

Los Angeles voters are notoriously indifferent to the scrum of local politics, and turnout in midterm elections historically falls off steeply from presidential election years. Those casting votes are expected to tilt heavily Democratic, however, an advantage for Bass, who has held an edge in polls.

She’s counting on strong support from women, white liberals and Black voters. The backbone of Caruso’s coalition will include independents, the city’s sprinkle of Republicans and Latinos, while his campaign is attempting to lasso voters who turn out only sporadically, including in lower-income areas, and those who skipped the June primary.

The race has been shaped in large part by Caruso’s lavish spending — and his unavoidable advertising. City records show his campaign expenses have topped $100 million so far, most of it financed with his own money.

Bass, with just a small fraction of that amount at her disposal, has said “it’s not the power of the money, it’s the power of the people.”

The election is testing whether voters in the heavily Democratic city are willing to turn away from their liberal tendencies and embrace an approach that would place a strong emphasis on public safety.

City Hall has been in Democratic hands for decades. Caruso’s candidacy shares some similarity to 1993, when LA voters turned to Republican Richard Riordan to lead the city in the aftermath of the deadly 1992 riots that erupted after four white police officers were acquitted of assault in the beating of Black motorist Rodney King.

The mayor’s race is among a list of competitive contests around the state where political loyalties are being tested by questions about the direction and effectiveness of California’s left-leaning government.