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The Pretender

Rick Caruso’s Stealth Republican Campaign

The Los Angeles mayoral front-runner was a member of the GOP until recently and is winning based on wild promises to sweep the city’s problems under the rug.

Caruso at the opening of one of his malls for rich people in 2018.
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Caruso at the opening of one of his malls for rich people in 2018

Rick Caruso, who forced a runoff election with Democratic Congressman Karen Bass on Tuesday in Los Angeles’s mayoral primary, was actually a Republican until very recently. The billionaire outdoor mall magnate—his most famous professional accomplishment is the development of L.A.’s joyless and dystopian The Grove—spent much of his adult life as a member of the GOP and didn’t announce his conversion until shortly before entering the race for mayor: Aside from two brief periods, 2013–2016 and 2019–2022, Caruso had always been a Republican.

Caruso’s narrow victory over Bass was partly the result of his extraordinary wealth and spending: He blanketed the city with advertisements and billboards touting his candidacy and received a raft of celebrity endorsements—not all from people eligible to cast a vote for him. But it was also because he was running a stealth Republican law-and-order campaign, just as a Democrat—a similar combination that Michael Bloomberg used to serve three consecutive mayoral terms as an independent in New York City between 2002 and 2013.

Caruso’s properties serve, in many ways, as a metaphor for his candidacy. The 63-year-old is “known for a similar pseudo-urbanism that’s equal parts utopianism and nostalgia,” writes New York’s Alissa Walker. His malls have a 1950s, Main Street USA vibe—they’re carefully manicured and antiseptic, with tree-lined promenades and grandiose fountains. They communicate not just a sense of easy luxury but also a desire to keep anything unseemly out of sight and, of course, out of mind.

His campaign is out for something similar. He has, laughably, run as a kind of crusading outsider—in a Trumpish turn, the argument is that Los Angeles needs a businessman to fix the city’s problems, even though that businessman has been at the center of its civic life for decades. He has claimed that only he can fix the city’s homelessness problem and its crime problem. In Los Angeles, as in much of the rest of the country, violent crime has risen in recent years, although it remains far below its 1990s peak.

And yet Caruso’s plans to confront these issues are modest at best. And his record as a developer of affordable housing is remarkably poor. He has said that he will provide 30,000 beds for the homeless but specified little else about the plans beyond a vague promise to sort out some kind of temporary housing—tent cities, more or less—to fulfill this need. Caruso has also vowed to turn the police loose to force homeless people off the streets, effectively criminalizing poverty. In terms of crime, Caruso is an acolyte of “broken windows,” a policing philosophy that proposes an increased targeting of misdemeanor crimes as a means of curbing violent crime, which in practice often becomes the overpolicing of poorer communities for picayune infractions. As The American Prospect’s David Dayen notes, however, “The fact that police aren’t very good at their jobs (the LAPD’s clearance rate for homicides in 2020 fell to 55 percent, down over 20 points from the previous year) hasn’t factored into Caruso’s equation.”

There’s a simpler way to summarize Caruso’s campaign: It’s for Los Angeles’s wealthy elites. The promise is simple: I will take all of the unseemly stuff that you don’t like—homelessness, crime, poverty—and I will sequester these problems far from view. His proposals hew strictly to these themes: There’s little attention or consideration being paid to the root causes of homelessness or crime but a great many promises to move those problems somewhere where they might be ignored. He will create Groves across the city in which the affluent might be harbored, where all the problems they don’t want to think about will be swept under the rug. Caruso’s pledge to “clean up L.A.” is hardly a dog whistle: He’s telling voters that he’ll keep the Angelenos they don’t care for well out of his supporters’ sight.

This version of a Trumpian takeover might get deployed to other blue cities: A wealthy conservative cloaks himself in the Democratic label and runs on resentment with the status quo—particularly with the growing problems of homelessness and crime. As with Caruso, very little will be done to solve these problems—their existence is a necessary ingredient for this high-toned hustle to propel these candidates into office. Once there, the solution becomes pushing the same policies that caused the economic dislocation in the first place—and which Republicans have reliably pushed for decades—while deploying an unaccountable law enforcement brigade to bust the heads of the poor and the homeless in the name of fighting crime.

The election in Los Angeles isn’t over yet, but Caruso has a decent shot. He has spent $34 million already—more than 10 times as much as Bass—and will continue to pour his vast fortune into the race. He’ll also benefit greatly from the reactionary turn of Los Angeles’s liberal elites, as well as their deep pockets. That latter phenomenon may prove to be difficult to replicate beyond the City of Angels, but as we’ve seen with other recent mayoral elections, it’s far from unrealistic to imagine alliances between affluent Democrats and Trumpian types, especially when it comes to diminishing the political power of a city’s neediest citizens. Caruso may well end up a model for Republicans across the country to follow, providing a new path to power in America’s bluest cities.