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L.A. on the Record: Let the mayoral ad wars begin

Karen Bass and Rick Caruso at the start of the L.A. mayoral debate at USC in March.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our local elections newsletter. It’s Ben Oreskes here, giving you an overview of the week that was with some assists from Julia Wick and Dakota Smith.

In 1967, on the set of “The Mike Douglas Show,” Richard Nixon met a 20-something television producer who gave the presidential candidate a famous piece of advice that feels especially relevant this week in Los Angeles.

“Television is not a gimmick, and nobody will ever be elected to major office without presenting themselves well on it,” Roger Ailes, who would go on to become the founder and face of Fox News, told Nixon.

Television — and specifically TV ads — dominated the week in L.A. politics, with special interest groups throwing knives, a leading candidate threatening legal action, and dominance of the airwaves by one candidate all but leading another candidate to drop out.

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Let’s start with that last point. On Thursday, Councilman Joe Buscaino joined Rick Caruso at Caruso’s mall — the Grove — to urge his supporters to vote for Caruso and not him. For Buscaino, it marked the end of about a year of running for mayor, and after months of trading attacks, the two Italian Americans found common cause in their aligned vision for the city.

As the dust settles, this endorsement shouldn’t be a surprise.

The two share many of the same policy views, but Buscaino’s campaign was unable to overcome severe financial and organizational disadvantage when stacked up against Caruso’s. Simply put, the two had nearly identical plans. Caruso was just able to burn tens of millions of dollars of his own money — mostly on television ads — to get that message out there.

He spent more than $2 million on advertising this week alone, and is on pace to spend well over $20 million on advertising by the primary. Buscaino spent just over $350,000 on ad time in the last few weeks.

Billionaire real estate developer Caruso has been aided on the airwaves by another source as well. A political action committee sponsored by the Los Angeles Police Protective League bought $1.2 million in advertising for a grabby 30-second attack ad that attempts to turn a scholarship Rep. Karen Bassreceived from USC into a scandal.

Bass (D-Los Angeles) — who surely would have preferred the day’s narrative to focus on herfirst TV ad, which was also released Monday — quickly fired back. Her legal team sent a cease-and-desist letter to five Los Angeles television stations on Tuesday, calling the ad “defamatory” and demanding that stations stop airing it.

On Wednesday, a group of Black faith leaders denounced the ad as a “race-baiting” smear tactic.

“We will not stand to allow this smear tactic to take over our city and to try to destroy what we are building together,” said E. Wayne Gaddis, president of the California Missionary Baptist State Convention.

The police union, which has endorsed Caruso, alleged in its attack ad that Bass voted on multiple bills that benefited the university, both while attending the school and after.

Tom Saggau, spokesman for the police union’s PAC, said the commercial was neither false nor defamatory. Bass voted repeatedly for federal bills that were the subject of lobbying efforts by USC, he said, which resulted in more funding for the university. Saggau also pointed to a 2019 news release from USC that discussed a lobbying trip in which its trustees — including Caruso — laid out their funding priorities with Bass and other lawmakers.

He didn’t see the ad as race baiting, pointing to the fact that that no stations to this point had taken the ad down.

“The fact that all the stations haven’t taken it down is another repudiation of this whole attack effort,” Saggau said.

Last week, in the wake of the explosive Roe vs. Wade draft opinion leak, a PAC supporting Bass’ campaign pummeled Caruso in a 30-second digital spot for his past support of antiabortion politicians and suggested “Republican billionaires like Rick Caruso” were responsible for the possible impending loss of abortion rights.

They have not yet gone on TV with that ad, though the PAC does have a reservation for a little over $1 million in TV ad time for late May and early June.

All of these PACs are independent from the candidates they support and cannot legally coordinate with their campaigns.

The state of ad wars in this race is something to behold — partially because Caruso has spent so much more than anyone else. To this point, nearly $20 million has already been spent by candidates and independent expenditure committees on TV, digital and radio advertising, according to data from analytics firm AdImpact.

After dropping his creative “underdog” ad late last month, City Atty. Mike Feuer spent nearly $1 million airing it over the last three weeks. As the latest entrant into the TV ad wars, Bass put an initial buy of more than $650,000 behind her ad released Monday — a political meat-and-potatoes 30-second biographical spot.

It’s fair to say that the battle over what’s in these ads and how much candidates spend beaming them into our brains takes on new meaning as we enter the final stretch of this race.

State of play

TRACKING THE $$$$: Money has played an unprecedented role in this year’s race, with nearly $40 million pouring in from contributions and loans, the most of any Los Angeles city mayoral race to date. Most has come from Caruso’s pocket, but Times data reportersSandhya Kambhampati and Iris Leetracked and mapped all the donations made so far in the race.

HOW TO VOTE: This guide is a really great primer on how to vote and answers some of the basic questions you might have.

Plus: If you’re looking for a compendium of all the stories us hardworking Times reporters have scribbled about this race, we’ve got you covered. It will be updated as the month goes on.

SEE YOU IN THE DESERT: Last week, Times columnist Steve Lopez talked with Bass about homelessness and her candidacy. During the interview she mentioned that she’d like to see the city collaborate more with the county on building facilities for homeless people with mental illness.

“There’s a big chunk of land in Palmdale and maybe we could create a village out there,” she told Lopez, who wrote that “in her perfect world, that wouldn’t be the only one.”

That didn’t sit well with Palmdale City Councilmember Juan Carrillo, who is also running for higher office. He has invited Bass out to the high desert, noting that “like Los Angeles and the rest of California, Palmdale and the Antelope and Victor Valleys are struggling with housing affordability and homelessness, too.”

Anna Bahr, a spokeswoman for Bass, told The Times that Bass and Carrillo had spoken and she “welcomes his invitation to visit Palmdale.”

“The congresswoman is not suggesting that we move unhoused people from Los Angeles to Palmdale,” Bahr said. “She is proposing that as much government-owned land as possible — in both the city and county — be used for supportive or affordable housing.”

— FOLLOWING UP: Feuer told a group of his supporters at Pan Pacific Park on Wednesday that he didn’t support L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s bid for reelection.

Previously, Feuer and several other candidates had publicly said that they hadn’t made a decision about the sheriff. “I have been thinking about it more,” Feuer told the group. Bass has also said she isn’t supporting Villanueva.

Earlier this week, our colleagueAlene Tchekmedyian spoke with more than 20 current and former sheriff’s officials who described how Villanueva’s wife, Vivian — a former sheriff’s deputy herself — exerts real influence within the department.

— RECALL TAKE DEUX: Kevin de León is running for mayor. He also has a group of frustrated constituents in his district who have served him with a notice that they’re going to try to recall him. Again. This posse, angry over the construction of shelters and homeless housing in the district, has tried and failed to recall him multiple times.

“Another recall petition by a group of political extremists and Trump supporters won’t stop me from tackling our city’s homelessness crisis,” De León said in a statement. “We’ve already built housing for 85% of our unhoused neighbors in Northeast LA., and we’ll keep going until we’ve created enough opportunities for everyone to have a roof over their head.”

And in non-campaign news ...

SETTLEMENT APPROVED: You’ll recall that city officials announced a proposed agreement last month between the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights and the city that would require opening enough beds over the next five years to accommodate 60% of the city’s unsheltered population in each council district. On Wednesday, the City Council voted 12-3 to approve the settlement document, which hasn’t yet been made public.

Judge David O. Carter — who has been presiding over this saga — still needs to sign off on the deal. There’s another court hearing next week, and in advance of that, I’d expect the final terms of the deal to be released. Remember, the county, which is a defendant in the case, is not part of this pact and also not happy about it.

DEMYSTIFYING THE CITY BUDGET: Councilmember Nithya Raman — an urban planner who has made explainingprocesstoconstituents a priority during her time on council — put out a Medium post about the city’s annual budget process.

Garcetti takes a hit

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says Angelenos can use the My LA 311 app to report water wasters in their community.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t a good week for Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Dakota writes that the 23-page report from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) concluded that Garcetti “likely knew or should have known that [mayoral advisor] Rick Jacobs was sexually harassing multiple individuals and making racist comments towards others.”

The production of this report stalled Garcetti’s nomination to become the next ambassador of India, but now that it’s out, Grassley said he would allow the mayor’s nomination to move forward — even though he intends to vote “no” on the nomination if it goes to the full Senate.

“While I strongly disagree with the opinion reached in this report,” Garcetti said, “I am pleased that Sen. Grassley has lifted his hold and hope that my nomination by the president can be considered by the Senate soon.”

The mayor also received the full-throated support of the Biden White House. Spokesman Chris Meagher said Grassley’s “partisan report was a hit job from the beginning,” and the claims “have already been conclusively debunked.”

“Nominees for ambassadorships have often been rubber-stamped by both parties over the years, regardless of qualifications and often as payoffs to political donors,” writes columnist Steve Lopez.

“I don’t have a problem with lawmakers elevating the process, but would Grassley have pursued such a zealous probe of a foreign post nominee put up by a Republican president?”

The question now is if or when the Garcetti nomination will get a vote by the full Senate and then send him off to New Delhi or keep him here in Los Angeles to serve out the final months of his term.

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Quick hits

  • Who’s running the city? Still Garcetti. His confirmation as ambassador to India awaits a Senate vote.
  • The latest in mayoral endorsements: The Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters along with Latino Victory have endorsedDe León.International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Locals 13, 63 and 94 also endorsed De León.The Muslim Democratic Club of Southern California has endorsed Bass.
  • And other city endorsements: The Times’ editorial board endorsed Eunisses Hernandez for CD 1, Erin Darling for CD 11 and Dulce Vasquezfor CD 9. Darling also picked up support from Councilman Mike Bonin and state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica). State Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) has endorsedHugo Soto-Martínez for CD 13. The Sierra Club Angeles Chapter has endorsed Greg Good in CD 11. United Firefighters of Los Angeles City has endorsed Sam Yebri in CD 5. The Honor PAC, which elects candidates or supports ballot propositions that advocate for the Latinx LGBTQ+ communities, has backed Tim McOsker in CD 15.
  • Also, here’s Knock L.A.'s voter guide.
  • Latino Victory has endorsedMarina Torres for city attorney. L.A. Forward Action has endorsed Faisal Gill for city attorney and Kenneth Mejia for city controller. Mejia also picked up the support of La Opinión.

(If you have an endorsement you’d like to flag for next week, please send it to us. Also, here’s a full list of who The Times has endorsed.)

  • Dig of the week: This week it comes from Mel Wilson — who still is running for mayor:
  • On the docket for next week: Bass and Feuer will be at St. Brigid Catholic Church on Sunday speaking with faith leaders. On Monday, Bass, De León, Feuer and Wilson will be at a forum hosted by the Los Angeles Latino Equity and Diversity Initiative. On Friday, Bass, De León, Feuer and Gina Viola will be on KCRW talking homelessness with Anna Scott and Gustavo Arellano.

Stay in touch

That’s it for this week! Send your questions, comments and gossip to [email protected]. Did a friend forward you this email? Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Saturday morning.


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