LOS ANGELES — U.S. Rep. Karen Bass was elected the next mayor of Los Angeles on Wednesday, taking the reins in the nation’s second-largest city during an intense period of soul-searching as it reels from a racism scandal and seeks fresh answers to seemingly intractable problems like homelessness and corruption.
The Democratic congresswoman prevailed over billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso to become the first woman elected to lead the city and just its second Black mayor. The race was Los Angeles’s most expensive contest ever and remained close until the final days of a week-long count, when Bass pulled decisively ahead and never lost her advantage. As of Wednesday evening, Bass held an insurmountable lead of just over six percentage points, and the Associated Press projected her the winner.
In Los Angeles, a liberal city that hasn’t elected a Republican mayor in more than two decades, Bass pitched herself as the progressive choice. But she also carried the imprimatur of the party establishment, winning endorsements from Democratic heavyweights like former president Barack Obama, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. At a rally on the eve of the election, Harris, a fellow Californian, praised Bass for “fighting for the people whose voices aren’t in the room but must be present.”
Nonetheless, Bass faced a formidable challenge from Caruso, who sank $100 million of his own money into the race and looked to seize on Angelenos’ growing frustration with an uptick in violent crime.
“She was being outspent 10-to-1, but her reputation, connections, experience and base of support turned out to be too much for him to overcome — he would’ve beaten anyone but Karen Bass,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University in Los Angeles. “Her coalition held against what could have been seen as an overwhelming challenge, and not to mention a lot of unhappiness locally about the state of the city.”
Until recently, Caruso was a registered Republican, and his election would have represented a rightward lurch for the city. He promised to swell the city’s police force to record levels and build temporary housing to shelter 30,000 homeless people in his first 300 days in office. Bass has called Caruso’s proposal unrealistic and pledged to house about 17,000 people in her first year.
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While some of his new party’s biggest names spurned him, Caruso received several splashy celebrity endorsements in a city of stars, including from Snoop Dogg, Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry.
Perry, who was born in Santa Barbara, shared a selfie of her electronic ballot cast for Caruso, saying she voted for him “for a myriad of reasons (see the news) but in particular because Los Angeles is a hot mess atm.”
On that score, at least, both candidates agreed.
The city’s politics have been beset by scandal for years, but the latest made international headlines and shook the foundation of Los Angeles’s self-ascribed identity as a harmonious, multiethnic metropolis. Last month, a leaked recording emerged capturing four of the city’s most powerful Latino leaders disparaging colleagues and flinging racist remarks about a Black child, indigenous immigrants and Jewish residents.
The tape led to the resignation of City Council President Nury Martinez and Ron Herrera, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a local political powerhouse. The other two participants, council members Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, have so far refused to step down. Cedillo was set to leave office at the end of the year, while de León, who has long held grander political aspirations, apologized for his role but said he intends to stay on over objections from top Democrats in California and beyond.
Even the White House, which rarely involves itself in such a local political fracas, weighed in, calling for everyone captured on the recording to resign, just one day ahead of Biden’s visit to Southern California, where he appeared with Bass in support of her candidacy.
In the last debate of the campaign, and the only one that followed the recording’s release, Bass and Caruso agreed that council members had to go, but argued over who was better positioned to unite the city in the messy aftermath.
“Those officials must resign, but that’s not enough,” Bass said. “We need a new direction in L.A. and new leadership that will make sure we reject the politics of divide and conquer.”
Caruso cast the leaked conversation as another example of shady political dealing in the city — the four leaders were discussing how to draw new council district lines in order to boost Latino representation, largely to the detriment of Black voters.
“They went into a backroom to carve up the city for their own special interests, for themselves,” Caruso said during the debate. “The system is broken, and it’s full of corruption.”
Both said the city needs an independent redistricting commission.
Bass has for years worked with some of the figures implicated in the tape and she pointed to the track record of her nonprofit organization, the Community Coalition, which seeks to unite people across racial and ethnic lines, as a model for healing in the city. The group, known as “CoCo,” was mentioned several times on the recording as a derisive shorthand for Black political interests.
But even before the recording surfaced, Los Angeles was battling a staggering streak of scandals: A former city council member sentenced to more than a year in federal prison for obstructing a corruption investigation; another former member indicted in the same probe; and a third ex-council member charged in a separate corruption scheme.
And the political future of the outgoing mayor, Eric Garcetti, is in limbo, with his nomination to become U.S. ambassador to India still stalled in the Senate over questions about whether he was aware of sexual abuse allegations made against one of his former top advisers.
Along with the pall cast by these successive crises, Bass will likely find herself contending with a remade city council, which appears poised to welcome at least two new members aligned with the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America when the next term begins.
Activist Eunisses Hernandez, who defeated Cedillo in the primary, and labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez, who had a double-digit lead over incumbent Mitch O’Farrell as of Wednesday, would join sitting progressive members Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Nithya Raman, forming a new bloc ideologically to the left of the new mayor.
The 15-person body could become more fractious than ever as the newly powerful left flank weighs in on issues such as a recent ban on homeless encampments near schools: The council passed that measure in August over objections from activists and dissenting votes from its most liberal members. Harris-Dawson denounced the move, which outlaws encampments within 500 feet of schools and day-care centers, as inhumane. Bass supported the restrictions.
The mayor-elect, before her time in Congress, served as speaker of the California Assembly and was tasked with keeping members in line as the state navigated a brutal budget shortfall during the Great Recession — an experience cutting deals across political ideologies that may inform the next four years.
“If anyone has the capacity to bring contending parties together, it’s Bass.” said Cal State’s Sonenshein. “Then the question is, can that be transformed into leadership in this executive position.”
That leadership will be especially important in addressing the homelessness crisis, he added, which “has become the symbol of whether city hall and government in general in L.A. can function well.”
Bass’s election follows results from the Los Angeles County sheriff’s race, the area’s other marquee contest this year, which saw a retired police chief from Long Beach, Robert Luna, defeat the incumbent, Alex Villanueva. The ousted sheriff’s four years in office were defined by his brash leadership style and a series of controversies, including clashes with local leaders and a law enforcement oversight board. His critics say he has left the country’s largest sheriff’s department in shambles.
Luna and Bass, two of the highest-profile elected officials in Southern California, will take charge of their respective offices at a time when residents of Los Angeles — the city and county — are fed up with their leaders. Their jobs are different, but they will share at least one goal: rebuilding the public’s trust.