There were many people on the sidewalks. Karen Bass was delighted to see them. She tells me that what made it so enjoyable was the fact that she didn’t knock on many doors. “People came out from their homes and wanted to talk to me. They were notified by email that I would be visiting the area. They could have just decided to ignore me and said, “Eh, I don’t want to talk with her.” No. They didn’t wait around for me to arrive. They came looking for me .”
Once they realized I was there, it was a positive sign for Bass’s campaign for the Los Angeles mayor. But the contentious race to succeed term-limited incumbent Eric Garcetti–whose job approval rating has slid, and who has suggested he may not endorse any of the contenders, per the Los Angeles Times–is being driven by a very different group of people on the street: the estimated 40,000 homeless who are living in alleys and parks and under highways all over Los Angeles. How to help them–or how to get them off the street–and how to turn around L.A.’s crime surge are the top priorities for voters, and the top issues dividing Bass and Rick Caruso, who in recent polling were essentially tied. June 7th is the primary.
There are many other things that separate Bass from Caruso. His success in developing high-end shopping centers has made him a billionaire. She is not. Bass grew up in the working-class Venice-Fairfax neighborhood, the daughter of a mailman and a hair-salon owner turned stay-at-home mom, and began her political career in the early ’90s as a grassroots organizer fighting the crack epidemic. Caruso is male and white; Bass is black and female. He was a Republican for many years, and then he became an independent until registering as a Democrat on January 1. Bass has been a Democrat since she was a teenage volunteer on Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. But the mayoral race will be decided by a fundamental difference between an outsider or an insider. Bass, 68, has been in public office since 2004, the past 11 of those years as a congresswoman; in 2020 she made Joe Biden‘s short list of possible vice-presidential nominees. Caruso, 63, is running for office for the first time and is arguing that it is career politicians like Bass who have gotten L.A. into its current mess.
Bass believes there is a crisis. She believes Caruso is the problem, promising a quick turnaround and relying heavily on law enforcement to avoid repeating destructive mistakes. Bass says that the problem is that we treat homelessness as a chronic disease. Bass says that the problem has become so severe that it is an emergency. You can’t just continue to use the same medication and treat it as normal high blood pressure. We’ve got to do something radically different.”
But isn’t that making Caruso’s point for him? Bass and her fellow government officials have had many chances and failed. Naturally, the congresswoman doesn’t see things that way. She says, “Absolutely elected officials could have done more.” “I believe a local billionaire could also have done more. Rick does give a lot to charity–but he also builds luxury housing!” “Blah, blah, blah,” a Caruso advisor responds. )
Bass’s interpretation of how she would become mayor is nuanced. Bass is not a stereotypical progressive soft-on-crime; she sees the LAPD playing a significant role in restoring order. But Bass also proposes a sustained, coordinated, multilevel approach to the homelessness crisis that tackles its many underlying reasons–from teens fleeing abuse to mental illness and drug addiction to soaring rents–with a multifaceted response that incorporates everything from the city buying small hotels to use as t