Rick Caruso Is a Los Angeles Good Old Boy Posing as a Political Outsider
Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, billionaire real-estate developer Rick Caruso is campaigning for LA mayor as an antiestablishment maverick. In reality, like Trump, he’s just another wealthy conservative out to protect himself and other rich people.
It was May 31, 2020, just days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the National Guard had arrived in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles to protect a shopping and entertainment complex developed and operated by the city’s premier luxury shopping developer, sixty-three-year-old Rick Caruso.
Days earlier, protesters had inflicted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property damage at the Grove, another of Caruso’s famous shopping complexes. The developer was irate. He told the Los Angeles Times that, while he decried racism and was “anguished” by the murder of Floyd, city officials in charge when the Grove was vandalized deserved to be booted from office. “You had a sacred duty to protect the residents of this city and you failed,” he said.
“One thing I knew is that he was one of the people most angry about property damage during the post–George Floyd uprisings here in Los Angeles,” said Lex Steppling, national director of organizing and campaigns at Dignity and Power Now, a nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated people. “He’s kind of your quintessential neoliberal in that he supports the police so that they can protect his assets.”
Two years later, Caruso — after a decade of toying with a run for public office — is heading for a runoff in the race for mayor of Los Angeles on a platform molded in the backlash to those 2020 racial justice protests. He’s promising to end homelessness, crime, and corruption in a campaign that has drawn him comparisons to both Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump.
“There’s this history of malign neglect [in LA],” said David Levitus, executive director of the progressive group LA Forward Action. “And I think Caruso to some extent represents the people who want to compartmentalize off the messiness and ugliness of our social problems . . . people who are like, ‘Why can’t we just have it the way it was?’”
Caruso himself is something of a nostalgist. His family, he tells us in an advertisement, is an avatar of the American dream: his grandparents came to the United States “without money in their pockets” and had a son, Henry, who amassed a small fortune founding Dollar Rent-A-Car. That success allowed Caruso to grow up in Beverly Hills and attend Harvard Prep (now Harvard-Westlake), described by Ed Leibowitz in Los Angeles Magazine as the “academy of choice for the sons of L.A’s conservative gentry.” On graduation he enrolled in the University of Southern California, where as president of his Sigma Alpha Epsilon house he reintroduced old traditions including the use of ceremonial robes. Caruso then leaned on his father’s largesse to launch a real-estate career that quickly landed him among the city’s elite.
Over his four-odd decades in public life, Caruso has attempted to construct an image of competence, confidence, and civic concern. But his campaign has channeled a particularly dark vision for what LA should look like. Caruso has not vowed to end homelessness, for example, but “street homelessness” — an approach that, predictably, includes an effort to “take back our parks and public spaces,” in an effort to “clean up LA.” In an interview with the Los Angeles Times editorial board, Caruso cited the US Army base Fort Bliss — most recently in the headlines for the despicable conditions unaccompanied migrant children faced while held there — as a potential model for a shelter in LA.
If unhoused people in LA do not want to be warehoused in a massive, sterile facility like Fort Bliss, well, they can go to jail. Caruso is also proposing to hire 1,500 new police officers to do things like permanently remove tent encampments, force people suffering from mental illness into treatment, and “rid our streets of fentanyl and other highly addictive and dangerous drugs.”
“As long as there are shelter beds available, street encampments, no matter how small or large, will not be tolerated,” Caruso’s platform reads. “We cannot allow the idea of living on the street to be an alternative to accepting a dignified and humane shelter bed.”
In television ads that played ceaselessly during the primary, Caruso promised to hire five hundred new city sanitation workers, establish a mental health and addiction treatment department, and build 30,000 new shelter beds in his three hundred days in office. But he doesn’t appear to be banking on productively collaborating with what is likely to be a reasonably progressive LA City Council to get any of this done — his website promises that he will stop the council from “micromanaging decisions relating to shelter or housing,” or, in essence, doing its job.
This is not even close to half of what Caruso has proposed in furtherance of his mission to “clean up LA.” He has made further promises to expand emergency rental assistance, quadruple the number of tiny homes in the city, expand Section 8 projects, conduct an audit of city waste, and on and on and on. It is a policy platform that combines the most retrograde broken-windows, criminalization-of-poverty, tough-on-crime tactics of the ’90s with several progressive priorities, resulting in an ideologically incoherent medley that appears impossible to enact.
“He Wants the City to Look Like the Grove”
Certainly, some in Los Angeles want to return to the tough-on-crime policies of past eras. But to the extent that people believe in Caruso’s ability to “clean up LA” — despite his decidedly mixed record as a two-term president of the Los Angeles Police Commission — they primarily seem to believe in his ability to recreate for the city the managed reality he has built and maintained for years at his luxury shopping centers.
As Alissa Walker highlighted in New York Magazine just before the primary, Caruso’s public image is intimately tied to the Grove, his most famous shopping development. In a city full of fantasy destinations, the Grove has long stood out for its commitment to a particular vision of an urban paradise. To some, it’s a utopia: a meticulously planned, pedestrianized landscape that recalls the narrow idyll of the 1950s and serves as a model for what the city could be under Caruso’s leadership. To others, it’s very much the opposite — an expensive, sterile, corporatized mall in the center of one the city’s few walkable neighborhoods, taking up space that for decades had been occupied by a much-loved open-air farmers market.
Gina Viola, the fourth-place finisher in the primary, was living in the Park La Brea housing development when Caruso was building the Grove, and remembers Caruso pushing to clear out more of the farmers market for him to build on. Caruso has sold himself as a developer of “community centers.” Viola isn’t buying it. She told Jacobin:
It’s not a community center. It’s very exclusionary — even to the tune of some retailers who’ve talked about experiences in there, especially if they had one of those little kiosks. And he has LAPD presence in there, too. It’s definitely meant to be kind of a law-and-order place to gather — and not really gather, but spend money. Spend your money. That’s it.
If Caruso’s campaign rhetoric is hostile to the unhoused, the Grove’s house rules are possibly even more draconian. Walker reported in early June that visitors to the complex are banned from “sitting on floors, handrails, stairs, escalators, trash receptacles, and other areas not specifically designed for seating,” chewing gum, and loitering. After a pair of robberies last November, Caruso swiftly erected a barbed wire fence around the complex. The message was clear: certain people and certain behaviors belong in paradise, and everyone else and everything else must be shut out.
It is not lost on anyone who has closely followed Caruso or LA politics that his high-end shopping malls are clustered in the city’s whiter neighborhoods north of the I-10 freeway. It is similarly not lost on skeptics that the city’s unhoused population — the population Caruso wants out of sight — is disproportionately black. “When he says he wants to clean the city, it’s very clear what he means,” Viola said. “He wants to whiten the city. He wants the city to look like the Grove.”
The problem is that a wealthy, white, antiseptic Los Angeles has never existed in reality, even if it has found expression at the Grove and other complexes, like the Americana at Brand. In building and maintaining his developments, Caruso has consistently operated as if much of the city and many of its residents are invisible. His residential developments have scarcely any affordable housing and have instead raked in exorbitant rents while unhoused people have been swept off of their blocks.
Caruso’s conservatism is not covert: he only became a Democrat nineteen days before he launched his mayoral campaign. For the first four decades of his public life, he was mainly a Republican who donated to the likes of Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell — and above all else a wealthy developer looking out for his own economic interests who spreads his money around City Hall.
“What we can say about him without any doubt or without any fear of sounding reductive is that he is the walking cliché of the billionaire, tunnel-vision, hyper-self-interested capitalist,” Steppling said. “That is absolutely going to manifest itself in an authoritarian way once you decide to merge politics with those interests.”
Rick Caruso, Good Old Boy
No one disputes that housing and public safety are major issues in Los Angeles, even though crime remains significantly down from its ’80s and ’90s peaks, and few dispute that there is a constituency sympathetic to Caruso’s policy prescriptions. It is not at all clear, however, that Caruso would be anywhere near the runoff had he not poured more than $40 million of his personal fortune into his campaign.
Joe Buscaino, a former LAPD officer and longtime member of city council, ran on a reactionary platform similar to Caruso’s, but, lacking a personal fortune of several billion dollars, dropped out in May having failed to hit double digits in a single poll of the race. In total, Caruso spent roughly $175 for every vote he won in the primary. Karen Bass spent less than $12, while Viola spent about 74 cents.
Still, despite spending all that money, Caruso is facing an uphill battle in November. The June 7 primary was not, whatever election night punditry might have claimed, a bad night for LA progressives. Multiple left-wing challengers, including Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) city council candidate Eunisses Hernandez, scored big. And though Caruso led after the first round of ballots were reported, ballots counted in the following days and weeks put longtime US representative Bass firmly in the lead.
The congresswoman ultimately beat Caruso by some 35,000 votes and more than seven percentage points, a significantly larger margin than outgoing mayor Eric Garcetti won the 2013 primary with. The numbers look even more ominous for Caruso when we consider that Kevin de León and Viola, who received roughly 95,000 votes combined and finished in third and fourth place respectively, ran to the developer’s left.
If anything, Los Angeles progressives have been frustrated with how Bass — an LA native who was considered to serve as Joe Biden’s running mate in the summer of 2020 — has failed to take the fight to her chief competitor. Like Caruso, the congresswoman has effectively proposed adding police officers to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) by hiring civilians to fill desk jobs, promised to end encampments, and criticized bail reform as progressive district attorney George Gascón faces a recall effort. However else she differs from Caruso, progressives are concerned that she has seemingly accepted his framing of the race’s key issues.
“I think we would not have seen such a strong performance from Caruso, frankly, even with the money, if Karen Bass hadn’t in some ways legitimized some of his platform,” said Bill Przylucki, executive director of the local progressive group Ground Game LA. “She, as kind of the senior statesperson in the race, had a lot of discretion in . . . defining the field.”
Bass remains the favorite in November. But Caruso’s influence and vision loom large in a city that has always been molded by the fantasies of wealthy white men. His influence owes in part to the cultivated impression that Caruso — son of a car dealership magnate, prep school, private college, and $4-billion-plus fortune, with a decades-long history of involvement in multiple facets of LA politics, running on a platform of hiring more cops to criminalize poverty and shield the effects of his city’s staggering economic inequality from the eyes of its most privileged residents — is an outsider preparing to shake up a failed establishment. The sleight of hand calls to mind that of another billionaire real-estate developer who set his sights on high public office.
LA is already Caruso’s kind of creation: comprised of carefully guarded islands of extraordinary wealth amid a vast, diverse array of working-class communities that have long been minimized and abandoned by their government.
“We are demographically progressive, for sure — person by person, this is a very left place,” Steppling said. “But we are structurally quite backward and were built by these corrupt, very overtly racist, kind of old-boys networks.” The networks are “there to enforce violence to protect a vision that one could argue Rick Caruso is the most recent iteration of.”