The race for the top job in one of the nation’s liberal strongholds has become a test for the city’s Democratic establishment. Caruso, a former Republican who started the campaign with dismal poll numbers, was able to capture voters’ attention with record spending on advertisements and a promise to “clean up” homeless encampments and tamp down rising crime. Despite his quick ascension in the polls, Caruso came in second in the primaries, and is now struggling to regain ground as Democrats rally to defend Bass.
The debate Wednesday was, for the most part, polite, with the candidates at times joking with the moderators, the audience, and even one another. But that didn’t stop them from getting their jabs in.
Bass rebuffed repeated accusations that she was a part of a broken system, noting that Caruso has been a beneficiary of that power structure as a developer.
“If you look at corruption at City Hall, it’s always around developers,” she said.
The Congresswoman also leaned heavily on Caruso’s past affiliation with the Republican party. At one point, when Bass was praising the diversity of the Democratic party, Caruso lamented that it seems to accept everyone “except for me,” — a point Bass agreed with.
“He’s correct,” she said. “And that’s because 36 years ago, he was a Republican. Then he became an independent. Then he became a Republican again … then he became an independent, and then three weeks before filing, he became a Democrat.”
“That’s the problem is that you can’t just keep going back and forth like that.”
Caruso, who has donated to abortion opponents in the past, insisted he supports abortion rights. He also touted his dislike for former President Donald Trump and decried the recent move by Republican governors to transport unsuspecting migrants to Democrat-led cities.
“I’m on the record for decades that I believe the government should not be involved in people’s right of how they decide on what to do with their body,” he said.
Caruso sought to link Bass to past failures in city government, calling her “more of the same” even though she has held federal and state office for most of her career.
“LA was always the place where big dreams come true,” Caruso said.
Cost of housing in America’s second-largest city also featured prominently in the debate.
The Congresswoman pledged to address crime and homelessness, undercutting her opponent’s key messages, and portrayed herself as a “lifelong, pro-choice Democrat,” even though LA mayor is a nonpartisan position.
“It’s a question of values in a Democratic city and I think that is one of the differences between the two of us,” Bass said.
Caruso, asked if he would extend the Covid-era moratorium on evictions, said he would but that he is concerned about the “unfairness” of the program for landlords like him. He said tenants may deserve a break but the city does not require adequate proof that they need it.
“If someone is making money and can afford the rent, they shouldn’t be carried,” Caruso said.
Caruso favors building more shelters and removing encampments of homeless people, which he said are unfair to the rest of the community.
“Reach out to people, build trust, bring them in, give them the services they need,” he said.
Bass accused Caruso of not providing specifics on how he would pay for his plan, suggesting he wants to “criminalize” poverty. The congresswoman said that she wants to “massively expand” street outreach teams, using formerly homeless people to get others into housing.
Caruso accused the media of holding him and his record of donating to Republicans to a different standard than Bass, who he accused of donating to a Georgia congressman who opposes abortion and supports the Church of Scientology.
“If the same standard exists, then we should both be held to the same standard not because we donate to one person or another,” Caruso said.
Bass wasn’t given a chance to respond to those claims, but shook her head and smiled. Bass campaign spokesperson Sarah Leonard Sheahan called the accusation nonsense.
“It is very clear Karen Bass is the pro-choice Democrat in the race and Rick Caruso’s desperate attempt to say otherwise is laughable.”
Throughout his campaign, Caruso has focused heavily on public anxiety about crime, a problem he says he is well-equipped to solve as an appointed member of the Police Commission, including a stint as its president.
Bass, also eager to soothe voter concerns, has consistently made public safety a centerpiece of her campaign, backing stricter policies on homeless encampment removal and promising to hire 200 more police officers, which would return the Los Angeles Police Department to its authorized cap of 9,700 officers.
She has largely avoided the darker tone set by Caruso, saying during a March debate that she felt safe in her Baldwin Vista neighborhood and pushing back on her opponents contention that residents in every part of the city feel threatened.
“I want to feel safe. I would say a 10,” Bass said in March when the candidates on stage were asked to rate their comfort walking in their neighborhood on a 1 to 10 scale. “I feel safe, but I do understand that a lot of people around the city do not feel safe, and I respect that.”
But Bass’ rhetoric has shifted over the last week and a half after two handguns were stolen from her home during a burglary. She told KTTV Channel 11, a local Fox affiliate, that she “did feel safe, until my safety was shattered,” in an interview days after the burglary.
On Wednesday night, she ranked her feelings of safety as a five.
“My sense of safety was shattered,” Bass said in light of the recent burglary.
She said she supports hiring between 200 and 300 more police officers. Caruso said it needs to be higher.
The developer raised questions about the circumstances surrounding the burglary, calling on Bass to explain how the guns were stored and what their makes are. He again leveled those questions on Bass during the debate, who called it disheartening that Caruso is trying to capitalize on the incident.
“I think this is an act of desperation, Rick,” Bass said.