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On July 5th, the Karen Bass for Mayor Campaign (https://karenbass.com) held a mid-morning presser at Norman O. Houston Park.

A “presser” is a press-centric production that is part press conference, part spin, and part showing the flag. Press conference speaks for itself, spin allowed the campaign to display a steadily-broadening coalition of local and regional constituencies gathering around Bass, and showing the flag is important because it restores Bass’s presence in voters’ minds. That presence briefly vanished when, immediately after the cessation of the primary’s cacophony, the campaign suspended operations. Rick Caruso vanished after the primary, too. That is due to campaign-management thinking about husbanding resources and energy for a general-election push. But also, Bass is a congressional representative, and Caruso has to tend to his own business.

Absence from voters’ minds for almost any period harms Bass worse than Caruso. Caruso has and can commit—thanks both to his willingness to spend his ginormous wealth and to Citizen’s United and other recent campaign-financing decisions made by a Regressive-packed Supreme Court—resources that are practically bottomless. This gives Caruso a lopsided financial advantage amounting to electoral bullying. He has the money to wait until much closer to the general election to launch a shock-and-awe media onslaught for voter mind-share. He’s counting on that onslaught to convince Democratic voters that he is an actual Democrat. With fewer resources, Bass must use her more-limited resources to maintain a presence in voters’ minds during the five-month-long interval between the primary and the general.

BassEventm 2000

That day at Houston Park was gorgeous, one of those brilliant, cinnamon-roll-warm Los Angeles days. A light, seductive breeze scudded cotton-ball clouds across a sky so blue it made my teeth ache. It was one of those days when it’s hard to understand why anyone would ever want to live anywhere else. Houston Park is an LA city park named for the insurance magnate Norman O. Houston. It’s on La Brea just north of Stocker. The park is smallish and well-maintained with a children’s play area, basketball courts, and picnic tables. (It was my first time there; for all the bitching I do about Los Angeles’s lack of open space, I seldom take advantage of the open space it has.)

As I approached, I was aware of joyful noise: The primary’s final tally was in, and it was good. After an early Caruso lead, mail-in ballots had pushed Bass comfortably ahead. (Question: Why do the Regressives want to make it harder to vote by mail? Answer: Because their voters generally like to go to the polls more than Democrats; but they especially like to go to the polls now, during a protracted pandemic when they can show the lib-tards that they’re not afraid of no stinking, China-created, Fauci-exaggerated, liberty-denying-mask-mandated, made-up virus.) The Bass assembly (Bassembly?) had some of the giddy energy of a victory party, a church revival, a pep rally. But the primary wasn’t a runaway, and undergirding the high spirits was a serious “got work to do” vibe. They were preaching to the choir, and they knew it.

A podium and a mike were set up across from video cameras. T-shirted union members and many other Bass supporters circulated. Bass arrived—on time and accompanied by her young grandson—and then speakers from a broad coalition enthusiastically said all the expected Democratic things. (No new ideas were unveiled during the presentation of this presser, but that wasn’t its purpose. Its purpose was to publicize the wide array of support and all the endorsements Bass has garnered.)

Speaking of endorsements: The Bass list is long—if you’re curious, please click the link because there are too many to list—and includes the LA Times. In contrast, as of this writing (07/11/2022), Caruso’s list of shout-outs, at least as can be gathered from the web and his campaign website, comprises “a half dozen Korean American community and business leaders [who have] endorsed Rick Caruso for Mayor,” and celebrities including, among others, Gwyneth Paltrow, George Lopez, Snoop Dogg, Kim Kardashian, Elon Musk, and—I don’t know if “celebrity” is the right word—Kellyanne Conway. (Getting a shout-out from Kellyanne Conway seems an odd way for a just-out Democrat to cement his/her/their cred.)

Beyond these and other celebrity endorsements, Caruso received vigorous support from the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL), which funded a series of spittle-spewing, raging, nearly-comically-over-the-top TV spots. (Who can say where the multiple-millions to pay for those ads came from? If it’s police-union dues, then stories about underpaid police are exaggerated.) LAPPL is freaking out because Bass has taken a moderate—people farther to her left call it weak—position on realigning police resources. One would think the police would welcome having at least some calls involving emotionally-distraught people handled by those trained in mental-health crises so that they—the police—wouldn’t every few days have to shoot emotionally-disturbed, unarmed people, then have to deal with the public fallout. But apparently one would be wrong.

[I reached out to both the Caruso campaign and the LAPPL. Neither responded. In the latter case, I believe it’s because they’re waiting for their blood-pressure meds to kick in. Yet despite the endless, aggrieved, off-putting, predictable bellowing that constantly erupts from the police-union—having to listen to constant whining about victimization from people with guns and the license to use them makes them seem childish, ridiculous, and spoiled—I am in favor of any group of workers organizing. A vivid picture of the lives of rank-and-file police officers before they were allowed to organize can be found in Dennis Lehane’s 1920’s-Boston-set novel The Given Day.]

In January, just before launching his mayoral bid, Caruso, a long-time Republican, registered as a Democrat. [How is it that the various political parties don’t have rules denying party listing to opportunistic candidates who have not been registered party members for some reasonable period prior to an election?] As a result of Caruso’s ploy, the general election will be a run-off between two Democrats: Bass, an actual, long-term Democrat, endorsed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party; and Caruso, a Republican touted by Kellyanne Conway. In interviews, Caruso plays a victim card, disingenuously complaining about bullying—did I mention he’s a billionaire?—by the Democratic party and about the Bass campaign’s lying about him and his 20-minute Democratic history. The worst thing about Caruso’ victim-posing is its harmonic, tuning-fork resonance with the sad grievances of his picked-on LAPPL allies; the sad grievances of virtually all other picked-on Republican/Conservative/Regressive politicians; and the sad grievances of the picked-on Ur-victim, Donald Trump.

In politics, as in everything else, the perfect is the enemy of the good. We all occasionally sacrifice Principle on the altar of Expedience, and Caruso on the whole seems a decent sort of Republican. This is pointedly true when comparing him to the present cohort of “principled”—the “principle” here being retain power at any cost, even if it’s harmful to the Republic—Regressives, a pack of shameless, ravenous, self-seeking, hypocrites and enablers with names like Giuliani, Meadows, Greene, and Satan—sorry—McConnell.

(For me, a major ding against Caruso is that he has scrupulously avoided taking a public position on Sheriff Alex Villanueva, someone whom all decent Americans should repudiate as a matter of actual—not Republican—principle. Maybe Caruso is afraid Villanueva will investigate him too as the sheriff office has “investigated” others he has perceived as enemies.)

A centrist-leaning Republican can and has run and won the LA mayoralty, but I’m guessing Caruso received advice something like this: “Yes, we remember Dick Riordan, but that was 20 years ago when sufficient numbers of rational Republicans still existed. In today’s Los Angeles, a Republican cannot win, so if you’re serious about running, and if you’re serious about winning, you’ll have to hold your nose and run as a Democrat.”

Like Musk, Caruso has said he’s always been more independent than Republican. (Whatever.) He has also said he’s anti-abortion but pro-choice. (Possible.) Perhaps if he had run as an Independent, he’d have more credibility—not to mention integrity—and might have had a better chance of winning. The current political environment is one in which Democrats, who’ve been in charge for a while now (and among whom is Karen Bass) can reasonably be portrayed as responsible for this city’s ills. Instead, Caruso comes off as a Republican trying to fool us by wearing a ridiculous, ill-fitting, party-cross-dressing clown costume. Of course he is counting on a percentage of disengaged voters who, when hit by his forth-coming media barrage, will believe he’s a Democrat. (But that means he doesn’t mind profiting from scamming the people, and that’s another ding on his integrity, something no one has ever questioned about Karen Bass.)

But—Rationalization Alert!—if hazy morality and integrity were disqualifying for political leaders, we would have few political leaders, and our political leaders would have few constituents. Caruso is one of a nearly-extinct breed: A Republican who thinks, and, for what it’s worth, I believe he loves LA. I also believe that, regardless of party affiliation, he would not make the worst mayor we’ve recently had. Yet the truth is that he’s got the connections, the resources, and, in his words, “the skill set” to do most everything he says he wants to for this city without being its mayor. (Imagination what good the $44,000,000.00 he’s spent—so far!—might have done.) In fact, he might even be able to accomplish more as a private citizen than as Los Angeles’s structurally-weak mayor. (See below: His answer to the problem of the mayor’s relative weakness is to declare a state of emergency and become a dictator.) To hear him tell it, he single-handedly reformed USC and the LAPD. (Considering recent reports, he left before either job was finished.) Still, were he the lesser of two evils in the race, were he running against either a Villaraigosa or a Garcetti, I’d seriously consider voting for him.

But he’s not running against feckless Democrats; he’s running against Karen Bass.

In a city with 2,030,173 registered voters, the primary’s final count was 407,147 ballots cast, a roughly 20% turnout that matches other recent off-year-election turnouts. [By the way: Kudos to our Registrar of Voters, an agency that competently runs our sprawling elections year after year and never gets any love.]

Here are the mayoralty-primary results (excluding candidates who polled less than 2%):

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  • Bass 43.11% 278,511
  • Caruso 35.99% 232,490
  • De León 7.80% 50,372
  • Viola 6.86% 44,341

LA City Councilmember (District 14) Kevin De León’s nearly 8% would have put Bass over the primary’s 50%, no-run-off threshold. De León is an actual Democrat with genuine political chops, substantive ideas, and concrete endorsements, but his candidacy never caught fire, partly because there’s not a lot of difference between his and Bass’s platforms. Both he and Bass did well in early polling, but Caruso’s and Bass’s campaigns took the air out of his balloon. [De León’s campaign did not respond to a query.]

Bass can rely on significant numbers of De León voters—even more if he were to endorse her, which as of this writing, he has not—but that is not true of the slightly-less-than 7% of voters who opted for Gina Viola. Wooing Viola’s voters presents a more-complicated challenge for Bass. As will her voters, Viola will want Bass to move significantly leftward; failing that, they will either not vote for mayor at all or write-in Viola. But in the US, getting elected is zero-sum; if Bass were to attempt to attract Viola voters by shifting leftward, she would expose less-left-leaning voters to Caruso-campaign predation.

I asked to speak with Viola because she did a remarkable thing: entered the mayor’s race just a few days before the filing deadline, and, simply by announcing her candidacy and presenting her platform, attracted 44,431 votes. We met at Tiago, a coffee shop at Hollywood and La Brea. When I arrived (five minutes late), she was already there and had ordered. The server brought a cappuccino. Unable to resist, I said, “I’ll have what she’s having.” (When Gary Met Gina, and hello almond milk.)

In person, Viola is focused, fierce, and, though she hides it, furious, quietly quivering with an anger I recognized, remembered, and responded to. She was cordial and calm, but it was clear she has no patience with the subtle nuances of political horse-trading. Not when homeless people are dying on our streets. Not when LAPD officers had killed three people just in the previous week. How is that tolerable?

She’s right, of course. Who have we become—who have I become—that our police are routinely shooting and killing unarmed people in the streets, but I am not in those streets objecting? Who are we that in the richest country in the world, unhoused people have to shit in public because the public has provided them no alternative?

Gina Viola

Gina Viola

For her harvest of 44,431 votes—nearly 7%—Viola spent just $50,000.00. (It’s not hard to imagine $50,000.00 being the tab for a Caruso-campaign-committee lunch.) So at least 44,341 Angelenos agree with her that the status quo—police shooting unarmed people—is not okay. (I am always baffled by how easily the shooting and killing of an unarmed civilian is passed off as acceptable because it is deemed “in policy.” Wait, what? If shooting and killing unarmed civilians can be “in policy,” then maybe should we rethink the policy?)

There are people routinely dying in our streets at the hands of those sworn to serve and protect them, and it literally takes making a federal case out of it to hold anyone accountable. Our police rack up overtime while pouting in their cars, punishing us for insufficiently appreciating them, their police union trumpeting Jericho levels of whining and complaint. Their ability to get away with being so tone-deaf is a marker of their lack of accountability.

It’s not okay. Neither is it okay to have 66,000-plus unhoused people on our streets. We’re not talking about juggling street-cleaning schedules, or considering rezoning requests, or hashing out mundane details of running a normal city in normal times. We’re talking about people sleeping on sidewalks. (No, not because they want to.) Caruso’s plan is to make himself a dictator by declaring a kind of homelessness martial law and to put the homeless into what are effectively internment camps. In Palmdale. (Has anyone asked Palmdale?) Reading through Caruso’s homelessness plan, one comes to understand that it is not a solution to the homelessness crisis; it is a solution to the homelessness-visibility crisis. And from Viola’s point of view, Bass’s plan is not that much better.

During our talk, I find I myself agreeing with almost everything Viola says. With her voters, I share her anger and frustration. Our status quo is not okay, not remotely, and the breath of fascists is fogging our glasses. We talk about this for most of an hour, both aware that this election and those coming over the next few cycles are crucial to the survival of whatever is left of an American political order that lasted for nearly one hundred years. (Since FDR.) In the 1960s, we used to say—and during our meeting Viola says something similar—that there was little difference between Democrats and Republicans. Well, ask the Iraqis who they’d have preferred as President: Bush or Gore? After our talk, we separate. I go to transcribe and flesh out my notes; she goes to find housing for an unhoused woman.

I am moved by Viola’s passion. I remember that passion; but I also remember presenting, to power, lists of non-negotiable demands that ultimately resulted in virtually no practical gains. I have accepted that change happens more slowly than I’d like (because Regressives fight it tooth and nail), and that when it does come, it is neither all I want, or permanent (because Regressives can gain the power to undo it). I accept that the dance to a better future is a cha-cha.

So is lowering our expectations of what's possible and how long it might take to achieve an admission of defeat or a compromise with reality? We each decide that alone.

In the US, there's a structural irony: The framers went out of their way to discourage those in power from arbitrarily wielding that power. And voters have historically elected people we believed would be reluctant to use that power. Reviewing Donald Trump’s mind-boggling (which was one of its goals) behavior, his penchant for using a machete to hack his way through amber waves of “democratic norms”—all of which is what his injustice-collecting cultists value in him—is a primer on what happens if we veer from that path.

To give Caruso credit where it’s due: In a deeply-blue city he, in his 20 minutes as a Democrat, gleaned 36% of the primary vote. Who were they? Some wee Republicans (it’s an open primary). Some opted for a white male over a black female. Some were out-of-the-loop Democrats swayed by ads promoting Caruso’s newly-revealed Democratic fellow-travelling. And some were Democrats fed-up with and angered by our city government’s recent fecklessness, helplessness, ineptitude, and corruption.

As we approach the general election, expect Caruso’s campaign to release a tsunami of ads that will hit familiar-sounding only-I-can-do-it notes, ads that will show him shaking hands with shoppers at The Grove, ads that will show him shaking hands with boys and girls outside Boys and Girls Clubs, ads that will show him shaking hands with actual Black people. He’ll stress how he alone fixed USC and the LAPD, and how he alone can, and will, “solve” homelessness. On her side, Bass’s ads will stress how her working at the state and federal levels have resulted in concrete benefits for Los Angeles, and they will show Bass with Angelenos on the ground next to those benefits. Both will stress their love of LA and their LA roots. Caruso will wrap himself in a Democratic banner. Bass will call him a Republican.

Caruso’s and Bass’s primary totals account for roughly 80% of the turnout. That leaves roughly 20% up for grabs. Handicapping elections is astrology with better data, but assuming the turnout for the upcoming general election is similar to the primary’s 20%—matching the turnout for the 2017 mayor’s race—Bass’s chances look good. On his side, Caruso has money; on her side, Bass has not only the support of the people and groups to whom she has over 20 years delivered results, but also a super-power: a smile that lights up an already-lit room. She radiates warmth that makes that room feel like a hug, that convinces the people in that room that they want to work together to figure out the solution to whatever brought them to that room in the first place.

Bass brings with her something Caruso lacks: a long, successful record of making government work for the public. Caruso brings a long, successful record of working with government to achieve his goals. (And to be fair, sometimes those goals have been the betterment of others.) But working with government is not the same as making government work. Lacking Bass’s successful in-politics record, Caruso must rely on brute force, bragging, and manipulating facts. The challenge for the Bass campaign will be to provide media spots that will communicate not only her political effectiveness but also her warmth and the personal drive to make things better for everyone, not just for developers and those lucky enough to be included in Caruso’s select charitable endeavors.

Politics is zero-sum. In the end, is it nobler to stand up for Principle, to vote for Nader even though that means George W. Bush wins? How would Iraqis answer that question (assuming they could come back from the dead)? At one time, I equated compromise with corruption. I don’t anymore. Maybe after decades of disappointment, I’ve given up; maybe I’m suffering what is, effectively, a political depression. Maybe I’ve gotten used to corruption’s smell. Is it acquiescence or late-arriving wisdom? (Or are those closer to one another than I care to think?)

Whichever it is, I think Karen Bass is the real deal, not just okay but pretty damn good. Come November—for one of the few times in my voting life—when I vote for her I won’t be feeling like I have to hold my nose to vote for a Democrat.