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Shortly after Rick Caruso, the billionaire real estate developer behind Mid-City mall The Grove and the Rosewood Miramar Beach resort in Montecito, entered the L.A. mayoral race on Feb. 9., Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos took to Facebook to proclaim his support: “He is a leader who can and does get things done,” he wrote, adding: “A decent man who loves our city and has a successful history of doing hard things that make it a great place to live and work. Go Rick!”
Much of the industry’s donor class had been lining up behind the bid of Democratic U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who is way out front of the field among likely voters, according to a poll conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies in the week leading up to Caruso’s filing. She garnered 32 percent support to his 8 percent; 40 percent are undecided.
Bass’ Hollywood backers include Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jen Salke, J.J. Abrams, Alan Horn, Damon Lindelof and Jim Gianopulos — along with stars like Jennifer Garner and Jennifer Aniston and members of the activist axis: Ed Begley Jr., Donald Glover, Norman Lear. But Caruso is lining up his own team, with Walt Disney Television head Dana Walden and CAA co-chair Bryan Lourd co-hosting a fundraiser later this month. Among his other early supporters: Mike and Irena Medavoy, Brian Grazer, Aleen Keshishian, Jim Wiatt, Gigi Levangie, Karoliína Kurková, Kathy Freston and Jennifer Meyer.
UTA co-president Jay Sures, who held a fundraiser for Caruso on Feb. 23, tells The Hollywood Reporter that, like many, crime and homelessness are his top issues in the mayoral race, and he believes that the developer is best positioned to tackle them. “When he ran the police commission, he hired Bill Bratton, and when he headed the USC board, he cleaned up the nonsense there,” Sures explains. “He has a strong point of view and the ability to effectuate significant change.”
It’s easy to see why Hollywood’s gilded inner circle would feel comfortable with Caruso, the 63-year-old son of the founder of Dollar Rent a Car. Those who subscribe to the increasingly prevalent notion of L.A. as an apocalyptic quagmire of homelessness and rising crime may even see him as a savior. Sarandos’ mother-in-law, the Beverly Hills philanthropist Jacqueline Avant, was murdered during a home invasion early on the morning of Dec. 1; Sarandos and wife Nicole Avant, ambassador to the Bahamas during the Obama presidency, hosted a Caruso fundraiser Feb. 22.
Aside from his record in the private sector and his CV in public life, mainly as member or president of various city commissions, Caruso likes to cite Walt Disney as a key influence and says he’s always been taken by the symbolism of Paramount’s gates, rhapsodizing to Variety that “crossing that threshold allows you to go into a different world.” He made his name and his fortune, after all, building upscale shopping malls defined by their mise en scene — The Grove and the Americana at Brand aimed at L.A. County’s middle-class masses, the Calabasas Commons and the Palisades Village pitched to the ultra-affluent like himself. (His retail reveries are executed by a seasoned production designer.)
Caruso, in short, is in “the content and experience business,” just like the entertainment crowd, as he told me when I profiled him in 2015 for THR. “His spaces are stories” is how his longtime pal Anne Sweeney, former president of Disney-ABC Television Group, put it to me. With his properties’ trolleys and holiday extravaganzas, Caruso already plays the beneficent administrator of popular yet privatized public spaces where the discomfiting realities of contemporary local life — protests, homelessness, crime — aren’t allowed to exist.
Caruso is proposing a technocratic list of policies and reforms to address the city’s myriad ills, underscored by his leadership experience. The logline: Mike Bloomberg, this time with charisma, rescues the City of Angels. It’s his branding aesthetic — romantic, utopic and glamorous while also, importantly, traditionalistic — that is a chief allure to many supporters. The promise of his governance is a reframing of the civic narrative. This, Hollywood understands.
Caruso’s latter-day Rockefeller Republicanism (he’s a onetime member of the GOP who spent the past decade as an independent before registering as a Democrat just in time for this election cycle) isn’t much different from the liberal values of many rich Westsiders. In him they recognize a tantalizing, once-in-a-generation opportunity to seat one of their own at City Hall, a fellow power player, rather than yet another labor-beholden career pol.
Despite his deep pockets, Caruso’s electability is an open question, as demographics aren’t in his favor — although the pricey crew of top-flight Democratic Party consultants he’s hired, including Ace Smith (whose clients have ranged from Gavin Newsom to Kamala Harris), have no doubt assured him there’s a path to victory. Investment banker Richard Riordan, Caruso’s clearest antecedent, won the mayoralty as a Republican in 1993 when L.A.’s votership was far less diverse, and a candidate who owns a 16,000-square-foot Brentwood mansion and a 216-foot superyacht may encounter headwinds in a race defined by housing prices and homelessness.
What Caruso’s backers may confront is the limit of his smooth style. His tough-on-crime, crackdown-on-encampments, cut-the-red-tape, build-the-housing agenda will face intense pushback from civil-liberties activists, neighborhood associations, elected officials and bureaucrats.
Political power is, of course, different from the commercial world, its animating incentives and deterrents fundamentally distinct. Those who govern following a long career in the private sector often find the public realm frustrating — even insurmountable. Especially when dealing in the most complex problem sets, and despite Caruso’s bold assurance, there is no quick fix for the city’s trickiest maladies.
Caruso appears alert to his challenge, intent on recasting the historically weak office of the L.A. mayor into a stronger, more executive role. He’s vowing, for instance, to declare a state of emergency to address the homelessness crisis so there’ll be less interference from the City Council, and to start a new mental health and addiction treatment department to be less reliant on the County Board of Supervisors. Still, reality has its undertow. His campaign’s call to “compel people suffering mental illness into care” tempts all-out-war ACLU litigation, and a pledge to add 1,500 street-level LAPD officers may haunt him each time the department is involved in yet another use-of-force scandal and today’s refund-the-police momentum predictably shifts to defund once again.
“I believe that everybody is aspirational,” Caruso told me in 2015. It’s an apt credo for a businessman who is, above all, a lifestyle producer. It also happens to be an ideal slogan for a political campaign in a city many believe is in need of a fresh act. Yet day-to-day metropolitan governance is far from aspirational. It’s a grind, and Hollywood may learn that Caruso’s particular polish doesn’t necessarily equate to magic beyond his own stages.
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