By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But while both Caruso and his detractors seem content to let his developments speak for him, this isn’t particularly fair to either party. After all, the Grove gets 18 million visitors a year, more than Disneyland, and Caruso expects the Americana to achieve similar success. If his developments alone are a referendum on his fitness for political office, the results are in and the people have spoken.
What many may not realize, however, is that Caruso, 49, has a track record in public service that dates back nearly half his life — one that can be scrutinized far more objectively than any architectural or psychogeographic critique of the Grove. He’s served under mayors Bradley, Riordan and Hahn. At 25, he was the youngest commissioner in the history of the DWP; two years later, he became its president, and went on to serve a total of 13 years there. He was police commissioner under James Hahn, and was instrumental in bringing Chief William Bratton to power. He’s on the board of councilors for USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. He’s a trustee for the homeless-advocacy group Para Los Niños.
In many ways, no single figure in recent history has been more influential in shaping the city of Los Angeles — and not just with his retail development. As Bill Clinton once told Caruso, “You’ve got your hand in everything.” The question is, is that hand now reaching toward city hall?
In an era of faux populism, especially among those with political ambition, Rick Caruso literally and unabashedly wears his wealth on his sleeves. His custom-made Italian suits are said to cost more than $5,000, and between his wedding band, his Patek Philippe watches and his cuff links, he carries enough gold to finance a small Central African revolution. That taste appears to extend to his 150-some employees, as the hallways of Caruso Affiliated are flowing with stunning corporate-chic women and the occasional Ken-doll male.
Wealth is everywhere conspicuous: On a table in the lobby sit a row of small crystal paperweights, each boasting a massive sum — $400 million, $150 million — representing the financing secured for each of Caruso’s various developments.
Walk into his palatial executive office at the Grove and you’re immediately greeted by an original Fernando Botero — the celebrated Colombian artist whose portraits of robustly rotund figures are instantly recognizable, even to those completely clueless about contemporary art. It’s the sort of art that seems to be more about its commercial value than its artistic worth.
In casual conversation, though, Caruso lacks the Victorian pretensions you might expect to accompany such ostentatious displays. He’s polite, confident and well-spoken, though not above dropping a “bullshit” or two if the moment is right. As his staff’s “pink thong” conversation seemed to indicate, he does have an irreverent streak, as well as a strange fascination with cleanliness — a recurring subject of discussion that extends well beyond immaculate grooming. Dirt does not appear to be tolerated in Caruso’s universe.
His description of an amusement-park tour he took with his family this past summer doesn’t come down to which were the best rides, but which ones didn’t make him cringe: “I won’t name names,” he says, “but some of these places were filthy. You just wanted to take a shower after you got out of there.”
Caruso talks about his family often. He and his wife, Tina, have four kids ranging in age from 8 to 18. A man who never has to work again if he doesn’t want to, he grapples daily with the prospect of sacrificing family time for a political career. “My kids deserve someone who can be around to drive them to school in the morning,” he says.
Though a Republican, Caruso considers himself a political pragmatist, in the style of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Caruso started his government service on Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley’s DWP and was the personal choice of Democratic Mayor Jim Hahn to run the police commission in 2001, but he served under Republican Mayor Richard Riordan as well. He counts both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis — the Governator’s Democratic predecessor — among his friends. Yet he has also been known to put his financial muscle behind some of the most draconian conservative candidates, throwing lavish fund-raisers for President Bush, for instance.
Try to pin him down on any consistent ideological bent, however, and funny things start to happen. Take the D.A.R.E. program — the Nancy Reagan–backed anti-drug initiative that for decades sent police officers into the public schools to teach kids to “just say no” and show them what weed looks like. When Caruso broaches the topic unprompted, you can’t help but groan in anticipation of the inevitable “keep the kids off smack” type talking point. After all, the Caruso brand is unfailingly kid-friendly — embodied by the golden statues of his own children Caruso places in each of his new developments. But an answer never comes. Instead, he talks about how, as police commissioner, he ended D.A.R.E. He even brags about killing it.