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
“I had little girls telling me they were scared to go to school because gangs were shooting people in the streets. Why do we have so many cops in the classroom when the kids can’t even get to school? Teaching kids about drugs is fine, but when you have kids getting shot on the way to school, I think you have a bigger problem. So we stopped the program.”
A D.A.R.E.-killing, Bush-loving, germaphobe Republican billionaire. Where did this guy come from, anyway?
Caruso certainly isn’t new to money. He’s a lifelong L.A. resident whose father, Hank, earned a small fortune running a series of auto dealerships and then went on to found Dollar Rent-a-Car. Such was the Caruso disposition that, after college at USC, Hank forced Rick, against his will, to go to law school at Pepperdine. Although he graduated to the powerful Finley Kumble law firm, the young attorney became independently wealthy with a side venture by purchasing land around airports and leasing it to his father’s rental-car company. Like father, like son, except where politics was concerned. Hank Caruso, though politically connected, never ran for office or tried his hand in city government.
“My father respects public office,” says Caruso, “but thinks I’m absolutely insane for wanting to get involved in politics. If you’ve got a business, he thinks you should stick with that and make it as successful as possible.”
Asked why anyone at the helm of a billion-dollar organization who could do anything he wants in life would want to get involved in city electoral politics, Caruso admits, “I get that question a lot.” His answer is surprisingly tepid — not brimming with the sort of righteous indignation one would expect of a person considering taking on an incumbent mayor: “I really like public service. The city needs to stay viable and livable, and I’m not sure the current leadership is getting that stuff done. I would enjoy having the opportunity to leave the city in a better place than when I got there.”
That’s about as overtly critical of the mayor’s job performance as Caruso will go, though his insistence on mispronouncing the double “L” in Villaraigosa — as in “vanilla” — speaks volumes. The two do have a political history. In 2004, when he was still on the police commission, Caruso pushed a new bond measure that would have guaranteed money to put 1,200 new police officers on the street. He used his own money to wage an ad campaign, but the measure never made it to the ballot after the City Council voted it down — with Villaraigosa casting a crucial “nay” vote.
“Villaraigosa’s stand was purely political,” insists Caruso. “He knew he was running for mayor and didn’t want Hahn to be able to hire more cops and get that feather in his cap.”
It’s tough to argue with Caruso’s take. Shortly after assuming office, Villaraigosa announced a call to put 1,300 new cops on the street.
The moment still seems fresh to Caruso. “It’s frustrating,” he says, “because we had all the votes but one. It would have been absolutely the right thing to do, because it meant dedicated funds for LAPD. Now the city is cash-strapped and something like 90 percent of the budget is going toward the police and fire departments.”
Caruso enjoys talking about his time on the police commission, and with good reason. It’s difficult to characterize his tenure there, from 2001 to 2005, as anything but an unmitigated success — at least from a command perspective. He was instrumental in bringing in William Bratton to replace Bernard Parks, a controversial decision that proved prescient but also invited the wrath of the black community, in which Parks was — and remains — a popular figure.
David Cunningham III, who served alongside Caruso on the police commission before eventually succeeding him as president, praises Caruso’s leadership during what Cunningham describes as one of the most difficult periods in LAPD history.
“It wasn’t all about Bratton,” explains Cunningham. “When we took over the commission, the morale of the department was at an all-time low. We were dealing with the fallout from the Rampart scandal. Crime was soaring. Resources were strapped. We had a bunch of very serious issues to deal with, and I think we handled them quite well.”
Caruso’s record in public service isn’t entirely sterling, however, especially during his tenure on the DWP. His battles with environmentalist and “green cowboy” S. David Freeman, then general manager of the department, are legendary. When the idea of creating a 1,300-acre nature preserve surrounding the Chatsworth Reservoir came up, Caruso fought the effort tooth and nail, lobbying instead to build athletic fields and possibly open some of the area up for development. He eventually lost in the face of massive public opposition. He did, however, stop Freeman from protecting 300,000 acres of DWP land in the Sierras — mocking the general manager along the way for his effort. Freeman, now a Villaraigosa appointee serving as president of the Harbor Commission, declined to comment for this story.