For Los Angeles political junkies, November 9, 2008, is the day Antonio Villaraigosa won the 2009 mayoral election. That’s the day Rick Caruso announced he would not run.
Aside from depriving us of at least a dozen ridiculous wire stories about which candidate has the better hair, the election is now shaping up to be a boring Villaraigosa cakewalk — the mayor’s biggest competition is now public-access icon and frequent user of the word “y’all” Zuma Dogg.
Shortly after L.A. Weekly ran a cover profile of Caruso and his prospective mayoral run last October, an informal poll was taken on the development blog LA Curbed, where Caruso bashing has reached an art capable of saving MOCA. Despite that, the poll actually put Caruso ahead of Villaraigosa by a 4 percent margin.
In the poetic words of one anonymous commenter: “I’ll take Disneyland over Tijuana any goddamned day of the week.”
When the Weekly recently caught up with Caruso on the phone, he sounded as if he hadn’t fully come to terms with his decision not to run. “It was tough,” he admits, “because the Weekly’s piece really helped generate a lot of interest. The reaction was overwhelming and I think we would have won it. But I just couldn’t do it to my kids. Especially my youngest daughter. She deserves to have her dad around.”
A recently released Election Day exit poll, however, conducted by the Thomas and Dorothy Leavy Center at Loyola Marymount University, says the youngest Caruso may have had nothing to worry about. Taken at the height of Caruso Watch ’08, the poll showed the mall magnate running at around 10 percent against Villaraigosa. Of the more than 2,000 people surveyed, the results showed the current mayor’s job-approval rating at 61 percent.
That was pretty much in keeping with the Weekly’s analysis of Caruso’s prospects. Republican political strategist Arnold Steinberg, who helped to run the campaign of L.A.’s last Republican mayor, Richard Riordan, told the Weekly that Caruso had “no chance” in 2009, and that even if he wanted to win in 2013, he had to start building an immediate presence in L.A.’s working-class communities. Franklin Gilliam, an expert on racial and ethnic politics at UCLA, advised Caruso to partner with Magic Johnson and start to develop South Los Angeles.
Did he listen? “I haven’t spoken to Magic,” Caruso says, “but I don’t think he really needs my help. He [has] an organization that’s doing pretty well on its own.” That said, Caruso seems to have taken some of the experts’ advice to heart.
“We are definitely looking to step up our philanthropic efforts in South and East L.A.”
We’re not sure if he counts USC as South L.A., but Caruso just donated $6 million to build a new “religious think tank,” as he describes it, at the university. On top of that, Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger recently appointed Caruso to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission — marking his first position in local government since his tenure on the Los Angeles Police Commission ended in 2005.
It’s not quite as sexy as a vicious, mudslinging electoral battle with an incumbent mayor, but it’s something.
As for his future in electoral politics: “I’ve got my eyes on 2013. But who knows — if Villaraigosa decides to run for governor, something might open up sooner.”
Matthew Fleischer is now senior editor at L.A.City Beat.
From “Rick Caruso’s Aria: L.A.’s Mall King Mulls a Run for Mayor” by Matthew Fleischer
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 spoke n.
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.”