Who is Rick Caruso, the billionaire who wants to be mayor of Los Angeles?

The high-profile property developer wants to beef up the police department and deal with the homeless crisis, but rivals say the US has already had enough of businessmen-turned-politicians

Rick Caruso after filing paper work to run for mayor of Los Angeles on February 11, 2022.
Rick Caruso after filing paper work to run for mayor of Los Angeles on February 11, 2022.Gary Coronado (Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag)

Exactly one year ago, an elegant oceanfront mansion was put up for sale in Malibu, 30 miles (48 km) west of downtown Los Angeles. The asking price was $40 million (€35 million), a not inconsiderable sum in California’s hot property market. Located in one of the state’s most exclusive areas, the home belonged to Rick Caruso, a billionaire developer who owns iconic hotels and shopping malls. Caruso sold his mansion because his family was growing – just like his political ambitions. After toying with the idea for decades, the real estate mogul has finally entered LA’s mayoral race.

Caruso’s fortune has been estimated at $4.3 billion by Forbes magazine, making him the only one out of the eight candidates who does not need to raise funds for his campaign. Two names will be selected at primary elections on June 7 and city voters will go to the polls on November 8 to choose one as their new mayor.

Caruso has registered as a Democrat after showing no party preference for years (even though he donated thousands of dollars to various Republicans over the course of several decades). A 63-year-old white Catholic, ideologically he leans towards the center of the political spectrum. The other leading contenders are seasoned Democrats including Karen Bass, a progressive Black congresswoman, and Kevin de León, a Los Angeles City councilmember whose Latino roots resonate with voters in a city where close to 50% of the population is Hispanic (although only 20% are registered to vote).

Caruso entered the race on February 12, the last legal day to do so, thus ending nearly 20 years of speculation. The owner of The Grove, a busy retail and entertainment center in the heart of the city, had been thinking it over since 2005. In 2013 he hired advisors who had worked with Bill Clinton and Al Gore, but finally decided against running because he did not want his four children or businesses to be subjected to all the public scrutiny that comes with a political campaign. But now his children are all grown up, his projects have been completed and Caruso has hired the advisors who helped Gavin Newsom become governor of California and Kamala Harris get elected to the Senate.

One of Caruso’s first promises has been a pledge to add 1,500 new officers to the police department (which currently has 9,500 officers), an idea that did not sit well with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has considerable support in this city of four million people.

He comes from a part of town where they don’t know about people who suffer
Ex-mayor of LA Antonio Villarraigosa

Caruso has also talked about creating 30,000 new beds to deal with the city’s homeless crisis, a problem that city officials have been struggling with for decades. There are over 41,000 people living on the streets, according to the latest available figures dating from 2020.

In order to avoid conflicts of interests, Caruso has promised that if he becomes mayor, he will put his company into a blind trust – where beneficiaries have no right to intervene in the handling of assets. The last businessman who ran the city was Richard Riordan, a Republican, who left office 21 years ago.

“No one believes that the same group of politicians who allowed our city to become this unsafe, corrupt and cruel can solve any of the problems we face,” he said a few weeks ago, before officially joining the race. He added that the city’s “unprecedented crisis” requires “strong leaders” with experience managing complex institutions – people such as himself. For two years he served as president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, a body made up of five civilians who act as a bridge between citizens and law enforcement. He also chairs the board of trustees of the University of Southern California (USC), a position he will quit when the campaign begins. His work helped turn both bodies around in a short space of time.

Harry Caruso, Rick’s father, was a self-made millionaire who started the car rental business Dollar Rent a Car, where the now-mayoral candidate got his first job. A lawyer by trade, Rick Caruso began investing in real estate following a simple strategy: buying relatively cheap land by earning the trust of communities that had rejected development projects. Once, in order to secure a permit, he promised residents he would build them an ice rink. Another time, he rented buses so an entire community could go to a garden center and pick out their favorite plants for the new development. These days, Caruso owns nine projects, including malls, luxury apartment towers and a hotel, the Rosewood Miramar, which a few years ago was being marketed as the most expensive on the entire coast of California.

A Los Angeles Times poll shows Caruso in third spot, tied with Kevin de León at 8%, although 40% of voters are still undecided. But his rivals have already gone on the attack. “He comes from a part of town where they don’t know about people who suffer. They don’t know about people who go hungry. They don’t have any idea about what it is to struggle,” said former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is campaigning for Karen Bass.

It is still unclear what progressive voters will think of a candidate who hobnobs with the elites and who owns a 65-meter yacht called Invictus. In any case, he would not be the first businessman who is elected to office: New York had Michael Bloomberg, and the United States had Donald Trump.

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