Buying a mayor
The ultimate test of big money in American politics
Conservative economists shrug their shoulders at the record accumulation of wealth at the very top of America. They claim it’s not a problem because wealth is not a zero-sum game: A huge amount at the top doesn’t necessarily reduce the wealth (or potential wealth) of anyone else.
They fail to see that wealth begets power. And power is a zero-sum game. Its possession by certain people means others don’t have it. Substantial power in the hands of a few people can dramatically reduce everyone else’s freedom, autonomy, and voice.
Consider the current race for mayor of Los Angeles.
Over the last few election cycles, a candidate for LA mayor has had to spend at least $2 million in order to have any chance of getting elected.
But since launching his bid in February, Rick Caruso has spent $62 million, and almost all of it has been his own money. Over the same period, his opponent, Karen Bass, has spent $2.2 million, from donations.
In other words, Caruso is outpacing Bass by about 20-to-1.
Caruso’s net worth is $5.3 billion. He has never held political office. He’s been a developer of several faux-town-square luxury shopping centers.
He is also a longtime Republican who has donated generously to the GOP, but switched his registration to independent in 2019, and this year registered as a Democrat — days before declaring his candidacy and just in time for the mayoral race.
Karen Bass spent years organizing in South Los Angeles after the 1992 riots. She was then elected to the California legislature where she rose to become Speaker, and then elected to Congress. Former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, she was on President Biden’s shortlist as a possible vice president.
So why is there even a contest here? An ultra-rich white developer of luxury malls who was a Republican until moments before the campaign is running against a woman of color who has spent her lifetime in progressive politics in one of the nation’s most progressive cities of color, achieving important victories for working people and the poor — all against the backdrop of ever more reactionary MAGA Republican Party.
Yet polls show the contest dramatically narrowing. Caruso is now trailing Bass by just 3 percentage points among registered voters -- 34 percent to 31 percent — well within the margin of error. That’s down from a 12-point gap in August.
The mainstream media says the contest is narrowing because of “voters’ worries about public safety and homelessness.” The story is by now a familiar rightwing trope —- even leftwing Los Angeles is moving right because crime and squalor. Just look at what happened to that liberal DA in progressive San Francisco!
Crime and homelessness are real problems, but Bass is focusing on them just as much as is Caruso. In her ads, Bass says repeatedly, “I’m running for mayor to meet today’s challenges: crime, homelessness, and the soaring cost of housing.”
Bass has put forward a plan to bring 15,000 people indoors to expand interim and permanent housing. Caruso promises tiny houses for 15,000 people and temporary “sleeping pods” for thousands more. Bass has a solid record on these issues. Caruso is a real estate developer who has never built a single unit of affordable housing.
The only rational way to explain the tightness of the race is Caruso’s money.
Apart from billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s three successful New York mayoral campaigns, Caruso’s spending is unrivaled in the annals of American local politics.
A first-time candidate with little name recognition, Caruso has blanketed Los Angeles’s airwaves with television, digital and radio ads -- portraying himself as a successful businessman who can clean up the city. In recent weeks he has begun to attack Bass relentlessly in television and radio ads.
He’s also spending heavily on door-to-door canvassing, especially in Latino and Asian-American neighborhoods whose voters were likely to have sat out the primary election and don’t typically cast general election ballots.
This is all about money, folks.
Caruso’s $62 million is multiples more than has ever been spent on a mayoral race in Los Angeles. Karen Bass’s $2.2 million is within the typical range, but obviously paltry by comparison.
Imagine if Caruso had sunk $62 million into affordable housing. Coincidentally, $62 million happens to be the goal of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles’s new Affordable Housing Initiative, to create homes for nearly 600 unhoused people.
Caruso’s humongous spending illustrates a broader challenge for progressives across the country. This year, dark-money super PACs funded by Republican billionaires and multi-millionaires (along with the occasional billionaire candidate) have spent record amounts to defeat progressive contenders inside the Democratic Party.
The current challenge to American democracy is not just Trump’s Big Lie. It’s also billionaire’s big money.
Campaign finance reform can occur even without a reversal of the Supreme Court’s shameful Citizens United decision, if we enact public matching funds for small donors — a reform that came close to being enacted in this Congress. (We also need full disclosure of all sources of campaign funds, another measure that came very close.)
We’ve been here before, people. When a billionaire developer with no public experience buys a major public office that affects the lives of millions, democracy is for sale.
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