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Caruso narrows gap with Bass in LA mayoral race

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Los Angeles voters are electing a new mayor on Tuesday, and the race is tightening. Congresswoman Karen Bass is favored to win against billionaire businessman Rick Caruso. But a new poll from UC Berkeley and the LA Times shows Caruso is gaining ground. To bring us up to date on the race to lead the country's second-largest city, we're joined by Ben Oreskes. He's a reporter with the LA Times. Ben, welcome.

BEN ORESKES: Thanks for having me.

FLORIDO: Tell us a little bit about the two candidates to replace LA Mayor Eric Garcetti. Who are Karen Bass and Rick Caruso?

ORESKES: Sure. So Karen Bass, a daughter of South LA, longtime elected official in the state assembly and then in Congress, started a well-known nonprofit in South LA. She faces Rick Caruso, who, you know, is a developer here in Los Angeles, owns some of the most iconic shopping malls, hotels and is someone who has been around the city for a long time, is also the chair - or had been the chair of the board of trustees at the University of Southern California and the former chair of the Los Angeles Police Commission.

FLORIDO: And what are the issues taking center stage in this race?

ORESKES: Crime, public safety, homelessness. These two issues have dominated above all else. You know, Los Angeles has one of the largest homeless populations in the country, if not the largest. And I think it captures the public attention in a different way than a place like New York because there is so much unsheltered homelessness - tents on the street. And for - correctly or incorrectly, you know, these candidates both, in their own ways, have linked the issues. There have been relative spikes in certain types of crime. And so this has been a debate about those two issues. Obviously, there have been a lot of attack ads on other parts of their biographies. But people in this city are frustrated about the state of the streets. They feel not heard, and they are articulating that in their own ways with a vote for each of these candidates.

FLORIDO: I want to ask you a little bit about public safety. It's an issue at the front of a lot of campaigns across the country this year, and both candidates saying that they are best equipped to keep Angelinos safe. This is Rick Caruso talking about his time as president of the LA Police Commission, the civilian oversight board for the police here in LA in the early 2000s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK CARUSO: We put in new leadership. We instituted community policing. We hired 800 officers. We dropped the crime in the city. We made every corner of this city safer.

FLORIDO: And this is Karen Bass, who, on the other hand, was a longtime community organizer in South LA, as you said, starting in 1990, when gang crime was spiking. Here's Bass.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAREN BASS: Let me just say, there's only one candidate here who, in 1990, went to the heart of the problem. In - 85th and Broadway, Crips and Bloods, 1,000 homicides that year. I quit my job teaching and went to the heart of the problem to bring communities together to solve crime. And we were able to reduce crime in the neighborhoods.

FLORIDO: Two very different visions, Ben, of how you create safety - one candidate talking about hiring police, the other talking about community organizing. What do these differences say about how different these candidates are overall?

ORESKES: It's interesting. It's a tone thing as much as anything else. I think the key difference, obviously, with both of them is where they want to see the size of the Los Angeles Police Department be. We are budgeted for 9,700 cops. Rick Caruso wants us to be at 11,000. We are right now below that 9,700 number. Karen Bass would like to see us be at that. So you have no candidates in this race who are calling for defunding of the police. But again, when you hear Karen Bass talk about public safety in LA, you hear a woman who used to work as a physician's assistant, who looked at what liquor stores - how they had impacted her community. And she starts from there.

With Rick Caruso, you certainly hear someone who was instrumental in the hiring of Bill Bratton as the police chief in LA, who instituted a theory of broken-windows policing. But then at the same time, you hear both of them talk about community policing and the importance of cops walking the beats. So in their own ways, they come at this from a very different place, but they also sort of arrive at the same conclusions.

FLORIDO: Well, for most of the race, Karen Bass has been leading in the polls by a lot - not a surprise, maybe given her high profile - her background as an organizer in diverse and liberal Los Angeles. But a new poll by UC Berkeley and the LA Times finds that Rick Caruso has been gaining some serious ground. How close has it gotten?

ORESKES: We are in the margin of error, Adrian. It's 45-41. I think we look at trajectory. Rick has been gaining on Karen for months now. When we did this poll last month at the end of September, early October, she was winning by 15 points. Now she's winning by four. This is kind of remarkable. It speaks to the incredible Bloomberg-esque investment that Rick Caruso has made in his candidacy. He will probably have spent over a hundred million dollars by the time this race is over, much of that on television advertisements. And we are seeing that effort pay off, and we are seeing someone who is blanketing the airwaves in Los Angeles. You basically cannot watch TV or cannot watch a YouTube page right now without seeing Rick Caruso or seeing an attack ad of Karen Bass.

FLORIDO: Is there a sense that Rick Caruso could actually win this election?

ORESKES: I am not in the predictions game. I stay away from them. For Rick, it's about changing who votes in Los Angeles. For Karen, it's about keeping the same kind of electorate, which is very white, very liberal, lots of women voting. For Rick, he wants to transform that. He's knocking on the doors of many people who don't normally vote. They're mostly Latino, and they live in parts of the city that have often very low turnout. If that operation, which is costing him, like, $15 million, is successful, there's certainly a chance that he could win. I think the key thing is that it's close enough where that matters.

FLORIDO: A lot of the political oxygen here in LA has been taken up recently by the scandal over a racist conversation by members of the city council that was secretly recorded. The council president had to resign, and it brought a lot of attention to the issue of racial divisions within Los Angeles. And I'm wondering if that scandal has impacted the mayor's race at all.

ORESKES: It's hard to know exactly. We did ask on this poll about sort of what people thought of race relations in the city, and 69% of people said they thought they were fair or poor - the state of them, that is. Twenty-three percent said excellent or good. But in the poll, we also did ask who they thought would be better at kind of bridging the divide between races and different coalitions. People did say Bass, but they rated that something that's far less important for the mayor to do than, say, addressing homelessness or addressing crime.

So it's a bit of a mixed bag. But I think at the end of the day, for Caruso, his message has been so much about corruption in city hall, citing the several members of the city council who have been indicted in recent years. And for him, this tape and what was said on it - the coarse and racist language that was used to talk about colleagues - was a sort of logical extension of that same rot or corruption that he had been talking about. At the same time, Bass looks at that tape and says, I am the person who is coming home, is going to do what I did after the civil unrest in '92, which is to bridge those divides and bring people together. So for each of them, there is something in there that they've tried to capitalize on. For members - for residents in Los Angeles, they just might be tired and tuning it all out. Who knows?

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with LA Times reporter Ben Oreskes. He's covering the Los Angeles mayor's race. Ben, thanks for speaking with me.

ORESKES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.