Column: Bass or Caruso? Look back at recent L.A. mayors

Los Angeles, a sprawling creation of wonder and even greater challenges, is a month away from choosing its next leader, and voters have two vastly different candidates to choose from.

One is a woman, one is a man. One is black, one is white. One is a politician, the other a businessman.

US Rep. Karen Bass would be the city’s first woman mayor. Developer Rick Caruso would be the first billionaire mayor.

The winner will impact the lives of 4 million people, half a century after Tom Bradley took office in 1973. Bradley was followed by Richard Riordan, James Hahn, Antonio Villaraigosa and Eric Garcetti.

And next?

“LA is fortunate to have two great candidates running for mayor,” said Bob Stern, longtime local watchdog, but let it down with a caveat. Election night could be a highlight, Stern said, because “there’s a real question as to whether either can succeed.”

I know in my head he’s right because goatherds have easier jobs. The city’s overwhelming problems – homelessness, lack of affordable housing, crime, poverty – are not easy to solve, especially given that there is little consensus on the solutions.

But in my heart and gut, I want to believe that either Bass or Caruso will perform the miracle each of them promises and make Los Angeles a better place. The city is hungry, ready and overdue for a rebuild.

A few weeks ago, as I pondered the near future of local leadership, I began asking political observers about the recent past. What do we know about personalities and strategies that have worked – or not? And what might that tell us about what to expect from the next mayor?

Bradley, a police officer and city councilman before becoming the city’s first and only black mayor, won the respect of former Times columnist Bill Boyarsky for his outspoken and direct manner, which Boyarsky got a taste of after writing things that the mayor didn’t like it.

Tom Bradley was a police officer and city councilman before becoming the city's first and only black mayor.

Tom Bradley was a police officer and city councilman before becoming the city’s first and only black mayor.

(Bill Varie / Los Angeles Times)

“He would call me into his office and tell me. No whining to my boss,” Boyarsky said. “He became mayor of a town devastated by the Watts riots and helped bring peace. big screen man. He envisioned the transit system being built today. Good lesson for the new mayor. Spare me tiny technical innovations and committees.”

Riordan, like Caruso, was a wealthy businessman who believed his success could be duplicated at City Hall.

“He benefited from the aftermath of the 1991 riots,” and his campaign message — “tough enough to turn LA inside out” — resonated with voters, said Jaime Regalado, former director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State LA. But Riordan’s strong personality and disdain for other city leaders hasn’t always served him well, Regalado added.

Hahn, who followed Riordan, knew the tedious details of governance inside out, but struck me as more of an administrator than a leader. He didn’t like the limelight and I was never convinced he liked the job.

Then came Villaraigosa, a charismatic crook who made friends and foes alike and vowed to fix everything big and small (a style that guaranteed both success and failure). He joined me on Skid Row one night to say he was tackling this problem as well, and he even tried to take over the schools.

Current and outgoing Mayor Garcetti will leave with a mixed report; good at politics, not so good at execution or leadership, although he was a comfort when the pandemic was at its scariest. To his credit, he has delivered results (on transit, water conservation, and seismic safety) that most people either don’t remember or are always overshadowed by the rise in homelessness under his watch.

Mayor Richard Riordan at a press conference with former City Councilman Joel Wachs, left.

Mayor Richard Riordan at a press conference with former City Councilman Joel Wachs, left.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

So the final task (about 40,000 people living in tents and vehicles) will now be in the hands of Bass or Caruso.

She’s consistent, dedicated, affable, hardworking – you can imagine she has friends over to discuss the vagaries of government service realignment. And while Caruso has poured about $70 million into his own campaign without missing a penny, Bass told me she needs the job to pay her mortgage.

He’s from another era in sharp clothes and a bronze tan, and he moves like he’s after something he knows he’s going to get. But it’s not a grinding trust. There’s charm and cleverness, along with persuasion and a million-dollar smile. Make it a billion.

More than one observer told me the number one thing the next mayor needs to know is how to count to eight. Riordan wasn’t very good at that.

Ex-council member Ruth Galanter explained what that means as she recalled the first budget cycle when new Mayor Riordan expected to get his way with the 15-member council, unaware that he would not be presented with the required eight votes on a silver platter .

“Riordan is Mr. I’ll take care of it, I’m a businessman… and he basically didn’t know anything,” Galanter said. So you have to explain to the new mayor that “the council doesn’t work for you,” she said.

James Hahn, right, was mayor from 2001 to 2005.

James Hahn, right, was mayor from 2001 to 2005.

(Rick Meyer/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

I mentioned this to Caruso during the primary and asked if he thought team building could be difficult after making many references to City Hall as a corruption mill. He said he only speaks of cops who ended up in handcuffs and he’s not worried about finding allies.

Bass seems to me to be someone less likely to set the building on fire. She has positioned herself as a consensus builder with longstanding relationships at all levels of government.

“I think Bass spent her career figuring out how to get things done through government, and that hands-on experience is undervalued,” said Sarah Angel, a political adviser who takes her kids to school in Hollywood and walks past homeless camps. “But that’s exactly what makes the difference between the safe way to school for families and children and learning how to help people in crises.”

And yet, as Caruso argues, Bass and others in office had an opportunity to deliver and didn’t pull through. I’d like to add a point: consensus building is certainly important, but Caruso supporters I hear from are frustrated, impatient and uninterested in a mayor holding meetings. You want someone to act.

To be honest, I admire each of them – Bass and Caruso – for wanting an insanely difficult job. The council moves to the left of both, and there’s no telling what sort of relationship challenges they’ll have with the city’s new attorney and controller.

Labor will want what it wants, and so will developers, and many of the forces driving homelessness are beyond the reach of a mayor. Then there’s the meth epidemic and mental illness. And consensus-building is even more complicated in a city that Galanter describes as “ethnically, economically and ideologically diverse.”

Is LA governable at all?

“It is,” said policy adviser Dermot Givens, and there’s plenty of room for improvement. “It can be governed better with a new leadership that wants to get the job done and not continue with the status quo.”

That’s both Bass and Caruso, each with a much-needed love of the city.

Former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, right, with Karen Bass.

Former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, right, with Karen Bass.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

So did Villaraigosa, and when I asked what advice he would give the next mayor, he didn’t hesitate. Here is an excerpt of his thoughts:

“As mayor, you’re the most powerful guy in the city, but you’re also the guy with the most drive. guys you gotta work That’s a smuggler’s job.”

“You have to try things and do things that might fail.”

“You can’t dictate, but if you work together, if you organize, if you’re someone who knows how to work with others in the sandbox, you can be very successful.”

“You have to be connected to the community. … Especially the communities that have felt unrepresented in the past.”

A final thought from Villaraigosa:

“I knew Bradley and he loved his job and I guess some people don’t. They think it’s a stepping stone. I think this is a job for people who really feel like if you don’t do anything else if this is all you ever do gosh what a great opportunity.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-08/lopez-column-bass-caruso-recent-la-mayors Column: Bass or Caruso? Look back at recent L.A. mayors

Alley Einstein

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