Former California Assembly Speaker and current U.S. Rep. Karen Bass wasn’t the first person to get into the L.A. mayoral race, nor the last. But with approximately seven months still to go before the June 7 primary, her candidacy has put a charge into the crowded competition to lead the nation’s second largest city.
“I think we’re all anxious for any mayor who can make a difference from what we have right now because the city of Los Angeles needs all the help it can get,” says one prominent L.A. campaign consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity due to having close ties to several of the candidates currently in the race. “Karen Bass is a great addition of fresh blood.”
Whoever wins will inherit a city many observers say is in turmoil, racked by corruption at City Hall, economic stratification and growing calls for police reform
Bass, whose congressional district encompasses much of west L.A., announced her candidacy in September, joining a field that includes two more former California legislators: current Council member Kevin de León, a former California Senate pro Tem; and L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, who represented the 42nd Assembly District from 2006 to 2012.
They are joined by another current City Council member, Joe Buscaino, business leader Jessica Lall, real estate agent Mel Wilson and entrepreneur Ramit Varma. Billionaire developer Rick Caruso and former Los Angeles Unified Schools Superintendent Austin Beutner are also weighing a run at the job.
Whoever wins will inherit a city many observers say is in turmoil, racked by corruption at City Hall, economic stratification and growing calls for police reform. But the inescapable top issue for every candidate is how to deal with a homelessness problem that gets worse by day even as the city throws hundreds of millions of dollars at it.
“Homelessness is going to be issue number one, two and three [in the mayoral race]. Some of the candidates are going to try to force the discussion onto to other issues, but homelessness is the issue right now…you talk to just about any Angelino and they bring up homelessness,” Loyola Marymount political science professor Fernando Guerra recently told the Capitol Weekly podcast.
Bass said as much during a recent appearance at USC, saying tackling homelessness was the primary reason for her willingness to leave Congress and “come home.”
It’s not like city leaders or voters have ignored the homeless. Voters in 2016 approved a $1.2 billion bond measure to provide up to 10,000 units of housing for the chronically homeless.
It might well be like trying to bring down Marcus Allen or Eric Dickerson in their prime.
Based on data collected in 2020 (the 2021 count was cancelled due to COVID), the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) says there are approximately 66,000 homeless people in L.A. County, just over 41,000 of which are within the city boundaries. That marks a 13 percent increase in the county and 14 percent in the city from 2019. Approximately seven in 10 of L.A.’s homeless population are unhoused and unsheltered, leaving them to the streets. A disproportionate number are Black and Latino.
The reasons behind the surge are many: the ever-rising cost of housing, a distinct lack of subsidized housing units, stagnant wages, the economic fallout from the pandemic, rampant drug and mental health issues, lack of eviction protection for renters…the list goes on.
But it is not like city leaders or voters have ignored the problems.
Voters in 2016 approved a $1.2 billion bond measure to provide up to 10,000 units of housing for the chronically homeless. The very next year, county voters endorsed Proposition H, which imposed a quarter cent sales tax hike over the next decade to fund services, rental subsidies and housing for homeless residents. The $11.2 billion budget Mayor Eric Garcetti signed in April this year allocated nearly $1 billion to combat homelessness.
A myriad or other state and federal programs have also allowed the city to rent thousands of hotel rooms for the homeless. And even after the City Council in July approved a measure that outlaws camping on the streets around libraries, parks and other public facilities, the Council allocated $2 million to fund street engagement teams to help connect homeless residents in those areas to alternate shelters.
“The homeless are very visible, so even though the relative number of homeless is small, it is a very present issue for most voters.” — Fernando Guerra
These efforts are showing at least some success.
According to the LAHSA, the city is placing hundreds of homeless people into housing every day. But for every success, there has been failure. The 2016 bond money that was supposed to build 10,000 housing units has been mired in a bureaucratic quagmire, producing less than 400. Citing high building costs and drawn out timelines, a report issued by L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin suggested the city’s “need to pivot to a different direction continues to grow.”
Even so, some think the problem is more one of perception than reality. While 66,000 is hardly an inconsequential number, it adds up to less than about .0165 percent of the city’s 4 million residents. But try telling that to everyday Angelinos, for whom a trip to the park or the beach with their kids often means maneuvering numerous homeless camps – and the ensuing detritus they produce – on the way.
“The homeless are very visible, so even though the relative number of homeless is small, it is a very present issue for most voters,” Guerra told Capitol Weekly.
Which, as outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti would likely tell you, makes it a very treacherous issue for all the folks looking to claim his job.
It is a question every mayoral candidate will have to answer to get elected.
“Voters see Garcetti, who was perceived as a strong mayor, being defeated by the issue,” says political consultant Luis Alvarado, who has worked primarily with Republican candidates. “How can anyone else rise to the position and do anything different than the guy who everybody thought could do it? The guy who asked for a billion dollars, got it and then not only failed but failed miserably?”
It is a question every mayoral candidate will have to answer to get elected. And as a former Assembly Speaker with a reputation as a skilled coalition builder, it is one that might give Bass an edge over the competition.
“Karen Bass is someone with a proven track record at bringing together diverse coalitions,” says Bass consultant Parke Skelton. “There are people running, like Buscaino, who believe there are simplistic answers. ‘You don’t like encampments in the city? You just outlaw them.’ That’s the approach that has failed and made the problem worse. The city has just moved the problem from one neighborhood to another.”
In that regard, Bass can point directly to her role in helping to maneuver California through one of its most historic challenges.
Bass became Assembly Speaker in 2008, the height of the Great Recession. By 2009 the state was facing a $42 billion budget shortfall, a hole that ultimately required a messy brew of tax hikes and severe spending cuts to close. The deal was the classic “nobody’s happy” solution, with Republicans outraged at the tax hikes and Dems aghast at the massive cuts to social spending.
Bass has been reticent with the press, but in a recent social media post, she laid claim to being the only one capable of bringing everyone together.
But the deal earned Bass, Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Republican Assembly Leader Mike Villines and Republican Senate Leader Dave Cogdill the 2010 Profile in Courage Award for, in the words of Caroline Kennedy, having “the courage to negotiate with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and with each other on a compromise they believed was in the best interest of the citizens of California. Each made sacrifices, and each knew their agreement would have painful and far-reaching consequences for their constituents and for their own careers.”
Bass has been reticent with the press, but in a recent social media post, she laid claim to being the only one capable of bringing all the stakeholders together to formulate a solution, saying “We need to approach our response to the homelessness crisis as an emergency. This city needs someone who can bring together federal, state, and local leaders to address this head on with urgency. I am uniquely qualified to do that.”
She has some notable success in Congress. Shepherding the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act through the U.S. House of Representatives, comes to mind, though the bill died in the Senate. But how much any of her legislative or Congressional victories will serve her as mayor remains to be seen.
“The skill set you acquire as a leader of a legislative body helps a lot in terms of running a big city, but the jobs are very different,” says Steinberg, now mayor of Sacramento.
He notes that in legislative bodies, success is often measured in incremental steps, bills by bill. And while leaders may take their share of credit, the responsibility for failure is often shared with others. Mayors, he notes, don’t have that luxury.
“The Speaker of the Assembly is crazy powerful, no question about it, but there’s a lot more people in the general public that see their mayor as a much more significant voice.” — Curt Pringle
“It’s more of a daily grind to push progress on the issues you run on and which are important to your city,” he says. “When you’re the mayor, no matter what tools you have or don’t have, you are responsible.”
Former Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, who later served as mayor of Anaheim from late 2002 to 2010, recalls how another former Assembly Speaker turned L.A. mayor – Antonio Villaraigosa – pledged to plant a million trees around the city, then got beat up for only planting around half that.
That, he says, highlights how much more attention is paid to a mayor by voters than even a legislative or Congressional leader.
“The Speaker of the Assembly is crazy powerful, no question about it, but there’s a lot more people in the general public that see their mayor as a much more significant voice in terms of public policy,” he says.
Even so, the size and scope of the problems facing L.A. practically demand someone with extensive leadership history if there is any chance at making headway in solving them.
“The homelessness issue in Los Angeles can’t be solved with small little bites. You’re going to need really bold big ideas that will make L.A. the example of large scale solutions,” Pringle says. “Who is willing to make those risky calls for the big solution? That lends itself to people who come from leadership in a state government position.”
It’s a long way off from the June primary, but one early poll suggests Bass is the frontrunner for now.
But bold ideas can bring their own share of trouble. Alvarado says a new state law that eliminates single-family zoning statewide by allowing up to four units on all single-family parcels (SB 9), could be the wild card that plays a big role in how all of the mayor candidates deal with housing issues.
“I think everybody is going to try and play strongman with the homeless issue, but SB 9 is a whole different ballgame,” he says, noting the law takes away the power of local municipalities to decide for themselves where multi-unit housing can be built.
“If you have single homes in the Valley, for example, and all of a sudden developers are building a 10-unit project in a place that has only had single family homes, those people are going to start seeing their property values go down, and they’re going to be angry,” he says.
Case in point, Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand is leading an effort to get a measure on the ballot to overturn the law. They need to collect about 1.5 million signatures by next April to get the proposal on the November 2022 ballot.
It’s a long way off from the June primary, but one early poll suggests Bass is the frontrunner for now. She has also racked up a fair number of key endorsements, including from Villaraigosa, former Sen. Barbra Boxer, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and L.A. County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Holly Mitchell.
Even so, in sports parlance it’s fair to expect the rest of the field to show up as well.
“Karen Bass has a great profile. She’s proven to be a candidate who can cross over politically into many different communities,” says former California Assemblymember Dario Frommer, now a partner with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Los Angeles.
“But I’m not sure anyone is really a frontrunner at this point. I think this whole thing is wide open right now.”