Billionaire Caruso unleashes millions as he seeks upset over Bass in LA

LOS ANGELES — An unexpectedly tight mayor’s race in America’s second-largest city may come down to people like Lorena Plaschinski, an immigrant from Mexico going door-to-door in a majority Latino neighborhood that might otherwise get overlooked in an election.

Plaschinski, hired by the campaign of billionaire developer Rick Caruso to counter a similar effort by Rep. Karen Bass, is thrilled to find anyone who will even answer the door — let alone listen to a political pitch from one of the many paid and volunteer canvassers working the streets of the suburban San Fernando Valley.

“I’m happy,” she said as she walked through the Pacoima area at sunset. “I thought nobody was going to open.”

The handful of voters she encounters, and manages to persuade to actually cast a ballot, matter more than anyone anticipated weeks ago. A poll released Friday shows Bass with a slight lead but within the margin of error — as the developer unleashes a wave of spending in a scramble for what would be a huge upset in Los Angeles politics.

A victory in this deeply blue city by Caruso, a former Republican and political novice who has spent about $100 million of his own fortune on the race, would amount to a repudiation of the Democratic establishment, which has come out in force for the congresswoman and Former Speaker of the State Assembly.

Caruso’s money has allowed him to dominate ad spending and compete in the ground game, including a recent outlay of $13 million for canvassers like Plaschinski. His team hopes they can overcome, or at least neutralize, the union-backed Bass allies fanning out to get voters — and political veterans worry that could be a winning formula.

“Don’t sleep on a guy who’s going to spend over $100 million in a race,” said Bill Burton, a Democratic consultant who advised Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and is supporting Bass.

The Caruso camp is making a major play for voters, particularly Latinos, in the San Fernando Valley. The UC Berkeley poll showed the developer, who changed his registration from independent to Democrat in January, up by 9 points in the area, while Bass leads everywhere else in the expansive city.

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Caruso’s route to a win travels through neighborhoods like Pacoima, Panorama City and Sylmar, which helped buoy his 7-point advantage in the Valley during the June primary. That’s where someone like Plaschinski, who is from Guadalajara and came to the US in 2005, can be helpful — making connections in the many Spanish-speaking households in the region.

At one home, she chats with a man and his daughter from the Mexican state of Michoacán who say they have heard of Caruso and are thinking about voting for him. Plaschinski encourages them to turn in their ballot. “Many Latinos,” she begins before the woman cuts her off and finishes the sentence “don’t vote.” She’s soon on her way to another house.

Turning out such voters is key for Caruso. Bass is still the favorite despite the developer’s unprecedented level of spending — $92 million according to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission — that has allowed him to dominate the media landscape. Turning out such voters is key for Caruso, even in a state where every registered voter now gets a ballot mailed to their home.

Caruso’s prolific spending has pushed supporters of Bass to funnel unusually high sums to her election bid. The congresswoman, who would become the first Black woman to lead the city, has raised $8 million on top of $5 million spent on her behalf from independent expenditure committees.

Many groups campaigning intensively for the congresswoman are driven partly by deep skepticism that Caruso is truly a Democrat, said Mark Gonzalez, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.

A developer who is most known for building luxury malls around Southern California, Caruso spent most of his adult life as a Republican.

While Caruso and Bass share campaign platforms that largely focus on homelessness and public safety, Caruso has painted himself as a political outsider who will rein in an ineffective and corrupt democratic establishment. He also has a history of financially supporting Republican politicians who have backed anti-abortion policies — like Sen. Mitch McConnell and former President George W. Bush — though he maintains that he has always supported abortion rights.

The Democratic Party has gone to great lengths to return Bass, helping her compile a list of endorsements unheard of in a local election. That includes nearly every major Democratic official at the city and state levels — though Gov. Gavin Newsom is conspicuously missing — and national figures like President Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Caruso lost the June primary by 7 points and was trailing by double digits over the summer. A poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Government Studies and the Los Angeles Times released Friday showed Bass up by 4 points, within the margin of error.

The developer has a team of 300 to 400 paid door knockers who work six days a week trying to persuade people who often don’t vote to turn out for Caruso. Recent filings show the campaign has shelled out $13 million on canvassing operation, more than any candidate has spent on an entire mayoral bid. That general election outreach push started ramping up in August, according to Dveen Babaian, who is coordinating the paid field outreach program.

Bass has countered with her own team of 75 paid field staffers who canvasses and make phone calls. She also has the backing of a large team of volunteers organized by labor and the state and local Democratic parties door-knocking for her and other candidates they have endorsed. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor said the organization has organized roughly 400 canvassing volunteers.

The Bass campaign is banking on the enthusiasm of volunteers to win over Angelenos who answer the door. Canvassing efforts that largely rely on unpaid workers have historically been more successful than those backed by paid staffers, said John Shallman, a political consultant who ran City Attorney Mike Feuer’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor.

“You have to imagine at the door, that someone who just doesn’t necessarily, intrinsically believe what they’re saying, is going to be a less forceful or persuasive communicator,” he said.

The Caruso campaign in a statement said its field team is “passionate and energized” about its role engaging marginalized communities that, they hope, will help elect him.”

One of those staffers is Plaschinski, who started working in campaigns a decade ago to increase Latino voter turnout. She’s part of a canvassing team that has specifically targeted majority Latino communities in places like Boyle Heights and the San Fernando Valley.

Outreach efforts in the Valley for both campaigns have focused on the region’s large Latino population, which had a turnout rate of about 20 percent during the primary, 10 points lower than citywide totals. Caruso has also blanketed Spanish-language media with ads, helping him earn a recent boost in support among Latinos, according to the UC Berkeley poll.

While Bass has grabbed endorsements from most of California’s top Latino elected officials, Caruso’s voter turnout efforts have won him the support of the Avance Democratic Club, which endorsed the developer.

“If nothing else, Rick Caruso has changed the narrative to include Latinos in future campaigns,” said Nilza Serrano, the club’s president. “And for that I will forever be grateful because our community will be better for it.”

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