The Los Angeles mayoral race will go to a runoff in November after both candidates, USC Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso and US Rep. Karen Bass, fell short of the decisive 50% vote mark that would have secured a victory in Tuesday’s primary election. With slightly more than 50% of the ballots counted, Caruso leads the race with 42.1% of the vote and Bass runs up with 37%, while LA City Councilman Kevin de León trails with 7.5% of the vote.
Although billionaire real estate developer Caruso joined the race late on Feb. 11 — compared to Bass, who announced her candidacy Sept. 27 — his platform developed a following with its tough approaches to crime and the homelessness crisis. Caruso spent approximately $41 million of his own money on advertising, a staple of his campaign.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees since 2018 and a board member since 2007, Caruso, a USC alum, announced in February that he would step down from chairmanship to run for mayor after a “transition process” was complete. A replacement to fill his position has yet to be announced and Caruso continues to serve as chairman.
Prior to the election, Bass led Caruso in the polls with the support of 38% of likely voters, while Caruso had 32%. Bass has maintained her involvement in LA throughout her political career in Washington DC She campaigned to bring more resources to LA, such as providing housing to 15,000 unhoused individuals during her first year in office and increasing the police department staff from 9,521 to 9,700.
Bass, a USC alumna, notably received a scholarship for her graduate studies at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, and completed her studies during her time in Congress with help of the scholarship. However, some campaign ads targeting Bass highlighted the connection between her and the University, suggesting the deal influenced Bass’ Congressional voting record.
A significant takeaway from Wednesday’s election was the low voter turnout seen at the polls. Only about 18% of the city’s eligible electorate cast ballots in the primary, early vote totals show. Mindy Romero, the director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy and a professor of public policy, said that the city always experienced low voter turnout when it came to mayoral elections.
“[The city of L.A.] just recently switched to align their city elections with statewide elections, but we still knew that overall turnout would be low, no matter what,” Mindy said. “At a state level, we are flirting with a record-low turnout period for a statewide primary. In LA city, we may see we may not break a record, but it’ll still be low.”
Mindy attributes the low turnout to the ways in which the candidates’ campaigns target specific audiences. Since campaign leaders are able to use information from prior turnouts, she said, they often target audiences who are already likely to come to the polls — “likely voters” — and focus the campaign’s attention on their needs.
“We have lots of research that shows that even registered voters, if they don’t get that likely voter model, they’re not going to get a lot of outreach and mail that the diehard voters get and so they’re not really encouraged to participate at the ballot,” Mindy said.
College students, traditionally aged 18 to 23, constitute a substantial portion of the youth vote. Student voter turnout has reached historic highs in recent elections — in the 2020 United States presidential election, when the national voting rate was approximately 67%, 66% of students nationwide came to the polls. While not all USC students live in LA permanently and vote in LA primaries, the University’s ties to the election and the top candidates elicited some student engagement with the mayoral race nonetheless.
Tylar Hedrick, a rising junior majoring in international relations and Spanish, was unable to vote in the election due to her Idaho identification. She spoke of the candidates’ lack of genuine outreach to the LA community and their superficial approaches to many issues, including homelessness.
“It’s kind of difficult to determine anything one way or the other because there’s a lot of idealists who see Rick Caruso’s goals like ‘end homelessness permanently,’ but that’s not really how that works,” Hedrick said. “Unless we address the systemic issues, which are resulting in homelessness, you can’t actually end it.”
Due to this disconnect, Hedrick suggests students and young voters volunteer within unhoused and otherwise marginalized communities to better understand the issues they face.
“Once you actually interact with those community members, you’ve learned that there’s a whole lot more depth to the story than the oversimplified narrative that is pushed upon them by popular culture and popular society,” Hedrick said.
Blanca Godoy, a rising sophomore majoring in political science, worked at a local poll station during Tuesday’s primary. She said young voters should exercise their right to democratic participation more, as they have choices that others do not.
“I think just having the right to vote is a privilege and the first step is to accept that you are in a privileged position, right,” Godoy said. “By looking at it through that way, I think I can motivate you to actually go and exercise your voice just because of the fact that other people don’t have it.”
Gabe Romero, a rising senior majoring in political science and environmental studies, voted for Karen Bass in this election as he believes her to be more progressive and more “to the left of the aisle” compared to Caruso.
“’I’m really passionate about the environment, so climate change and sustainability was a major issue for me in this campaign,” Gabe said. “Karen Bass is the only candidate with any plan regarding sustainability or climate change at all. So again, that makes me want to support Karen Bass over Rick Caruso given he has no plan about that.”
Caruso’s campaign website addresses three issues: “end street homelessness,” “public safety,” and “corruption & ethics.”
Gabe said he questions Caruso’s credibility due to the way he has handled the scandals that have come before the Board of Trustees, as well as his prior political affiliation as a Republican. The University administration has drawn criticism stemming from various scandals, including delaying the release of information about drugging and sexual assault cases at the Sigma Nu Fraternity house in September 2021. In a separate issue, US News & World Report recently addressed a letter to President Carol Folt and Caruso requiring letters of certification to be issued regarding its submissions for college rankings after misreports by the Rossier School of Education were discovered in an independent investigation.
“I don’t think he actually wants to serve the people. I don’t think he actually wants to serve Los Angeles in the best way. I think he wants to be mayor so that he can make decisions and help the wealthy and help himself,” Gabe said. “He has a terrible track record running the USC Board of Trustees. USC has had scandal after scandal after scandal for the past 10-plus years. That’s not great on your resume either.”