Karen Bass makes history despite being outspent by billionaire Caruso 11 to 1
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., acknowledges her supporters after speaking at an election night party in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. | Jae C. Hong / AP

LOS ANGELES—Congresswoman Karen Bass has made history by becoming the first woman ever to be elected mayor of Los Angeles. Bass beat out billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who spent over $104 million of his own money to compete in the race. It was a decisive victory as Los Angeles residents picked progressive politics over heavy-handed advertising. She is also only the second Black person to serve in the city’s to job, following Tom Bradley’s 1973 to 1993 mayoralty (the longest anyone has served as L.A. mayor).

When the electoral race began, Caruso attempted to paint himself as a political outsider who was going to use his business know-how to fix the “establishment.” He focused heavily on the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles and talked about fighting crime. Caruso’s campaign website highlighted his Italian immigrant grandparents, philanthropy, and past role as president of the city’s Police Commission. Yet it was clearly an issue for voters to separate his narrative of being a down-to-earth community supporter with his estimated $4.3 billion net worth and nine-bedroom mega yacht.

Once deemed by Forbes Magazine as the “Walt Disney of Real Estate,” Caruso spent $104,848,887.43 on the mayor’s race through November 2, while in comparison Bass spent $9,060,958.59, according to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. Caruso outspent Bass’s campaign by nearly 11 to 1.

While Bass was often seen as the front-runner given her years of political experience and Democratic Party history—including statewide renown as Speaker of the Assembly during the difficult Gov. Schwarzenegger years—polls closer to the election showed her and Caruso tighter in the race than previously expected. Still, in the end, the congresswoman defeated the mall developer 54% to 45%.

The two candidates represented what was truly on the ballot in Los Angeles: A progressive multiracial pro-labor, pro-people’s movement versus conservative, right-leaning, wealthy interests. Voters were regularly reminded that Caruso had been a registered Republican until 2019 and had only enlisted as a Democrat in early 2022 so as to make this run for mayor in a bright blue city.

Months ago, during the primaries, Bass spokeswoman Anna Bahr perhaps described it best when she told Axios, “Voters have a choice in this race between a billionaire real estate developer who has never built a single unit of affordable housing despite 50,000 people living on our streets, and a Black community organizer who has spent her life running toward this city’s crises and solving them.”

As Mayor-elect Bass takes office, there is plenty of work to be done in the city, and many outstanding issues to be reckoned with. Yet her victory should be seen as a testament both to the continued rise of Black women’s leadership and the power of the people’s vote coming through. As she takes the reins of leadership in the second-largest city in the United States, there is no doubt many eyes will be on Bass from the right and left of the political aisle.

During the leadup to the 2020 presidential elections, Bass was on the shortlist of Vice President hopefuls to run alongside Joe Biden. Right-wing media, such as Breitbart and the New York Post, responded to this with a red-baiting campaign bringing up the congresswoman’s affiliation with Communist leader and activist Oneil Cannon and her work with the Venceremos Brigade. Some on the left heaved a sigh of relief when Biden did not choose Bass, knowing that the red-baiting would pull down the entire ticket and Trump would win.

Of course, the attempt to vilify Bass with their McCarthyite tactics only further highlights just how out of touch Republicans are with working people, as recent surveys have shown that positive sentiments regarding socialism continue to grow among people in the U.S., particularly among Black people and young adults.

While the right attempted to paint Bass as too radical, there were others on the left who voiced concerns that she would hold up the establishment status quo with moderate stances, instead of making real change. This came into question regarding a number of topics leading up to the mayoral election.

Bass has gone on record saying that she does not support the slogan “defund the police,” and has talked of a plan to move over 200 police officers from desk jobs onto patrol, while also hiring more detectives and investigators. Melina Abdullah and Patrisse Cullors of the Black Lives Matter movement wrote an essay comparing Bass’s public safety plan to a “1994-crime-bill-style pro-police system that puts targets on the backs of Black people.”

While these concerns carry some substance, Bass’s history and political philosophy point to another way: that of bringing people together into productive dialogue that will produce results, rather than grandstanding with a far-left position that is too vanguardist to win election. Her win is one that should be celebrated. Of all the potential candidates who came forward in this contest, she is in the best position to lead.

Bass, a L.A. native, has a long history in the political arena. Before holding any political office, she worked as a nurse, physician assistant, and clinical instructor at USC. In the early 1990s, she convened a small group of community organizers, both Black and Latino, and founded the Community Coalition, known locally as CoCo. It was a group formed to address substance abuse, poverty, and crime.

After her career in the California Assembly, Bass was elected to Congress in 2010 from a diverse multiracial district in West Los Angeles, chaired the House Committee on Africa, and headed the Congressional Black Caucus. She has served over a decade in the House of Representatives, and in that time has championed a number of progressive initiatives. These include support for universal healthcare, defense of affirmative action, and immigration reform, aside from one of her signature issues, foster care, on which she was able to amass considerable bipartisan support.

She appears to be following through on that legacy of action. “We’re going to solve homelessness,” Bass noted in her victory statement. “We’re going to prevent and respond urgently to crime. And Los Angeles will no longer be unaffordable for working families.”

The mayor-elect has stated that she plans on declaring a state of emergency on her first day as mayor in December. She explained that “this would essentially allow all of the departments to come together so that we can expedite things. We need to fast-track things. We need to move past the bureaucracy—bureaucracy stands in the way. It takes so long to do anything here when it comes to development. Any developer would tell you that, whether it’s a nonprofit or for-profit developer.”

And in other races…

As Bass hits the ground running, she is part of a political shift that has taken place in California and beyond—one being led by women.

For the first time in its 150-year history, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors will consist of all women. Sen. Holly Mitchell won reelection to the board’s 2nd District seat against L.A. City Councilman Herb Wesson. Considered some of the most powerful local government officials in the country, the five board members oversee a county of nearly 10 million residents, can pass local laws with a three-fifths vote, and manages the county’s $35 million budget.

The more interesting race, though, was that to replace retiring Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. Longtime politician Robert Hertzberg, termed out of the state Senate, sought to further his career by taking the Supervisor seat, but he carried a lot of baggage as an inveterate “hugger,” which women he met and worked with resented, and as a candidate with dedicated “first responder” support.

Former mayor of West Hollywood Lindsey Horvath, with her Planned Parenthood and other prominent endorsements, was able to persuade voters that she was the more progressive candidate, and she won. The board will now continue as all-female, four Democrats and one moderate Republican.

Hydee Feldstein Soto has become L.A.’s first female city attorney, and three new female City Council members (Eunisses Hernandez, Katy Young Yaroslavsky and Traci Park) will be taking office, doubling female representation on the council.

Across the country, even as the rights of women continue to be attacked by the conservative agenda, female leadership is rising up. In particular we have seen that when Black women are empowered, progress and change happen. This is not only beneficial for Black women—who are often among the most vulnerable groups under this exploitative system—but for working people as a whole.

Bass’s victory goes beyond symbolism and speaks to the tsunami of voters attempting to change the status quo. There’s much to be done, but in a time of continued civil unrest and emboldened far-right extremism, Bass’s campaign prevailing over billionaire spending can be seen as a tremendous, impressive win in the continued fight for democracy.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.