Karen Bass, the Frontrunner for L.A. Mayor, Is Getting a Lot of Advice

As his term in office winds down, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has kept a low profile. But he spoke at a recent downtown luncheon and offered some advice to the next mayor — whether it’s Karen Bass or Rick Caruso.

“The top three issues for my successor — it’s housing, it’s housing and it’s housing,” Garcetti said. “There is no issue more important than housing.”

Bass is leading Caruso by a significant margin in the polls, and so she in particular has been getting a lot of advice lately. Among her most influential supporters is Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood mogul who has spent $1.85 million to boost her campaign — making him her largest single financier.

Katzenberg has taken a special interest in the city’s homelessness crisis, and made the rounds of local officials in 2021 as he sought to jump-start efforts to address it. In an interview, Bass said she did not know Katzenberg until the summer of 2021, when he urged her to run for mayor.

“I’ve been very excited and appreciative of his support, and moved by his stories around homelessness,” Bass said. “I got to know him a little over the summer last summer. He’s passionate… I believe he is perfectly genuine and has seen the pain on the streets.”

Because of rules governing independent expenditure committees, Bass and Katzenberg are not allowed to talk during the campaign. Asked if he would be an adviser if she is elected, Bass did not answer directly. “There are a number of brilliant minds in this city, and he is definitely one of them,” she said.

Katzenberg, the founder of Quibi and the former CEO of Dreamworks Animation, has been a major Democratic donor for three decades. Just this year, he has given $1 million to the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee, given to numerous other candidates and state parties across the country, and co-hosted a fundraiser with President Biden. But he has also taken a keen interest in races close to home — supporting Bass and also giving $500,000 to help defeat L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

Some in the Bass camp would like to see him give millions more to help her stay competitive with Caruso, who has spent $62 million of his own money on the race. Katzenberg has thus far demurred. But his committee — Communities United for Karen Bass — has funded TV ads that compare Caruso to Donald Trump and attack him for supporting anti-choice politicians. The most recent ad from the committee features former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks attacking Caruso’s record as a police commissioner. (Caruso, serving under Mayor James Hahn, voted to fire Parks in 2002.)

Katzenberg initially agreed to a sit-down interview for this story. But he did not commit to a date, and though he never outright declined, the interview did not happen. His spokesperson said he might consider speaking after the election.

According to two people who spoke to him last year, Katzenberg was focused on leveraging relationships with state and federal governments to help fund homeless programs. He was also supportive of enforcing the city’s anti-camping ordinance, which allows the council to remove homeless encampments near parks, schools and libraries. Bass and Caruso both support that ordinance as well, but Katzenberg’s support for it last year alarmed some advocates who see it as a punitive approach.

“He was willing to come out with us and listen and learn,” said Heidi Marston, the former executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “I was just disappointed that he landed where he did on the city ordinance side. It’s the political side of him coming out.”

Another person who met with Katzenberg said that he was interested in understanding why it was so hard for different layers of government to work together.

“He said he could call Gavin, he could call Biden, to get them to fund solutions,” said the person, who asked not to be identified in order to preserve influence. The person recalled Katzenberg saying something to the effect of “Homelessness is out of control.”

“It was clear he was appalled by the unhoused,” the person said. “He was engaged and it was personal to him because this is embarrassing to the city of L.A.”

Bass and Caruso have spent much of the campaign debating their differences on homelessness policy. Caruso has called for creating 30,000 shelter beds in his first year, while Bass has proposed housing 15,000 people in hotels, apartments, and permanent units.

Both have also called for increasing overall housing supply — though neither has given nearly as much emphasis to that issue.

Speaking at the L.A. Current Affairs Forum on Sept. 9, Garcetti noted that his administration had made progress toward increasing the amount of housing that can be built in the city. But he said that his successor will need to double that capacity in order to reach the city’s goal.

“We’re looking at 40 years of not building,” Garcetti said. “You have to increase it more than I did… We need 50,000 (units) a year for 10 years to hit our goal and to finally feel some relief in the housing market.”

Asked about that, Bass said that increasing the supply of housing is secondary to the need to address homelessness.

“I don’t know what he’s thinking. My thought is we have to address the people on the street. That’s number one,” Bass said. “Yes, we need to address housing. But we gotta get people off the streets. We have to prevent the thousands of people who are falling into homelessness over the next few years. Housing in general — of course it’s important, but four or five people didn’t wake up this morning.”

On her website, Bass says she will make it easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units on their property by streamlining permitting and promoting financing programs. But she did not support SB 9, the state law that is intended to encourage production of ADUs.

“I have some concerns about SB 9 absolutely,” Bass said. “The legislature might have to fix some of this. There’s not enough guardrails on SB 9. Who’s to say a speculator can’t come in and change an entire neighborhood?”

Bass’ website also says that she will make “targeted reforms” to zoning, “while ensuring that new construction is consistent with the neighborhood character of each individual community.”

In an interview with Variety in February, Caruso said he would like to make it easier to develop housing, saying that the city’s permitting process is a major obstacle that can lead to corruption.

“Los Angeles is just so over-regulated now,” he said. “It takes years to get a permit to build anything.”

But he did not support blanket upzoning, and said it was important to be “respectful of communities.”

During the Garcetti administration in 2016, voters passed Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion ballot measure that will fund up to 10,000 units of supportive housing over 10 years. Though construction has been slow, there has been more progress recently. At the luncheon, Garcetti noted that the funding will expire during the next mayor’s term — and so a new source of funding will be needed.

“If you don’t have the money, the forward progress we have will drop off and we will go backwards,” Garcetti said.

Caruso has blasted the implementation of Proposition HHH, saying that units are far too expensive. And he has ruled out seeking new taxes to pay for his own homeless plan.

Bass is not proposing a new tax, but she has not ruled it out.

“Voters need to see a tangible difference,” Bass said. “The most important thing I’m saying is I will not take out any tool from the toolbox.”

While their plans overlap in some respects, Caruso and Bass would bring vastly different styles to the job. Bass, a veteran legislator, has stressed the importance of building a political consensus to address homelessness. Caruso, a billionaire CEO, has vowed to concentrate power in his own office — taking it away from council members.

“Rick is the more qualified candidate for this job — it’s a big job, a hard job,” Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said in an interview. “He’s a candidate with a plan and a track record of having accomplished most of his plans. Karen — for all her strengths in a legislator — is not a manager. This is a job for a manager.”

The campaign has divided Hollywood power brokers. People like Katzenberg, Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, actor Rosario Dawson, and Bad Robot’s Katie McGrath are lining up behind Bass, while Sarandos, Gwyneth Paltrow, UTA’s Jay Sures and CAA’s Bryan Lourd — a friend of Caruso’s from their college days at USC — are supporting Caruso.

Caruso was a Republican for decades before becoming an independent about 10 years ago. He switched his registration to Democrat just before entering the race, but has appealed to more conservative voters with his emphasis on addressing crime.

Sarandos, a Democrat, also said he supported Caruso’s plans on that issue, which include hiring 1,500 more LAPD officers.

“I do believe Rick has a good handle on the needs to improve the police force,” Sarandos said. “I don’t think the answer is a more progressive agenda of lawlessness in the city… Prolonged periods of chaos and lawlessness will not be good for Democrats or Republicans.”

Matt Johnson, a veteran entertainment lawyer who served on the Los Angeles Police Commission under Garcetti, argued that Caruso’s plans on homelessness are “simply impossible to achieve.”

“And he knows that,” Johnson said. “I never appreciate that in politicians when they’re making promises they know they cannot keep.”

Johnson said that he and Katzenberg were among those who lobbied Bass to run.

“Jeffrey had personally taken on the challenge of making an impact on the homelessness issue,” Johnson said. “As he got more educated and deeper engaged in that process, he started looking at an election coming up. We started talking. There weren’t three people who we discussed who could be the next great mayor of Los Angeles. Very quickly it was, ‘We gotta convince Karen to run for mayor.’”

Johnson said the next mayor will have to work with the business community, the philanthropic community, and the county, state and federal governments to make a difference on homelessness.

“When I look at this problem, and the people the stakeholders you have to bring to the table, it’s clear to me that Karen is the only person who can bring disparate parties with disparate interests to the table,” he said.

Darry Sragow, a veteran political consultant, conducted focus groups last year in which he sought to understand voters’ attitudes about homelessness. In an interview, he said voters do not support criminalization of the homeless, but they do want to see them get the help they need to get off the streets.

Bass and Caruso have each, in their way, reflected back those views. But, Sragow said, voters may have little faith that either can actually do anything.

“They think it’s an intractable problem,” he said. “They hear, ‘I’m going to fix homelessness,’ whether it’s Bass or Caruso, and they go, ‘Yeah right.’”

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