After an unusually competitive race in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, Rep. Karen Bass on Wednesday became the first woman to be declared the mayor of Los Angeles. In doing so, she managed to thread the needle between calls for defunding the police and a rising tide of anxiety about violent crime.
Bass, a six-term member of Congress, was named the victor over the billionaire developer and Republican-turned-Democrat Rick Caruso after a race that only seemed to tighten in the last few weeks. And while Bass’ victory should not come as a surprise—given Los Angeles’ deep-blue politics and her profile as a progressive—her win comes after a scandal in City Hall that ousted top Democratic leadership.
A former Republican who spent about $100 million of his own money to fund his campaign, Caruso did not seriously threaten Bass until last month, when polls indicated he was inching closer to the former speaker of the state assembly. Caruso also attracted endorsements from several celebrities—including Chris Pratt, Katy Perry, and Kim Kardashian—as he beat the drum about out-of-control violence.
Throughout his campaign, Caruso painted himself as a political outsider who would fix the Democratic establishment and bring crime under control. But even as he attempted to claim the progressive mantle, he was dogged by his past, including his having given money to national Republican stalwarts like Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Caruso’s defeat suggests that, after years of protests over police violence and brutality, fears about resurgent crime can only go so far in wreaking political havoc in Democratic cities.
Bass won despite not always drawing clean contrasts with Caruso. Like him, she called for more cops, alienating some Black Lives Matter supporters. And like him, she argued for additional resources outside of beat cops to help people in trouble.
But she also benefited from her stature in the party that dominates local politics. She snagged her own share of A-list endorsements, from Vice President Kamala Harris to former President Barack Obama. Harris stumped for her the day before the election, and President Biden gave her his blessing, as well.
Bass also managed to weather a storm in her own party in recent weeks.
Last month, after a recording of a city council member using racist language was made public, both Bass and Caruso called for everyone involved in the conversation to resign. Bass—relatively far-removed from the furor as a member of Congress—made the case in a debate that she was not such an insider as to be unaware of the need for change.
“We need a new direction in L.A., and new leadership that will make sure we reject the politics of divide and conquer,” she said.