As Los Angeles voters head to the polls Tuesday, the mayoral primary election between Democratic front-runners U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso has deeply divided Hollywood, setting entertainment industry mogul against mogul over which candidate can best tackle issues like crime and homelessness.
The face-off may be surprising. On the one hand, some diehard liberals like Gwyneth Paltrow, UTA partner Jay Sures and Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos and his producer wife, Nicole Avant, are backing Caruso, a former Republican with deep Catholic beliefs who has switched parties to make his mayoral play.
Meanwhile, Bass — a former social worker who served as speaker of the California Assembly before winning election to Congress in 2010 — has drawn high-wattage Hollywood supporters include Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, Jeffrey Katzenberg, writer-director JJ Abrams and his wife producer Katie McGrath, show runner Shonda Rhimes and Norman Lear.
The race is almost certainly headed for a runoff in the Nov. 8 general election unless one candidate can garner more than 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday.
According to a poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times, Bass has a slight edge in the crowded field with support of 38 percent of likely voters, while Caruso has 32 percent. Trailing both Caruso and Bass in the race is L.A. City Councilman Kevin de Leon, with 6 percent of the vote. (Another 15 percent are still undecided.)
De Leon was banking on strong support among Latino voters. However, the Berkeley poll showed him supported by just one in five likely Latino voters. He did receive one donation from a Hollywood mogul – Haim Saban, who donated $1,500 to De Leon’s campaign last October.
And then there are those, like former Disney CEO Bob Iger, who have opted out of the race entirely, donating to none of the main candidates despite a long record of supporting Democratic politicians.
Big money has played a role in the race already, with Caruso spending more than $40 million of his estimated $4.3 billion fortune on his campaign — dwarfing the $10.2 million that L.A.’s current mayor, Eric Garcetti, spent on his 2013 campaign. Caruso’s expenditure includes a $37.5 million loan Caruso made to himself. (Bass, meanwhile, has spent roughly $3.2 million.)
One of the big surprises in the races has been Caruso’s success in luring the support of so many prominent L.A. Democrats despite changing his party affiliation only this past January. Sures, co-president of United Talent Agency, has been a steadfast Democrat over the years, but he told TheWrap he is supporting Caruso (and raising funds for the billionaire’s campaign) because he believes Caruso will make Los Angeles safer for those who live and work in the city.
“Los Angeles is a dangerous place to live right now,” said Sures, a reliable fundraiser for the Democratic Party in the past swayed by Caruso’s two decades of service on the LAPD’s police commission and role in hiring former police chief Bill Bratton (2002-09). “A colleague of mine was held up at gunpoint right next to Universal Studios two weeks ago. It’s just one person after another becoming a victim of crime. It’s just out of control. What I like about Rick is he has a clear plan about how he’s going to fix it. It’s about hiring officers and getting them trained and getting them on the street.”
Caruso has won the backing of music executive Clarence Avant, whose wife, Jacqueline, was brutally slain in her Beverly Hills home last December by an ex-convict. Avant’s daughter Nicole, who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to the Bahamas, and son-in-law, Netflix chief Ted Sarandos, are also supporting Caruso.
Other industry Democrats supporting Caruso include music mogul Scooter Braun and producer Mike Medavoy and his wife, Irina.
Like many prominent Democrats supporting Caruso, Sures dismissed concerns about the billionaire’s long ties to the Republican Party. “Who cares?” He scoffed. “Number one: It’s complete nonsense to suggest that partisanship or past partisanship is reflective on the job that someone could do going forward. Number two, the fact that that’s all they have against them makes me realize they really have nothing against him.
“He is an accomplished, successful man,” Sures said. “I don’t think the average voter could give two bits about his party affiliation. They just care that’s he’s going to get something done. People are sick of career politicians who aren’t accomplishing what they say they’re going to in their campaigns.”
Other L.A. power brokers disagree. “She’s of the city,” director-producer J.J. Abrams told roughly 300 guests at a Bass event recently that TheWrap attended last month. “She was born here. She was raised here. She’s learned what the city is about, why it is currently hurting, and what to do about it.”
Norman Lear, who celebrates his 100th birthday in July, was even more effusive. “I am utterly devoted to Karen Bass,” the legendary TV producer and unapologetic liberal gushed. “That woman knocked me out tonight. I wish she were running for the presidency.”
Bass’ other Hollywood donors include Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Garner, Jennifer Aniston, Magic Johnson, Ariana Grande, Alan Horn, Jane Fonda, Rhea Perlman and Angela Bassett-Vance, according to the L.A. City Ethics Commission database.
The schism has been deepened by questions over something Hollywood traditionally values — authenticity. Bass supporters point to her long record as an African American congresswoman and long-time Democratic community organizer — but question Caruso’s true beliefs as he has transformed himself from an anti-abortion rights Catholic into a candidate who recently told CNN he’s “always been a supporter of Roe v. Wade” and that it “should stay the law of the land.”
Bass calls herself “a proud daughter of Los Angeles,” who has made “a lifetime commitment to fight for social and economic justice.” She has served as a Democrat in Congress since 2011, representing areas south and west of downtown Los Angeles. She grew up in the Venice/Fairfax area, with three brothers, as the only daughter of DeWitt Bass, a postal worker, and Wilhelmina, a homemaker.
Rick Taylor, a longtime Democratic political consultant who supports Bass, is hoping a runoff will reinvigorate Bass’ campaign — particularly on the fundraising side to compete with Caruso’s very deep pockets. “If he is spending $2 million a week on TV, she has to be up with half that just to stay in the race,” Taylor said.
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