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Early mail-in ballots in Los Angeles show a neck-and-neck mayor’s race

LA's mayoral election is about as close as it could be.

(CN) — Congresswoman Karen Bass and mall magnate Rick Caruso are in a dead heat in the race to be the next mayor of Los Angeles, with only the first batch of ballots counted Tuesday night. Caruso leads Bass by just over 12,000 votes – or 2.5% – with a slightly less than 500,000 ballots counted.

It's not clear exactly how many ballots are left, but the number is likely in the hundreds of thousands, more than enough to swing the result either way. The final result of the election may not be known for days, or even weeks. Mail-in ballots that are postmarked on or before Election Day will be accepted for up to another week.

In their bid to succeed Eric Garcetti, who has served as mayor since 2013, Bass and Caruso cut sharply contrasting figures. Bass, an African-American woman, is a former organizer who founded Community Coalition, became a Democratic state legislator and then a Congresswoman. During the campaign, she touted her ability to form coalitions and to bring people together, as well as her political experience and connections in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Caruso, meanwhile, is a white man (although in the last debate he joked that he wasn't white, but Italian), the wealthy son of a successful businessman who went on to become a well-known billionaire mall developer. He's served on numerous city commissions, including as president of the police commission, where he played a role in the firing of a Black chief, Bernard Parks, and the hiring of Chief William Bratton, who had previously served as New York's police chief, and who helped spread the practice of "broken windows" policing. Caruso spent more than $100 million in his quest to become LA's mayor, a heretofore unheard of sum, dwarfing the $8 million or so raised by Bass.

Registered as a Republican much of his life, then as an independent during the Trump years, Caruso registered as a Democrat just weeks before declaring his candidacy for mayor. Bass has attacked him for being a former Republican, for having given money to pro-life Republican candidates, and for expressing pro-life views in the past (a charge Caruso disputes).

Speaking to her supporters at the LA County Democratic Party watch party at the Hollywood Palladium, Bass said, "It’s going to be a long night, and it might take a week, but predicted: "We will win!"

Caruso, speaking at his own event at his flagship shopping mall, the Grove, said, "Now we don't know the outcome, obviously, yet... but I’m happy to say we’re starting out strong and we’re a couple thousands votes ahead."

Tuesday's election comes at time when LA's political power structure is still reeling from the leaked audio recording that became public last month, in which then-City Council President Nury Martinez could be heard making crass and racially insensitive remarks to fellow councilmen Gil Cedillo and Kevin de Leon, as well as a labor leader, Ron Herrera, who was also present. Martinez and Herrera have since resigned; Cedillo and de Leon have not, though Cedillo will leave office next month anyway, as he lost his reelection bid in the June primary.

The audio leak became national news and sparked continuous protests at City Hall, where activists are demanding the council refrain from meeting until de Leon and Cedillo resign. Taken along with upcoming bribery trials of City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and former Councilman Jose Huizar, confidence in city hall is at an all-time low.

Further down the ballot, progressive outsider Kenneth Mejia has declared victory in his race for city controller against City Councilman Paul Koretz. He currently holds an overwhelming 22% lead. In the race for city attorney, mainstream favorite Hydee Feldstein Soto is leading progressive Faisal Gill by 16 points.

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was lagging 14 points behind his challenger, Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna. Villanueva, though elected with the support of progressives in 2018, quickly became the county's most notorious and controversial elected official by feuding with nearly every other politician in the region and regularly appearing on Fox News denouncing the Democratic Party and "woke-ism."

"We spoke truth to power," Villanueva told his supporters on election night. "Every single thing I campaigned on, we’ve accomplished."

Adding insult to injury, LA county voters appear to have approved of a measure giving the county board of supervisors the power to remove the elected sheriff for cause, a reform that Villanueva opposed.

The vote totals will be updated by the county registrar-recorder on Friday. In June, Caruso woke up the morning after the primary leading Bass by 5 points. Weeks later, when all the ballots were counted, Bass had won by 7 points. The swing could be just as dramatic this time around.

Across the state, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposition to legalize sports betting at tribal casinos and racetracks and another to legalize online sports betting.

Another proposition, to enshrine the right to abortion, passed handily.

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