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The race to be the next mayor of Los Angeles appears to have tightened

A recent poll showed a close race to become the next mayor of Los Angeles, with Karen Bass leading Rick Caruso by just four points.

(CN) — A city hall still reeling from the release of a secret audio recording of four of LA's most powerful political figures using crass and defamatory language could be further upended on Tuesday, when voters go to the polls to pick a new mayor, four new city council members, a new city attorney and new controller.

Front and center is the race to replace Eric Garcetti as mayor of Los Angeles, which pits Congresswoman Karen Bass, a longtime Democratic elected official, against Rick Caruso, a billionaire mall developer who's sat on numerous city commissions, who was registered as a Republican for much of his life and who's spent nearly $100 million of his own money on the campaign, an unprecedented sum which dwarfs the $7 million or so Bass has raised.

A poll released on Friday, taken by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, found Bass leading by four percentage points — within the poll's margin of error, and far less that the 15-point advantage she had in a poll taken one month ago. Other recent polls likewise show a tightened race.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the Berkeley poll showed Caruso leading Bass among likely Latino voters by 17 points. Caruso's campaign has tirelessly courted the Latino community in LA, among other things by running Spanish-language TV ads. But Friday's poll is the first evidence that he's finally made ground in that arena.

"I’ve had this experience in other campaigns," said longtime political strategist Bill Carrick. "Italian surnames do well in the Latino community." He added: "I don’t think it’s that people are fooled or anything. I think it’s probably down to shared cultural things, including Catholicism. There’s a certain comfort level there."

Latinos make up nearly half of the Los Angeles population, and accounted for just over 40% of all voters in the 2018 election.

Another surprising result from poll: voters believe Caruso would do a better job on addressing homelessness, public safety and the economy, the three leading issues of the day.

"If you’re just a casual observer of the campaign, you might think he has more policies and more details," said Carrick. "Some of that is, if you’ve got $5 million behind a TV spot saying you have detailed plans, people are going to believe it."

But others wonder if Bass's campaign has been too vague and unfocused on local issues. Much of her messaging over the last two months has focused on national issues — for example, blasting Caruso for once expressing opposition to abortion (Caruso denies this) and for donating money to elect anti-abortion Republican candidates. She has touted her support from former President Barack Obama, and recently appeared at a campaign rally with Bernie Sanders.

"She seems to have taken a lot longer to get up to speed on local issues than she should have," said Rob Quan, the lead organizer for the group UnrugLA. "You can talk about George Floyd, but how much of that goes beyond what LAPD already does? Tell me about LA. How are you going to change the police commission?"

It's been nearly four weeks since the now infamous audio leak was revealed the public. The tape, in which then-City Council President Nury Martinez and Councilmen Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo, along with a powerful labor leader, could be heard making racist remarks while plotting various political moves, made national headlines and caused a firestorm at city hall.

Martinez resigned; activists demanded that de Leon and Cedillo do the same. They refused. Activists then demanded that the entire council refrain from meeting until their colleagues have resigned. The 13 remaining council members called for de Leon and Cedillo to step down, but they've continued to meet. And so every meeting since has begun with a bizarre ritual: screaming protesters being gently admonished, then tossed out by LAPD officers.

It's given City Hall is a strange, off-kilter vibe. A cloud of dissatisfaction hangs over everything. The political balance is uncertain. Council members have responded with a series of reform proposals, including the expansion of the 15-member city council, and the shift to an independent redistricting commission. But Bass hasn't endorsed either idea.

"Nobody trusts this council," said Quan. "There is a lot of distrust in anything that comes out of city hall. The fact that she hasn’t come out with any proposal to change all that, that’s concerning."

Caruso hasn't addressed either proposal either. But for most of the campaign, his team has mercilessly (and somewhat monotonously) beaten a steady drumbeat of three issues: fighting homelessness, crime and city hall corruption. That's — maybe — left Caruso well-positioned to profit from the recent scandal.

One curious feature of the mayor's race is how similar both candidates' platforms are. Both want to hire more police officers, and both want to enforce bans on street encampments. Both want to build more affordable and supportive housing. Caruso has placed a greater emphasis on building shelters, as opposed to more long-term housing. But that's a rather thin distinction.

The other races on the ballot, meanwhile, offer a greater contrast. Hugo Soto-Martinez, a labor activist running to unseat City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell (a former ally of Nury Martinez), wants the city to have fewer police officers and to not enforce its street encampment ban (the incumbent wants the opposite). Kenneth Mejia and Faisal Gill, running for controller and city attorney, respectively, also want to defund, at least in part, the LAPD and protect the rights of the homeless to live on sidewalks. On the westside, Erin Darling would be among the more progressive city council members, if elected; his opponent, Traci Park, would be among the most conservative.

Another progressive outsider, Eunisses Hernandez, is already poised to take office in December, after having unseated Cedillo in the primary. And Martinez's seat is vacant, to be filled via a special election in April. All that adds up to the potential for an extraordinary amount of turnover at city hall. Mejia, Hernandez and Soto-Martinez, are all self-identified democratic socialists, while Darling and Gill both earned the endorsement of LA's local Democratic Socialists of America chapter.

Among the possible outcomes of Tuesday's election: LA gets its most progressive, least experienced set of elected officials in recent memory, if not in its history, along with its most conservative mayor in 21 years. Or not.

If the primary is any indication, we may not know the election results for days, if not weeks, thanks to what could be a slew of late-arriving vote-by-mail ballots. Caruso woke up the morning after the primary election leading Bass by 5 points. Weeks later, when all the ballots were finally counted, Bass had come in first, leading Caruso by 7 points. That swing could be even more drastic next week, if voters are feeling extra indecisive.

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