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Will the impending Roe decision upend the LA mayor’s race?

Mall magnate Rick Caruso once told a magazine that he opposed abortion in "most cases." He's also donated nearly $1 million to Republicans. Will voters care?

(CN) — When Politico revealed on Monday night that it had obtained a draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, some Democrats were immediately hopeful that the issue would galvanize their voters later this year.

But the next morning, mayoral candidate Karen Bass was not one of them.

"We’re very fortunate, in Los Angeles and California, that this ruling will not be an issue, because women will have the right to choose," she said at a press conference, alongside U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn and other black leaders in South LA.

A Los Angeles Times reporter all but begged Bass to take a pop at her opponent, Rick Caruso, a former Republican who has donated to campaigns of numerous pro-life Republicans and who, according to a Los Angeles Magazine article, "oppose[d] abortion in most cases" back in 2007. But Bass wouldn't bite.

"Obviously, I think I’m the one who should be in office," she said. "But I think this is a Democratic city. As I understand it, Mr. Caruso, most of his life, has been a Republican. And the voters will decide."

The June 7 open primary election is just about a month away, though in a way it starts this weekend when ballots begin to arrive in voters' mailboxes. This is the first mayoral election in which every voter will have the option of voting by mail. It's also the first to be held concurrently with state and federal elections. Those changes were implemented in order to boost turnout, which had sunk to a dismal 20% when the city ran elections in odd-numbered years.

Congresswoman Bass has been considered a front-runner to succeed Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is barred from running for a third term and who may or may not be heading to India to serve as ambassador. The longtime lawmaker has strong support in both the African American and the Jewish communities, and has been endorsed by a bevy of Democratic politicians, including former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Senator Barbara Boxer, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and three city council members.

But Bass has never won a truly competitive election and her campaign appears to be lacking a certain spark that Villaraigosa's had. Her positions have been sensible, middle-of-road. She wants to hire police officers, but not too many (that stance earned her a rebuke from Black Lives Matter LA co-founder Melina Abdullah). She wants to clean up homeless encampments, but not by using police officers. She wants to build more shelters, but so does everyone. She has promised to govern by consensus and coalition-building, which may be effective, but it's hardly an inspiring message.

"I’ve been surprised to see how much she struggled to get up to speed on LA City issues," said Rob Quan, an organizer with Unrig LA, a group that advocates transparency and publicly funded elections. "I was surprised at how much she would talk about Sacramento and the federal government."

And then there's Caruso, the billionaire mall magnate, who's spent $22 million of his own money on the race so far, a staggering amount considering there's still a month to go, and then a possible runoff election in November (assuming no candidate wins the primary outright with 50% of the vote, and if Caruso finishes first or second). That money has allowed him to unleash a torrent of advertisements upon the city on television, radio, in newspapers and perhaps most prominently on YouTube.

And so Caruso has surged to the top of the polls. A survey taken last month by the LA Times put Caruso in first place with 24% of the vote, effectively tied with Bass, who had 23%. All other candidates polled in the single digits, including Councilman Kevin de Leon, the only major Latino candidate, with 6%; City Attorney Mike Feuer and left-wing activist Gina Viola with 2% each; and Councilman Joe Buscaino with 1%.

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Caruso, once a moderate Republican, then an independent (registered as a "no party preference"), switched his voter registration to Democrat in January months before launching his candidacy. He has pledged to fight crime by hiring 1,500 additional police officers, and to clear the streets of homeless encampments, by force of law if necessary. The positions are nearly identical to that of Buscaino, a former police officer, and not all that far off from the other candidates' stances.

"I am struck by how similar they are," said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, a business group. "It appears they all read the same poll."

The one issue that Caruso has had a monopoly on is that of "corruption," a word that may work with voters on multiple levels. First, there is the literal corruption that's plagued city hall for years. Scandals have led to the indictment of three Councilmen – Mitch Englander, Jose Huizar and Mark Ridley-Thomas and have plagued the city attorney's office as well, a major blow to Feuer's mayoral bid.

But Caruso's message may be playing on the public's perceived corruption as well. The city and the county have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build housing for the homeless. But street encampments are still an everyday sight in LA, and there is a widely held perception that the city's policies on homelessness have failed.

"People don’t trust the city and the county to spend their money well on solutions to homelessness," said Quan. "And the corruption problem is tied to this — in the voters' minds."

A good number of voters are dissatisfied with the direction the city is going in, particularly around homelessness and crime. And so it's been difficult for de Leon, Buscaino and Feuer, all of whom have been ensconced within local government for years. They're forced to tout their own record, while also arguing for change, an apparent contradiction. Bass faces a similar challenge, although she can argue that her time was spent in Sacramento and D.C. Caruso alone can claim the mantle of "outsider."

"Homelessness, crime and distrust of city hall — those three things are the triad of Rick Caruso’s campaign that he’s leveraged very effectively," said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University. The money, of course, has helped too.

"Unfortunately, we do have a billionaire who’s trying to buy this race," said Mark Gonzalez, chair of LA County's Democratic Party. The party is not endorsing a candidate during the primary.

The dynamics of this year's race are eerily reminiscent of one nearly 30 years ago in 1993 when liberal City Councilman Mike Woo was defeated in a runoff by Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican millionaire who self-funded his own candidacy. Riordan spent $6 million on that election (about$12 million in today's money). He, too, pledged to fight crime by hiring more police officers. At a time when homicides were at an all-time high, his campaign slogan was, "Tough enough to turn LA around."

Like Caruso, Riordan was Catholic. He claimed to be pro-choice. But during the general election, the Woo campaign found a videotape of Riordan saying, on a public access cable show, that he agreed with the Catholic Church that abortion "is murder." Woo's team paid $10,000 for the tape, and ran a series of TV ads blasting Riordan both for what he said and for his dishonesty about it.

But the issue appeared to have little salience in a local election when crime was by far the greatest concern to voters. (Years later, the issue resurfaced when Riordan ran for governor. Sitting Governor Gray Davis spent $9 million on TV ads during the Republican primary, showing Riordan's sound bite. This time, the attacks found their mark, and Riordan was trounced by nearly 20 points, after once having led by 40, an astounding collapse.)

In a written statement, Caruso campaign adviser Lex Olbrei said, “The bottom line is Rick has always been pro-choice and has always supported Roe v Wade.” When asked if Los Angeles Magazine had made an error in 2007, Olbrei did not respond.

After news of the draft decision broke, Caruso tweeted that he disagreed with it "profoundly." The next day, he pledged to spend $1 million to help pass a constitutional amendment in California guaranteeing the right to an abortion in the state.

But Caruso has also given "nearly $1 million to policymakers who put forth legislation that criminalized abortion," as a letter by Planned Parenthood put it. That sum includes $240,000 to a political action committee supporting Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, $100,000 to a PAC supporting President George W. Bush's election, $50,000 to a PAC supporting Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy and $4,300 to a PAC supporting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"He made anti-choice donations," said Gonzalez. "He’s funding the fuel of the hate fire."

"Rick has supported many candidates on both sides for public office including Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom and Karen Bass," said Olbrei in a statement. "Some of them have disappointed him over the years, which is to be expected from politicians.”

Even if Karen Bass isn't taking Caruso to task over abortion, others are. An independent expenditure committee (the local equivalent of a PAC), funded largely by entertainment industry players like J.J. Abrams and Jeffrey Katzenberg, is already running television ads attacking Caruso for his donations. A narrator intones: "An anti-choice Republican like Rick Caruso doesn't represent LA. In a world without Roe, don't trust Rick Caruso to protect your choice."

Will the issue resonate with voters? Gonzalez isn't sure.

"I certainly do think it has the effect of driving turnout up among Democrats," he said. "But is it a kitchen table issue? Not necessarily. Does it matter for a family in Boyle Heights struggling to make ends meet? Not necessarily."

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