Billionaire Candidates and Their Wild Promises

At first glance — and maybe even at a second one — it’s difficult to tell what, exactly, makes Rick Caruso a Democrat. Caruso, a billionaire real estate developer best known for his outdoor shopping malls, is a former Republican who is running to be the next Democratic mayor of Los Angeles. He has offered up a three-plank plan reminiscent of Rudy Giuliani’s second New York City mayoral campaign in 1993: an end to “street homelessness”; a return to “public safety”; and the end of civic corruption.

If that alone doesn’t warrant the comparisons to Giuliani, Caruso has gained the endorsement of William Bratton, the former New York City Police commissioner who served Giuliani from 1994 to 1996 and introduced the broken-windows theory of policing to the city.

Caruso’s message to his fellow Angelenos has been clear and consistent: It’s time, he says, to “get real” about crime, homelessness and the ruin of a once-great city. His ads, which play on repeat, promise: “Rick Caruso can clean up L.A.” As of the latest polling, he is in a close race with a longtime progressive congresswoman, Karen Bass.

Last December, I wrote about a growing number of minority politicians in major cities who have pushed some version of let’s “get real.” The mayors of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Charlotte all fit this description. Caruso is white, but his campaign has stressed his Italian immigrant background. He has also run ads in different languages.

He is a somewhat counterintuitive, yet increasingly common case in identity politics: A Democratic candidate who understands that many Latino and Asian immigrant communities are largely made up of moderates who want more policing. Caruso, who has spent over $30 million of his own money on his campaign, seems to be saying: We are all Angelenos. And we have all had enough.

Like nearly every politician in California’s major cities, Caruso’s success will hinge on homelessness. If he’s elected, he promises on his first day in office to declare a “state of emergency” over homelessness. This would allow him to bypass various regulations and governmental checks and, in his words, treat the homelessness crisis “like a natural disaster.”

He plans to build 30,000 new shelter beds in 300 days, roughly doubling the current number. This would require expansions of current programs, including a commitment to quadruple the number of tiny homes in the city. (Regular readers of this newsletter will be familiar with these structures. If you’re new, please read about them here or here.) Caruso would also expand Project Roomkey, the program that converts motels and hotels into shelters.

When a writer for The Los Angeles Times asked how he might be able to do all this, Caruso suggested Fort Bliss, a tent camp for undocumented migrant children in Texas, as a possible model. This would certainly be a confusing choice for Los Angeles, given that Fort Bliss is filled with large, airplane hangar-size tents that would be almost impossible to place anywhere in the city without a prolonged battle with neighbors. And last year, the Department of Health and Human Services opened an investigation into poor management and living conditions inside Fort Bliss, which, as of August 2021, could only accommodate about 4,000 teenagers, 26,000 less than the number of unhoused people Caruso would hope to shelter.

The ideological divide in California’s homelessness crisis lies between those who believe that the problem is mostly fueled by drug addiction and mental health issues and those who believe that a housing shortage and escalating costs of living are to blame. Given that Caruso plans to create a “Department of Mental Health and Addiction Treatment” and “compel people suffering mental illness into care,” Caruso clearly has heard the former.

But he also has planks in his platform that would make even the most housing-first progressive rejoice. He has called for an expansion of permanent supportive housing and rental protections and says he would petition the federal government to triple the number of Section 8 vouchers that help struggling families afford rent. He is, in short, promising the world to both sides.

His plans for public safety are just as ambitious. The story of crime in Los Angeles isn’t all that much different from most major American cities. Last year, homicides in the city hit a 15-year high, but those who say violent crime has never been worse are most likely forgetting the 1990s.

His plan to reduce crime is what you’d imagine from a politician who played up an endorsement from Bratton. He wants 1,500 more cops on the streets and enforced penalties for property crimes like breaking into cars. He also says he wants to apply pressure on the city attorney to prosecute misdemeanors more regularly.

In a lengthy interview with the editorial board of The Los Angeles Times, Caruso said, “We have laws now that aren’t being enforced,” referring to low-level crimes that would be taken more seriously under a broken-windows regime. “And we’re paying a deep price for it. Now, consequences should be fair. We should have a whole bunch of things in place that allows people to rehabilitate themselves. You know, I don’t believe in criminalizing everything. But we certainly have to get a handle on the behavior in this city. People are scared and they don’t feel listened to.”

In theory, there is a lot to admire about Caruso’s big solutions for big problems approach. It might make sense, for example, to shoot for 30,000 shelter beds and an increase of affordable housing, because even if you end somewhere significantly short of those goals, you’re still doing better than the status quo. But the problem with the clean-up-our-cities Democrat isn’t that the message is wrong — it has proved to be popular throughout the country — but, rather, that it lives in a fantasy world where ambitions ignore both the legislative and infrastructural realities on the ground.

Caruso is hardly the first politician to make big promises, but his seem especially unrealistic. If he wants 1,500 more police officers on the streets, for example, he must first contend with the fact that the L.A.P.D. is currently short 325 officers with no real clear solutions on how to fill those existing spots. Police academies in the city are significantly under-enrolled.

Similarly, his plans for the homeless require a fleet of civic and nonprofit workers that don’t exist yet. The current mobilization against homelessness across the state has seen dire staffing shortages, something I wrote about back in March. The shortfall reflects a very sobering reality: It’s hard to find a lot of people who want to deal with the emotional and physical labor of working with unhoused people. Caruso cannot just snap his fingers and find these workers, some of whom would need to be highly trained professionals to work in his “Department of Mental Health and Addiction Treatment.”

And given how difficult it is to build shelter for even a few dozen people — you have to find sites, convince neighbors and go through a glut of bureaucracy — where would Caruso’s Fort Bliss-like tent cities go? Which neighborhoods would host these 30,000 new beds and which ones wouldn’t? (To be fair, nearly every candidate in the Los Angeles mayoral race has promised new housing, albeit on much more reasonable time tables. The early days of the race were like an auction in which the candidates tried to outbid each other with shelter beds.)

I try to be a pragmatist about progressive politics. I do not think it does anyone any favors to pretend, for example, that Angelenos should look at spiking homicides and console themselves with the knowledge that things were worse before. I also get that the homelessness in Los Angeles and the Bay Area has gone well beyond a crisis point. Those who believe that hundreds of tent encampments throughout the state and escalating overdose deaths from fentanyl do not require a wide-scale intervention are deluding themselves.

What Caruso seems to be banking on is that the public, when faced with rising violent crime and homelessness, will seek out desperate solutions, especially hard-line tactics of the past like broken-windows policing. He may very well be right. The public’s exhaustion with crime, homelessness and drug overdoses is real.

Going forward, progressive politicians who don’t want a Rick Caruso in every city should take some lessons from some of the things he does well. It’s good to take concerns about crime and homelessness seriously. It’s also good to appeal to a communal city for all Angelenos. But progressives need to take those ideas and back them with their own solutions:compassion for the less fortunate, care for the mentally ill and a reasonable and humane deployment of police power. These also have the benefit of being more achievable.

Serious, progressive solutions might be a tough sell these days, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Not all crises in America need to be solved by billionaires and their wild promises.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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