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Opinion: Billionaire mayoral candidates are ill-equipped to represent LA voter interests

(Christopher Kha/Daily Bruin)

By Tucker Waters

May 8, 2022 8:23 p.m.

A billionaire who made his fortune developing luxury properties is running for office.

And hopefully, we’ve learned from past mistakes.

Rick Caruso, the billionaire developer behind properties including The Grove, is now in first place in the Los Angeles mayoral race, according to a new poll published by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the LA Times.

His support has quickly grown since he entered the race in early February, thanks in part to massive campaign spending on catchy ads that have blanketed the LA area with the tagline “Caruso Can!” With a staggering $23 million in contributions as of April 23, $10 million of which came from his own pocket, Caruso has raised more money than all 11 other mayoral candidates combined.

The uber-wealthy are ill-equipped to understand the struggles of everyday Angelenos since they are removed from the daily problems that so many of us face. Housing prices in Westwood are up 28% compared to last year, amounting to almost $3,000 each month for a one-bedroom apartment. Already strained students are bearing the costs of decisions – or lack thereof – made in city hall.

Meanwhile, Caruso could rent a one-bedroom Westwood apartment for at least 59,000 years and still have half of his net worth left. For an election that will have dramatic impacts on housing affordability, transportation and policing, we simply can’t trust a billionaire developer to understand, let alone advance, our interests.

Homelessness is the issue dominating the LA mayoral race – and for good reason. In 2020, there were 41,290 people experiencing homelessness in LA. When asked about his plans to address the city’s homelessness crisis at the March mayoral debate, Caruso said he will immediately build 30,000 beds to house those currently on the street and develop more affordable housing to help those on the verge of homelessness. He advertises himself as uniquely positioned to solve these problems by tapping into the skills he’s sharpened as a business leader – in other words, “Caruso Can!”

But if Caruso can, he hasn’t.

Caruso’s current developments include 10 shopping centers and four luxury apartment complexes. For someone so passionate about building affordable housing for low-income Angelenos, he’s focused almost exclusively on residents who can afford the eye-watering price of luxury living.

When Caruso was in the private sphere and had the financing, connections and ability to build affordable housing, he turned to luxury apartments and shopping centers instead of projects that would help community members who actually needed his support.

It’s hard to imagine that, after years of not building affordable housing, he would suddenly change his mind once elected mayor.

Caruso continues to promote his background in the private sector and villainize current LA politicians.

“It is hard to believe that the same group of politicians who allowed our city to become unsafe, corrupt and cruel to people living on the streets can solve any of the problems we face,” Caruso said in an emailed statement. “We have an unprecedented crisis that calls for strong leaders who have track records of managing complex public and private institutions as well as finding innovative solutions to build housing for our population.”

This view is not unique to Caruso or LA, and it is a common rationale for businesspeople in politics – the paradoxical idea that they are qualified because of their lack of political experience. Supporters advertise these political outsiders as politicians who will “get stuff done” and use the skills they’ve learned in the private sector to run the United States like a business.

That is, a business in which consumers pay the costs and shareholders get the rewards.

The successful campaigns of candidates such as Donald Trump, Mike Bloomberg and Mitt Romney show this narrative can be successful, and voters respond well to businesspeople entering politics. With the public’s trust in government only slightly rebounding from a historic low, voters could be looking for candidates like these as an escape from mainstream politicians. Most important for Caruso, however, is whether this message will resonate with LA.

Brianna Yi, a first-year theater student, said although she hasn’t been following the mayoral race closely, she doesn’t believe wealthy people generally make the best politicians.

Other students share Yi’s sentiments. They aren’t closely following the fast-approaching primary but are generally skeptical of a wealthy developer’s candidacy.

Madeline Harris, a third-year environmental science student, said she worries candidates like Caruso aren’t in the race for the right reasons and are out of touch with the average LA voter.

“Do they (developers) really know their community, or are they just people that have money and live in this community?” Harris said.

This isn’t to say there should be no businesspeople in politics. Business owners undoubtedly bring a valuable perspective to the government. But when it comes to housing insecurity and homelessness, it’s time developers of luxury properties realize they are the problem, not the solution.

And being in office certainly isn’t the time for them to figure that out.

Society’s wealthiest lack the background and experience to be in tune with what our communities really need. In a democracy that depends on representation, leaders should reflect the people, and billionaires simply can’t.

Caruso – and all other uber-wealthy politicians – will do a great job representing fellow billionaires.

The problem is that the rest of us aren’t billionaires.

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