Last week’s decision by Rick Caruso, real estate developer and longtime Republican fundraiser, to back Democrat Jerry Brown for governor might have been the opening volley in the race for the Los Angeles mayor’s office in 2013.
Caruso contemplated a run for mayor office in 2009 but finally decided against it, citing the burden it would place on his family. But analysts see Caruso’s surprise announcement that he will cross party lines and organize a Feb. 2 fundraiser at his Brentwood home for Brown as a preparatory step for a future mayoral campaign. Cocktail hour is $1,000 per person; dinner is $10,000 per couple.
In other words, since Caruso is backing Brown now, perhaps in three years the former Gov. Moonbeam will support the meticulously groomed mall builder for mayor.
“The first thing I thought when I heard it was: L.A. mayor’s race 2013,” said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University in Fullerton. “It certainly helps Caruso if he wants to run for mayor because Los Angeles is a Democratic city.”
Hal Dash, chief executive at political consultancy Cerrell Associates in Hancock Park, sees Caruso’s fundraiser as a straightforward bet on who will win the governor’s race in November.
“Although he is a conservative businessman, Rick is pragmatic and he smells a winner in Jerry Brown,” said Dash, whose firm has longtime ties with the Democratic Party and has worked for Caruso in the past. “He did his due diligence on this one. Rick plays the present and the future – and plays them both very well.”
Caruso, chief executive of shopping mall developer Caruso Affiliated Holdings LLC, told the Business Journal that his decision was based on Brown’s accomplishment as mayor of Oakland.
Brown, currently state attorney general, is perhaps best known for his tenure as governor from 1975 to 1983, when his progressive policies earned him the Moonbeam moniker.
Caruso dismissed speculation that he would expect Brown’s support for a mayoral bid.
“It’s purely just me supporting Jerry Brown,” Caruso said. “I wouldn’t have anyone reading into it regarding my future plans.”
Caruso said he was impressed by Brown’s policies in economically depressed Oakland, where he focused on redevelopment, job creation and crime reduction – themes that fit with Caruso’s business-oriented agenda.
“The more people get to know him from the business sector and from the Republican side, they will be impressed with him,” Caruso said. “I will try to keep this dinner as an intimate affair where people can talk to him.”
But Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said that Caruso is only looking at one angle of Brown’s picture.
“Caruso points to Brown’s Oakland experience, but his critics are going to point to the less pragmatic politician who was the former governor and presidential candidate,” Schnur said.
The alliance is good for Brown partly for fundraising reasons; Caruso was No. 20 in May on the Business Journal’s list of 50 Wealthiest Angelenos with a net worth of $1.53 billion. But Sonenshein said Caruso’s biggest value to Brown will be as an ambassador to the business community.
“Having businesspeople in his camp will blunt the argument that he’ll be a jobs killer and will drive companies out of California, which is an argument Republicans are sure to make,” Sonenshein said.
And Brown’s backing would certainly help Caruso in a mayoral race, said Paul Hefner, a Sacramento political consultant who works on statewide initiatives.
“If I were running for mayor in Los Angeles, I would like a Democratic governor standing by my side when I make the announcement,” Hefner said.
The only way Caruso’s decision could backfire is if Brown loses the election.
For that to happen, however, Brown would have to squander his current lead in the polls against potential opponents including former eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.
Schnur said that Whitman and Poizner would be unlikely to hold a big enough grudge to hurt Caruso in the future if they won.
“There isn’t a huge downside here for Rick Caruso,” Schnur said.
Caruso can look to the example of Richard Riordan, a Republican investment banker who won the 1992 mayor’s race in a Democratic stronghold.
“Rick sees the Riordan model, but Riordan was mayor in much better times than these,” cautioned Dash at Cerrell Associates. “I think Rick is weighing the mayoral bid, toying with it, given the financial difficulties the city faces right now.”
For now, Caruso said he was limiting his involvement in Brown’s campaign, which is in the exploratory stage, to fundraising. But he would be willing to serve as a strategic consultant or other position to help the campaign if asked.
Steve Glazier, a senior adviser to Brown, said Caruso’s support shows that Brown has put partisanship aside.
“The next governor is going to have to be able to count on support from Republicans as well as Democrats if we’re going to get things done in Sacramento,” Glazier said.
He wouldn’t discuss whether Brown would support Caruso for mayor.
“For now we’re focusing on 2010,” Glazier said.
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