Just five days before the mayoral primary this month, the nation’s top housing official made an unusual appearance with Rep. Karen Bass in Los Angeles, helping the mayoral candidate make a show that she would tackle the city’s homeless crisis by summoning friends in the federal government.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge’s visit to a subsidized apartment building was technically in her official capacity, paid for with U.S. tax dollars rather than Bass campaign funds.
Fudge’s presence, however, fit neatly with Bass’ central campaign argument — that her lifetime in Democratic politics and national connections are an asset in fixing the city’s most urgent problems.
Now that Bass (D-Los Angeles) is locked in a two-way race with billionaire Rick Caruso, campaign strategists and allies expect Bass to go into overdrive on that front — by seeking endorsements and barnstorming visits from national Democrats.
Such public commitments from high-profile party figures would help Bass draw a sharp distinction with Caruso, who only recently registered as a Democrat and is new to electoral politics. Among those on Bass’ wish list: President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and former President Obama.
Winning those endorsements is not guaranteed, and it comes with risks. But Bass’ allies believe they are worth taking.
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Caruso came within 7 percentage points of Bass in the primary. He is vastly outspending her and is counting on disaffected voters from both parties who are fed up with crime, homelessness and public corruption to close the gap.
Bass’ allies say she needs to show she is meeting those same issues head-on, while also making a partisan appeal to the huge base of Democrats in the city who traditionally put progressive candidates in office.
Endorsements, especially from Washington, are not often game-changers in local contests. But Bass’ allies say national Democrats can put a positive light on her years in the U.S. House and the state Legislature and emphasize her party bona fides.
“It would have that collateral consequence,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), a Bass endorser. An endorsement would have the benefit of “reminding people that Karen has been a long-term Democrat who has worked in government for many years on solutions to problems,” he said.
Bass’ campaign, which has little incentive to lobby publicly for endorsements she may not get, declined a request to comment. A spokesman for Fudge called her appearance with Bass, which did not include a political endorsement, “routine” and just one of many visits to cities she’s made across the country.
Peter Ragone, a spokesman for the Caruso campaign, dismissed the importance of national endorsements in the race and stressed the campaign’s position that although Caruso has changed his party registration more than once, he’s now a Democrat.
“We think voters will have a clear choice between two Democrats and who will be able to actually solve the problems of homelessness, crime and corruption,” Ragone said. “That’s what this election will be decided on.”
While some endorsements have helped candidates rally voters, overcome skepticism or reinforce campaign messages, they do not always carry the day. Former President Clinton, for example, intervened for Wendy Greuel, a former city controller, in her 2013 campaign for mayor. She lost to Eric Garcetti.
Some Bass supporters disagree with the idea that endorsements don’t count. Not all carry the same weight, they admit. But many say the early stamp of approval from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat, along with other colleagues from the House, showed the advantages of pulling in such help. A nod from Biden could be even more significant.
“I would encourage President Biden to support her campaign,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a Bass supporter, said in a statement. “Having the mayor of one of America’s largest and most influential cities aligned with the values and priorities of the administration is a force multiplier for any president.”
It is not clear when endorsements could happen. A consultant backing Bass said that endorsements, if they come, would be most effective in September or October. That’s when attention is highest and both candidates are pushing voters to mail in ballots or show up at the polls.
One endorsement that appears uncertain is from California’s highest-elected official — Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor who has taken an increasingly visible and vocal role in the national Democratic conversation. In a recent television interview, Newsom has said he is good friends with both candidates. And, so far, he has stayed out of the fray.
For Bass, there are multiple risks to framing the race as a national referendum on the Democratic Party, according to interviews with local and national Democrats, several of whom have ties to Biden and Obama. Biden, in particular, may not be of much help, even in overwhelmingly Democratic Los Angeles. His approval rating in polls has fallen below 40% nationally as his party girds for big losses in the November midterm elections. An April poll put Biden’s approval in Los Angeles at just over 50%.
The backing of national Democrats could also play into Caruso’s strategy of painting Bass as an establishment figure. He argues that Bass bears some responsibility for the perceived failures of past administrations.
“She’s well intended but she’s had over 20 years and all the problems during her tenure in Congress [and the statehouse] have gotten worse, and that’s not a hopeful sign for the future,” Caruso told The Times days before the primary.
Both campaigns have talked about homelessness and public safety, but Caruso has rarely strayed from the subjects. His framing makes such problems feel distant from the political debates in Washington.
Several people with knowledge of the race and the White House’s process expect Biden to seriously consider endorsing Bass, and they expect progressives to begin applying pressure on the president to support her campaign.
Even though the election is nonpartisan, Los Angeles is a Democratic stronghold. The state’s system allows the top two primary finishers to compete in the general election, regardless of party affiliation. During the primary, some progressives bashed Caruso’s wealth and developer background. They also criticized the former Republican’s shifting party allegiance and his financial support of candidates who opposed gun rights and are antiabortion. Caruso, for his part, says he’s pro-choice.
Another factor weighing in Bass’ favor with the White House: She is a Black woman, and Black women are a key constituency within the Democratic Party. Biden has made a concerted effort to elevate Black women into powerful and public positions — tapping Harris to be his vice president, winning the confirmation of the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court and appointing a Black woman to be his White House spokesperson.
Biden is also familiar with Bass because she was on his short list of contenders to be his vice presidential nominee. Weighing against such an endorsement is historical precedent — presidents typically do not try to tip the scales in intraparty duels or in mayoral campaigns. Biden also has a penchant to only endorse candidates who backed him early in the presidential primary. Bass joined the Biden train fairly late, after major party figures began coalescing around him.
Harris, who was elected statewide three times and keeps her residence in Los Angeles, could also prove to be an effective surrogate. She is not known to have a close relationship with Bass; however, they did work together on policing issues when Harris was in the Senate. Harris would only endorse Bass in coordination with Biden, according to the national Democrat.
Several top Democrats said Jeffrey Katzenberg, the media mogul and Bass supporter who is close with Biden and Obama, could serve as an intermediary in seeking the White House’s help. Katzenberg declined to comment.
An Obama endorsement is less likely. A person familiar with his thinking noted that he generally has not gotten involved in races between Democrats “and wouldn’t anticipate deviating in this circumstance.”
Obama and Bass are “not especially close,” the person said.
Both Bass and Caruso have trotted out dozens of endorsements from unions and chambers of commerce. This being Hollywood, they also highlighted celebrities backing their candidacies, using star power to amplify their profiles on social media. Caruso, for example, won support from former Mayor Richard Riordan, the city’s most powerful police union, Kim Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow.
In the end, however, testimonials from big names only go so far, said former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has campaigned extensively for Bass.
“I don’t think endorsements win elections, be they national endorsements or local ones,” Villaraigosa said. “Candidates do.”