Rick Caruso in Los Angeles on October 28, 2022. (Hans Gutknecht via Getty Images)

The Hollywood Power Brokers Mugged by Reality

L.A.'s mayoral race pits a black congresswoman endorsed by Obama against a billionaire developer. "I can’t tell you the number of people who tell me, 'I’m voting for…

“This is like a breaking point,” said Nicole Avant, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas under Barack Obama and is the wife of Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos. We were talking about Los Angeles, where she was born and grew up and met her husband. “Who is in charge here? How is this happening? It’s the drug addicts in front of people’s houses, it’s people naked in the street—there’s so much chaos, and Rick is the opposite of that, and we just need to reel things in and do things in a different way.” She was referring to Rick Caruso, the billionaire real-estate developer running for mayor of the second-biggest city in the country.

Avant is black Hollywood royalty. Her father, Clarence Avant, now 91, was a legend in the music industry, managing the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard and Bill Withers. They called him the Black Godfather. 

So you might think that Avant would be supporting Karen Bass’s bid to be mayor of Los Angeles. Bass, who is black, is a six-term Democratic congresswoman. In 2020, she was on Joe Biden’s vice-presidential shortlist. Days ago, Obama, Avant’s old boss, endorsed her.

But Avant is backing Bass’s rival, Caruso—who was a Republican for years, and then, in 2011, switched his registration to “decline to state,” and then, in January of this year, switched to Democrat, just in time to run for mayor in a city overflowing with Democrats.

To Avant, to any number of Caruso supporters, all that is beside the point. Los Angeles, they say, is heading toward a cliff and everything is at stake in this election.

Avant said she found it “very insulting” when Bass supporters told her she had an obligation to support Bass because she’s a black woman. “I don’t ever vote on race or gender,” Avant said. “I’m a free thinker. People told me not to support Barack Obama and to support Hillary Clinton for the same reason, because she’s a woman. You can’t win.”

“The concept of hiring the best person for the job, especially in a situation like this, is not gone,” Bryan Lourd, co-chairman of the Creative Artists Agency and a Caruso supporter, told me. “I don’t think this city survives with more of the same old ideas about leadership.” (CAA is the biggest shop in town and represents, among many other celebrities, Scarlett Johansson, Steven Spielberg, Ava DuVernay and Reese Witherspoon.)

Avant and Lourd are hardly alone. Caruso’s list of supporters includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Kim Kardashian and Snoop Dogg (to say nothing of Elon Musk). 

Bass has plenty of A-listers in her corner, including Donald Glover, Jennifer Garner, Octavia Spencer, J.J. Abrams, Ken Jeong and William H. Macy. But if this were in any way an ordinary election in an ordinary year,  pretty much everyone in Hollywood would be behind her. Cutting checks. Posting pics of some poolside fundraiser in the Palisades. Signaling like Adderall bunnies. “I mean, she checks all the fucking boxes,” a Democratic activist in the entertainment industry told me. 

It is not an ordinary year. The reason is simple: Homicides are up. Homeless encampments are metastasizing. Public spaces are overrun with graffiti and needles and human feces. In the first year of the pandemic, an estimated 160,000 people left Los Angeles County.

All of which is why recent polls show that the race is a dead heat.

Sen. Bernie Sanders rallies with Karen Bass on October 27, 2022. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Caruso’s Hollywood supporters like him, they said, because he’s unowned: He’s on track to spend $100 million of his own money on the campaign. And because, they insist, he’s not running for mayor so he can run for governor or president. He’s not doing what so many elected officials seem to do these days—hello, Gavin Newsom!—which is to get elected to get elected to something better. (At 63 years old, Caruso presumably still has time to reconsider that.)

They had arrived at Caruso in a way that was not so dissimilar to that of Republicans who, in 2016, had rallied to Donald Trump, though the Caruso campaign hates the Trump analogy. But it was hard to avoid: The old ways of doing things had failed, the whole thing was broken—the schools, the City Council, the outgoing mayor, Eric Garcetti, the Covid policies, the progressive DA—and someone needed to come in and shake things up.

“Eric—we’re very good friends, but he’s spent his entire time doing whatever he could to piss off the fewest people possible, and he’s wound up pissing off everybody,” a Democratic bundler told me. (Nearly everyone I spoke to said some version of this.)

Caruso, people told me, was good at making things happen. He could build big splashy malls, corral activists and influencers and politicians, and raise capital. He’d run his company. He’d run USC, where he’d chaired the Board of Trustees. He was ready to run L.A.

“There’s just no room for ideological bullshit, because it’s affecting us in the here and now,” a startup founder with deep ties in Hollywood told me. She, too, was backing Caruso.

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Two years ago, at the apex of the nation’s “racial reckoning,” Hollywood was all in on Black Lives Matter, defund the police, social justice—marching, preaching, hashtagging. Many A-listers gave to the campaign of George Gascon, who was then running for District Attorney of Los Angeles on a platform that prioritized decarceration and anti-racism. Reed Hastings, the other co-CEO of Netflix, gave more than $1.7 million to Gascon. (Avant noted that her husband, Ted Sarandos, did not, some media reports notwithstanding.) 

When Gascon won, Hollywood celebrated.

“After George Floyd, we all had passion for what we thought were the right things, but then it became impossible to have candid conversations about things like race relations, crime, equality,” the startup founder told me. “It felt like a game of gotcha if you misspoke, even if your intentions were in the right place.”

“Two years ago, I couldn’t have voted for him,” Lysa Heslov told me, referring to Caruso. Heslov was the director of the 2017 documentary “Served Like a Girl,” about female veterans; her husband, Grant Heslov, had produced “Argo” and co-written, with George Clooney, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” 

But since then, she and others said, there had been a tectonic shift. Everything had gotten worse—the crime, the homelessness, the feeling that the city was spiraling, that the bottom was falling out from under it. 

Everyone in L.A. has had that moment when something awful and crystallizing happens. Perhaps it was the UCLA graduate student stabbed to death in a furniture store. Or the college student shot and killed near USC. Or the 12-year-old in Wilmington struck by a stray bullet.

For many in Hollywood, it came on December 1, 2021, when a robber—a repeat offender—broke into the Beverly Hills home of Nicole Avant’s parents. He shot Avant’s 91-year-old mother in the back, killing her—and later, according to court records, laughing and bragging about it. He did not expect to spend the rest of his life in prison; he figured Gascon’s office would be lenient. (He was wrong.)

The message was like this neon billboard hovering over the city, the Hills, the tennis courts and Michelin-star restaurants: You can live in a beautiful neighborhood several freeway stops from the poor and the violent. You can wall yourselves off with gates and security systems. You can even hire a personal security guard, as Avants’ parents had. And it still doesn’t matter. 

On February 11, Caruso announced he was running for mayor. Two weeks later, he gave $50,000 to the effort to recall Gascon. His whole campaign has been about restoring order—his supporters would say “humanity” or “decency”—to the city.

“It’s not like you’re going to get canceled for supporting Caruso,” the startup founder went on, “whereas I feel like maybe a year-and-a-half ago, the BLM movement had more strength.”

Heslov added: “I really had to put my Trump PTSD aside and look at what was best for the city and what was best for my kids living in the city.” Yes, Caruso bore a superficial similarity to Trump—he was rich, he was a real-estate developer. But that was it. The more important thing, she said, was that she thought he could fix things. Make L.A. better. After a moment, Heslov said, “It’s fantastic to elect Karen, but you can’t make your decisions based on the color of somebody’s skin.” 

“We supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, because she was the most qualified, and we thought it would be important to have a woman president,” Jeremy Barber, a top agent at UTA, told me. “That is where my heart is. But look, here’s the reality: This city feels, in a very meaningful way, like an amazing place to raise a family, and it feels broken.”

Lourd estimated that 60 to 65 percent of the people in his orbit were for Caruso. “They believe he’s the right person for the job, but because they’re Democratic or women or want to be supportive of Bass, it’s difficult for them. I can’t tell you the number of people who tell me, ‘I’m voting for him, but I’m not telling anyone.’” Lourd had been open about supporting Caruso, he said, because “I actually know him. I know him know him—not like Hollywood know him.”

The Caruso campaign feels like more than a campaign to many of his most fervent supporters. It feels, like any number of races this cycle, like part of a reassessment of what is happening across America, how we arrived at this juncture—how Los Angeles morphed into this place that’s so inhospitable to the people without Teslas or second homes (or first homes) in Malibu, the Latino working class south and east of downtown, the Koreans west of downtown, the Chinese in Rosemead and Alhambra, the hordes of L.A. cops and firefighters and teachers forced to live in neighboring cities an hour or two away. 

It seemed fitting that Obama, who had ascended to the pinnacle of the post-Cold War American totem pole, who had presided over it and tended to it but done little, if anything, to reimagine it, had endorsed Bass, as had President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who seem desperate to scotch-tape together the old Democratic base long enough to stay in power. (Forty-eight hours after news broke about the recent City Council scandal, in which the Latina council president made disparaging remarks about blacks, Armenians, Jews, gays and indigenous peoples, Biden called on everyone involved to step down—the better to weld back together the black-brown coalition his party depended on to win elections.)

“The Democrats and Republicans, over the past 25 years, have both been complicit in carrying out policies that have hurt the working class and shrunk the middle class,” UTA’s Jeremy Barber said. “I think this race is reflective or emblematic of a larger shift that is happening that we may not even realize yet.”

This is the new conversation just starting to take place about class.

They talk endlessly about representation and inclusivity in Hollywood. They do not talk about all the people who aren’t being included, Avant said. She recalled driving in Beverly Hills a few years ago, and it was raining, and she passed a bus stop, and there was a woman standing in the rain, waiting for the bus, because a homeless person had taken over the bus stop for the night. “Somebody, please tell me why that’s okay,” she said.

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Peter Savodnik’s last piece was about John Fetterman. Read it here.

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