Rick Caruso said that he is not looking to be a career politician and that what Los Angeles needs as its next mayor is an executive who can manage, not a legislator like the incumbent or his opponent. The mayoral candidate also said that Boyle Heights needs to be cleaner and safer, and addressed issues of gentrification, drug abuse and homelessness during a Zoom interview with Boyle Heights Beat student journalists on Wednesday.
Caruso was friendly, professional and composed while answering all of the students’ questions, although he seemed unnerved over a series of questions about his pro-choice stance. “Good question,” he complimented a student after a particularly tough inquiry.
The mayoral candidate was interviewed two days after spending a day campaigning in Boyle Heights and the session began with questions about his personal ties to the neighborhood.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. [For privacy concerns, BHB has chosen not to publish the name of a person mentioned by name during the interview.]
Boyle Heights Beat: We saw that you held two events in our community this week. And you’ve talked about your Italian grandparents raising a family here. How does your family’s upbringing connect you to Boyle Heights?
Rick Caruso: Well, when my grandparents immigrated from Italy, they made a stop in a small town in Pennsylvania, Union Town, where my grandfather was a coal miner. And he was convinced to move west. And they did move west. My father was born in the coal mining camps back there, but my grandparents raised their three boys on Boulder Avenue. And that’s where they grew up. So, our family history starts in your community, and it’s one of the reasons I feel so connected to it, and very proud of this part of the city.
BHB: As a billionaire and developer, how do you relate to a community of working-class residents who are struggling, because of rising house prices and gentrification?
RC: Well, I relate to it because, you know, I grew up with my grandparents, who came to this country with no money and didn’t know the language, like so many people continue to come to this country. And I grew up with them. They were always very modest, humble people. My father started his own business, and I saw what he had to do in order to build his business. My father also got into legal trouble and ended up being incarcerated and going to jail. So I also understand what it’s like to have second chances, to make mistakes, and he rebuilt himself. The third is I started my business without any money and I built it up over the years. I’ve been very, very fortunate. But I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people that work for me that I love, [I’ve] created thousands of jobs. I’ve got small businesses on my properties. I relate, frankly, more to the hard-working men and women of this city than to people that have the same amount of money that I do, because that’s just not my social group either. And I get excited about the opportunity to help people that have small businesses that work in the community, and we need to fight to give them better opportunities, affordability in the city, and make the community safer. That’s why I’m doing it.
BHB: Some residents might be concerned that with your background as a developer, you might not understand the problems related to gentrification in the community. What would you say to that?
RC: Oh, I understand it very well. Look at my projects, and how I built them, being sensitive to the community, open to the community, and making sure everybody in their communities is involved. When you look at Boyle Heights, and I walked it, like you said, I was there all day on Monday. The area needs to be cleaner, it needs to be safer, it needs to get cleaned up. It’s going to be improved. Gentrification is a problem throughout the city, but the best way to deal with gentrification is to have somebody that knows how to build. I know how to build. We need more homes, we need more apartments. I know the problems with building in LA. We’re 500,000 units short in Los Angeles, and we need to make them affordable, so people can stay in their communities, sons and daughters can stay in communities, right? And that’s how you really deal with gentrification, is to have affordable housing.
‘When you look at Boyle Heights — and I walked it, I was there all day on Monday – the area needs to be cleaner, it needs to be safer, it needs to get cleaned up. It’s going to be improved.”
BHB: In a Fox News interview, you said that unhoused people “don’t get a choice to stay on the street anymore.” And if they refuse a bed there will “be a consequence.” What kind of consequences do you envision if an unhoused person does not accept housing? Why do you think there needs to be a consequence?
RC: Well, we’ve got two problems going on at the same time. We have an inhumane situation that our elected officials have allowed to continue, which is men and women living and dying on the streets. Today, and every day, at least five people are going to die just in the Skid Row area. And tonight, there’s going to be 44,000 people that are going to go to bed on the streets –13,000 of them are women. We’ve got a growing population of families on the streets that’s concerning, and youth. We have to get people off the streets humanely with compassion, with dignity, and bring them inside residential units, apartments, shelters, and at the same time, give them the services they need: psychiatric care, drug addiction care, right?
What we can’t continue to do is do what we’re doing, allowing the population to grow on the streets, which is impacting communities, impacting schools, impacting small businesses. Every business that I walk into in every neighborhood complains about the homeless situation, because it hurts their business. It creates fear. We have a lot of people on the streets that need help with their mental psychiatric care. So, at some point, you have to say, if you have a place for them to live that’s safe and comfortable, “you can no longer live on the streets,” the streets were not designed for it. It’s not right. And it’s not humane for them. And some people may not choose to go into housing, but we can’t allow them to have housing on the streets.
So there has to be a consequence, which is that those housing units, the homeless units on the streets, have to be removed. Now there’s going to be multiple ways that we can solve this problem. But we have to stop doing what we’re doing. And I think our elected officials —not I think, I know– our elected officials have just done a terrible job managing the situation.
BHB: Are you saying that removing their homeless encampments will be a consequence?
RC: Yeah. That would be the consequence. That’s right.
BHB: And how will that create a sustainable solution to homelessness?
RC: Well, because they’re going to be given a bed. They’re going to be given an apartment. They’re going to be given a residential unit, along with the services, that’s the only way you can solve it. I mean, if people choose, which they always have in the history of the world, to live on the street, that’s a choice they’re going to make, right? We’re not going to go arrest people and do any of that. But we can’t allow encampments on the street. You can’t allow the human waste any longer.
I would imagine that all of you, being young and bright and smart, also care about not only the human condition, but care about the environment of Los Angeles. We care about sustainability. When the rains come in, all of the waste, all of the trash that’s generated by the homeless population goes straight into the ocean, and doesn’t get filtered out. Seven and a half tons of trash get picked up every day from just Skid Row alone, seven and a half tons. There are no toilets. People are doing their daily business on the streets. And it’s a health crisis. It’s an environmental crisis, and it’s a human crisis. And that’s why we have to remove the encampments. It’s not good for anybody.
BHB: Recently, the proposal to use the Boyle Heights Sears building to house homeless people was scaled down from 10,000 to 2,500 beds after protests from many residents. Are you a proponent of the Sears project and are you willing to scrap the project if there’s enough opposition to it by Boyle Heights residents?
RC: It’s a great question. I’m on the record for this. I do not support that project. And the reason I don’t support that project is because being in Boyle Heights many, many times as a candidate, [I’ve heard that] the community does not want it. And the community feels like they’ve been left out, that if something needs to happen, it happens in Boyle Heights if nobody else wants it. Already in Boyle Heights we’ve got, I think, more freeway intersections than anywhere else in the city, so air quality is the poorest in that part of our city. We need to do more to bring back business in Boyle Heights, support the businesses that are there, make our neighborhoods safe and not be overburdening Boyle Heights with a homeless shelter. Every community needs to have their fair share. It’s a shared responsibility. But I hear and listen to Boyle Heights and I agree with them.
BHB: You said you want to involve the police to fix the substance abuse issue. Since youth and adolescents are so impacted by this issue, do you plan to involve youth in addressing substance abuse?
RC: Absolutely I do. You know, back when I was the president of the Police Commission, we had a program called the DARE program. And the DARE program was directed at supporting the youth to avoid drugs, or if they were exposed to drugs or using drugs, to help them get off of drugs. We’ve got to protect the youth at every corner, and we have to listen to the youth. What I did in the past, as the police commissioner, we held listening sessions around the city, with parents and kids, families, on how we can be supportive and help. We have a real problem with drugs on the streets, they’re entering our schools now. And we have to start enforcing the laws and not allow these drugs to be sold freely on the streets.
BHB: So why do you think that police should be at the forefront of solving this issue instead of the youth who are directly impacted?
RC: Well, the youth don’t have the power to arrest a drug dealer that’s selling drugs on the street. We have tents and encampments on the streets throughout LA that are there only for the purpose of selling drugs. And that’s how the drugs are getting into our systems. So, we’ve got to enforce the laws, it’s illegal. Our leadership has chosen not to enforce the laws, and that’s why we have such a drug addiction problem now in our city. And we’ve got a problem on the border that the mayor has no influence on, with drugs coming over, but [the office] does have a big bully pulpit, which I will use to make sure that federally it’s enforced to stop the drugs.
I want the youth involved. I want to hear what their concerns are and ideas on how to solve the problem. But we need to use the police to prevent the problem from happening.
BHB: Your website states that as mayor, you plan to add 1,500 officers that “reflect the values and demographics” of the communities they serve.” How would that look for Boyle Heights?
RC: Well, let me tell you what I’ve done in the past and what I would do again. When I became the police commissioner, the majority of LAPD, 20 years ago, was white male. By [the] time I left the majority was a minority. LAPD needs to reflect the community it serves. Boyle Heights is predominantly a Latino community from many different cultures within the Latino community. And I believe the officers who are protecting that community need to be a part of the community and reflect the culture and the background of the community. Because you have to build trust, the most important thing a police officer has to do is build trust within the community. So being part of the same culture just helps in that venture. And it worked in the past, we dropped crime by 30% 20 years ago. And I believe and I know — in fact, I’m very confident that we can do it again, and still do it in a way that respects the community we serve. And we hold officers accountable, and we never tolerate any bad behavior. That’s what we have to do.
BHB: You have expressed your devotion to Catholicism by donating $6 million to the construction of the USC Caruso Catholic center. What does your Catholic faith mean to you and how does it influence your politics?
RC: My Catholic faith means a lot to me. I was raised with the priorities of your faith, your family and your community. I really enjoy and love my faith. It doesn’t impact my policies, and I’ll tell you why. I have a separation between how I conduct business, how I would conduct politics and how I practice my faith. For example, I am pro-choice. Many Catholics are not pro-choice but I am- just like President Biden is, and Nancy Pelosi or [former] Governor Jerry Brown. And I believe in the Catholic faith that we accept everybody, all walks of life, all ethnicities, all cultures, all backgrounds. I love Pope Francis, because he has been the most welcoming Pope of acceptance and tolerance. And that’s the faith that I follow. I’m not a doctrinaire. I’m not an ideologue. I’m like many Catholics that have our freedom of will and making decisions. And I feel very comfortable in my heart that I’m a faithful Catholic. I love my god. But at the same time, I can choose to differ with some of the policies of the Catholic Church.
BHB: We noticed that as of October 21 you fulfilled your $1 million-dollar pledge to support the abortion rights proposition in California – a pledge made five months ago. Why did it take you that long to make the donation?
RC: We had always planned to do it when the ballots dropped. That was the most efficient time to get the money out there and start promoting Proposition One. There was no reason to do it five months ago, since nobody had the ability to vote five months ago. And we had always timed it. So, you know, my opponent tried to make this an issue, to create an opportunity. And it’s never been an issue. And I live up to my promises and work very hard to exceed every promise I make. And I’ve done it on this one.
BHB: Do you think that informing the public months in advance that you planned to make the donation closer to the election could have prevented any type of scandal?
RC: Well, I don’t think it was a scandal, I think it was something that was created for political purposes, right? It was an opportunity for her to do something because, you know, quite frankly, Karen [Bass] has been in office for 20 years. And, you know, studying her track record leaves her very vulnerable. And so she was looking for an opportunity to criticize me. But listen, all of these kinds of propositions that are on the ballot, are very important for everybody to understand, and having the money to support Proposition One so people understand how important it is to vote for it. The best timing and use of that money… when I put the money in is when people can vote. And that’s why I did it then.
BHB: How can people trust that you’re pro-choice, if you have supported anti-abortion politicians in the past?
RC: Well, 85% of my donations have been to Democrats. And there are also many people that Karen Bass has supported with money. And you might want to look into [a] congressperson, Stanford Bishop, that Karen Bass for decades has supported financially out of Georgia, he is anti-choice. And he actually pushed the Hyde Amendment into Obamacare, which prevents federal dollars from being used on abortion. And that’s a very damaging piece of legislation.
I don’t give money, I have never given money to anybody to change Roe v. Wade, or to change a woman’s right to choose. So again, this is Karen Bass’ way of trying to create a political issue where there is no political issue, and it’s scaring people. And it’s frankly, unfortunate. I’ve never given money to any organization that opposed free choice. She’s never been able to say that because it’s not true. And I live by my word, if you listen to my daughter, my wife, those who validate and support me… in fact, today, I think you probably all know Maria Shriver, who has a long history of the Kennedy and Shriver family, actually tweeted that “I’ve known Rick Caruso for 40 years and he’s pro-choice.” So you know, you have to look at who validates me versus somebody who’s trying to get a job.
BHB: Well, back to my question. There are certain politicians that you have supported, even if you weren’t directly trying to overturn Roe v Wade… politicians like Pete Sessions, Kevin McCarthy or Mitch McConnell. [And because of that] there are people who don’t really trust that your truly pro-choice. Is there something that you could do to restore that trust?
RC: Well, again, you’d have to look at the people around me who know me, like Maria Shriver. Look at the 85% of the donations that went to Democrats —Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown, Gray Davis— that are all, pro-choice. Jerry Brown is a Catholic, by the way, as governor pro-choice, always has been, he was about to become a priest. And he’s pro-choice. You also have to look at the timing of those [donations]. At the time, we were in a crisis in our country with the Middle East. I believed in the protection of Israel. The Republican Party was very intent on the protection of Israel. And I supported those efforts, I would support the protection of Israel today. That, quite frankly, is under attack. So I stand by what I’ve done. I stand by who I am. And I stand by the fact that I’m pro-choice. And I hope people believe that and their research. And if they do their research, they’ll know I’m telling the truth, and hopefully I will earn their trust. The best I could do is work for people’s trust.
BHB: What actions besides donating money have you taken in order to show that you are pro-choice?
RC: My actions of my whole life. I’ve always supported a woman’s right to choose. I mean, listen, I believe so strongly that the government needs to be out of people’s personal lives. I’ve been on the record for that my whole life. It’s the way I run my business. It’s the way we conduct our family. It’s just how we live. And so I stand by everything I’ve done. I’ve supported the women rape centers, I’ve given a lot of support over the years to many organizations that support women’s rights. And I think it’s unfortunate, frankly, that Karen has made this an issue in the mayoral race. The mayor has no influence over any law that impacts a woman’s right to choose. Other than standing up and making sure that the city welcomes everybody and welcomes women that choose to have an abortion.
And if you look at the people that support me, I’ll give you an example. [A woman] who’s on the record, owns a great restaurant, Latina woman owned restaurant in Sherman Oaks, that has had two abortions. I’ve known [her] and she stands up and says: “I know Rick, I know he’s pro-choice. That carries a lot of weight, in my opinion, because she knows my actions. She knows my heart. That’s the best I can do. But I will tell you something. I know that [the woman], she said it last night at an event. She’s very upset at Karen Bass for making this an issue. Even Nancy Pelosi has said this should not be politicized. It’s a very important issue that women feel safe and free to have the right to choose. And it should not be politicized. Those are the words of Nancy Pelosi and I follow that theory with her.
BHB: You’ve made it a priority to reach out to Latino voters. Why do you think Latino voters are so important in this election?
RC: Latino voters are important because they’re 50% of the population of Los Angeles. And they don’t feel like they’ve been heard. They feel like they’ve been left behind. They were overly impacted during COVID. They’re now overly impacted and homeless. The Latino population is one of the largest populations right now in the street. I believe very strongly that we need to take our city back. One of the paths to doing that is giving the Latino community a voice, to hear them, to listen, to understand the concerns. The growth of the city cannot happen without the Latino population being engaged, feeling like they have an equal opportunity for education, that their neighborhoods are safe. They can raise their family here and work hard, right? That they can build a business, work in a business.
I harken back to my grandparents who came here, like I said, without a dime in their pocket and didn’t know the language, like many Latino families have. But they believed that in Los Angeles, their dreams could come true. And my grandparents, their dreams did come true. My dreams have come true. Now I want to spend my time giving people an opportunity to have their dreams come true. This is the greatest city in the world. And the Latino population can redirect the city because we’re heading in the wrong direction. And our political system is broken. The Latino population could change it. And I hope they do by voting because their vote, everyone’s vote is your voice. And now, more than ever, we need to exercise that voice.
BHB: Are you concerned that some of your comments and actions may be [seen as] pandering, like when you said that since you’re Italian, your Latin?
RC: But you know where that comment comes from is my grandmother, who had great pride in her roots as an Italian. And it’s just the case, it’s true. The Italian community is a Latin-based language and a Latin-based community. It’s just the fact, that’s not pandering. That came from a sense of pride. And my grandparents who barely spoke the language, that I love being with so much, had such pride being in this country and being Latin based and assimilating into this country.
I’ve got great respect for the Latino community, and it’s not a monolith. The Latino community is feeling the effects of what’s going on in the city, like every community is and, frankly, is frustrated – and should be. All of you should be frustrated, watching what’s happening to your city. And you should be demanding change, whether you think I can make that change or Karen can make that change. I hope you’re demanding change.
BHB: What makes you think that they will vote for you, though?
RC: Because I have a track record. I have a track record of giving back to the community, of serving three mayors starting with Tom Bradley, when I was 26 years old, and serving under Dick Riordan and serving under Jimmy Hahn, volunteering my time, never for money, just to help make the community better. Because I started a business with one employee and created thousands of jobs along the way. Because I care. It’s where my heart is. It’s because I’ve got a proven record of knowing how to manage and being an executive.
The mayor of the city is an executive job. It’s not a legislator’s job. Karen is a legislator, Eric Garcetti is a legislator. We’ve had 10 years of that. And we’re in big trouble. You need to have somebody to step in on day one: 80,000 employees and an $11 billion budget. Fifty departments report to the mayor. Karen has never managed an organization. You have to ask yourself, how is she going to do that and actually make tough decisions to make our city better. And what she has said to the LA Times you can look it up: “I need this job to pay my mortgage.” Well, that’s great. A lot of people need jobs to pay their mortgage. But that doesn’t qualify you to be the mayor of the second largest city in the country. And so I hope people believe that based on my track record, I can really give them change, because I can and I’m willing to fight for people every day to do that. I love this city. I owe it everything.
BHB: Given that the youth aren’t usually addressed in politics, how do you plan to engage them in this election and during your potential term as mayor?
RC: Well, I’m going to do just what I’m doing now. I want to spend more time with students. I want to spend more time with youth clubs, which I’ve done my whole life. My wife and I have been in the community for 40 years. Para los Niños, we have supported for 30 years, Operation Progress that works with the youth down in the south LA area. It is just part of our culture of what we do.
You’re the future. And I want to hand over the city that’s cleaner and safer. And I want to listen, I want to learn, I want to get your point of view. I have four kids, I have great respect for those who are younger, and I’m just going to continue to meet with you and come out with me on the streets and walk with me. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few months and meeting people, families, business people and listening.
BHB: You have spent large amounts of money in your campaign. Do you think that’s the best use of your money in a city that is grappling with homelessness and rising housing prices?
RC: Yes, it is, because I believe in the city. I haven’t been in office for 20 years, so I have to spend the money to get my message out. I have donated a fortune to communities that are at or below the poverty [level.] And I will continue to do that. Because I believe in the city, I’m willing to spend the money to get my message out, that I have earned on my own. And I will not be beholden to anybody. I don’t have a special interest group. I don’t have a Washington PAC, like Karen has. I don’t have lobbyists giving me money. And I want to wake up every single day and fight for the Angelenos. I don’t want a career in politics. I want to be mayor and go back to private life. I’m proud of this campaign. I’m working hard for it. I would love your guys’ support.
I loved this opportunity and I would love to re engage again.
BHB: Thank you so much for your time.
RC: Thank you so much. Have a great Day.
Boyle Heights Beat reporters Dania Alejandres, Angela Caliz, Diego Hernandez, Stephanie Perez, Eimee Medina Soto, Adrian Casillas-Sáenz, Priscilla Cuevas, James Chambers, Samantha Gomez, Ethan Fernandez, Kathryn Mora and Karen Perez participated in the interview. Reporters April Aguilera and Terra Alvarez contributed to the story.
Read the Boyle Heights Beat interview with Karen Bass:
In an interview with Boyle Heights Beat youth reporters, the mayoral candidate accused Rick Caruso of lying, said she will fight for equity –not equality– within the city and that solutions for homelessness are not ‘one size fits all’