Column: Rick Caruso’s Latino appeal isn’t bought — it’s real. But is it enough to win?


Telenovela star Kate del Castillo took a lunchtime stroll toward a black GMC Yukon parked on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights, cameramen and photographers behind her.

She peered into the massive SUV. Rick Caruso stepped out and gave her a big hug and birthday greetings. The actor and the Los Angeles mayoral candidate walked together for a bit before stopping in front of palm trees to face the press.

Caruso introduced Del Castillo as a “very prominent member of the Latino community” who had decided to endorse him. The announcement was in Boyle Heights — where neither of them live — because that’s where his Italian grandparents settled when they came to the United States, he said.

Wearing a mint-condition “Rick Caruso for Mayor” baseball hat, Del Castillo added that the city was “impossible to live in” because of “extreme violence and crime all over” and that Caruso had a “real strategy” to fix these problems.

The political meet-cute was as canned as a double helping of Purina Dog Chow.

Far more real was what happened next.

Pedestrians stopped and squealed over Caruso, not Del Castillo. Bicyclists sped by and offered words of support. Eaters at a taco truck across the street craned their necks for a better view. Cars honked, and some drivers shouted, “¡Viva Caruso!” There were a few boobirds, but no one seemed to notice.

“Even with his billionaire status, he can relate to us,” said 34-year-old Boyle Heights native Daniel Campos. He had walked by the news conference with his young daughter, stopping so she could take a photo with the candidate. Campos cut our talk short to take out his phone — Caruso had climbed inside a vintage firetruck with a massive campaign banner on its side for a cruise through the neighborhood.

Stores emptied on the busy street. When customers and business owners realized what was going on, they waved and cheered. The firetruck passed by the historic Breed Street shul and traveled as far east as Soto Street before parking at La Chispa de Oro for lunch.

There, a crowd of about 25 people excitedly waited for their candidate — and more continued to arrive. Few seemed to have received a mass text sent the previous day by the Caruso campaign advertising his appearance. Yet the news had traveled, somehow.

“This really is their [Latinos’] opportunity to change the direction of the city,” Caruso told us reporters earlier. “Their voice really matters. And their vote is their voice.”

Caruso, his immaculate shopping malls and the record-breaking amounts of personal money he’s pouring into his campaign are easy to mock — I’ve done it in this column more than a few times. His commercials remain ubiquitous and unctuous — he spent a little more than $2 million on Latino-focused radio and television ads during the primary. In the weeks leading up to election day, his ads are so prevalent on my favorite radio station, ranchera stalwart 980 AM La Mera Mera, that I honestly think he once did a duet with Jorge Negrete.

But his appeal to Latinos is real. I knew it from the moment he entered the race in February, and he’s proved it ever since.

A UCLA statistical analysis found that Caruso earned 34% of the Latino vote in the primary — more than any other candidate — while a Times study showed that he won the most heavily Latino parts of Los Angeles.

In a Latino Community Foundation survey this month, 44% of Latinos had a favorable impression of Caruso, compared with 40% for his opponent, Rep. Karen Bass. A recent poll commissioned by the Southern California News Group showed that 43.7% of Latino voters favored Caruso, while just 29.4% sided with Bass.

Residents lined up inside La Chispa de Oro to shake Caruso’s hand as more honks filled the air. Everyone offered the same gospel I’ve heard from other supporters: They love him for his riches, his outsider status, his devout Catholicism and his family. Caruso’s platform, they claim, skews toward rancho libertarian sweet spots like safety and entrepreneurship — the opposite of Bass’ supposed social justice agenda.

“I’ve been here 80 years, and I’ve never seen anyone like him,” said Stella Lopez, who walked by the restaurant, realized what was going on, then swung back to greet Caruso. “He believes in God, and with God’s help, he will clean up the city.”

“This is a successful businessman who doesn’t have to be out here — he wants to be here,” said Martin Hernandez, who lives in South Gate and didn’t realize he wasn’t eligible to vote in the mayor’s race until I told him. “I’ve never seen any other mayor do that!”

Five people stand outdoors and pose for a photo.

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, in white shirt, has a photo taken with Highland Park residents Brian Aguilar, left, Arturo Prieto, Geraldine Rodriguez and her husband, Robert, on La Riba Way. Caruso visited residents on this street to address their concerns. One of the main topics of discussion was the homeless situation in Los Angeles.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“He’ll do more for Latinos” than Bass, said 59-year-old Gabriel Camacho, a native of Cancun, Mexico. “Caruso comes from an immigrant family. He knows what that means for us.”

The pizza delivery driver looked on as more Caruso fans squeezed their way into the restaurant. Then Camacho worked up the nerve to cut in front of others and ask Caruso for a photo. “Es muy buena gente,” he said to no one in particular. He’s real good people.

Caruso smiled. “Vote, por favor,” he replied. Please vote.

That’s the rub for Caruso.

A study this year by NALEO Educational Fund, a nonprofit that facilitates Latino political participation, showed that Latinos make up 48% of L.A.’s population yet just 35% of registered voters. Voter turnout among Latinos historically lags behind those of other ethnic groups. That’s why Caruso was in Boyle Heights for at least the sixth time this year.

Critics can claim Caruso is trying to buy his seat, but money is no substitute for the two-plus hours he spent in Pico-Union this month talking to Central American store owners, accompanied by L.A. firefighters and union leaders. Tens of millions of dollars in ads isn’t the same as Caruso shaking hands at East L.A.’s Mexican Independence Day parade while sporting a light-blue guayabera and looking genuinely sharp.

He has knocked on doors and held town halls in South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. He has hired consultants and staffers smart enough to have him show up at restaurants like La Flor Blanca Salvadoreña near USC or La Chispa de Oro that are known as much for their legitimately good grub as for being community hubs.

Caruso’s pitch to Latinos impressed Nilza Serrano, head of Avance Democratic Club. Her group, the largest Latino Democratic Party club in Los Angeles, briefly entered the news after it endorsed Caruso, and Bass accused him of buying the endorsement. Bass later apologized.

“There’s this guy who’s coming to the Latino community with his story,” said Serrano, who recently appeared in a Caruso commercial. “And it’s a story a lot like ours. And he’s saying again and again, ‘I know you are not seen. I know you are not heard. I see you, I hear you.’ People love it. That’s what we’re craving to hear.”

A smiling woman stands outdoors.

Nilza Serrano is president of Avance Democratic Club, a progressive Latino group that is endorsing Rick Caruso for L.A. mayor. Serrano was outraged at Karen Bass’ suggestion that Caruso bought their support and says Bass hasn’t paid enough attention to Latino voters.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve seen more and more teal-and-blue “Latinos for Rick Caruso” yard signs and Facebook posts blooming across Los Angeles through the summer and fall.

He’s gained this support not just by showing up but by weaving a hell of a thread not seen in Los Angeles politics since Richard Riordan: Ignore conventional wisdom that says L.A. is a deep-blue city. Bypass the progressive activists and Latino Democratic establishment that flocked to Bass, in favor of conservatives and not-so-left liberals.

And double down on undecided voters. That just so happens to be where the majority of Latinos stand.

Contrary to some other polls, an October UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll sponsored by the Times had Bass leading Caruso 35% to 29% among Latino voters. But the percentage of undecided Latino voters — 36% — was nearly twice that of any other ethnic group.

“We’re the type of people who don’t RSVP to the party until the day of,” Serrano said with a laugh. “And then, we’ll bring like 15 or 20 people. We roll deep.”

At La Chispa de Oro, I watched Caruso like a hawk to see whether his Latino act was just well-tanned fakery. He’s had some hiccups. Before Del Castillo, his most prominent Latino endorsements were comedian George Lopez and outgoing Councilmember Gil CedilloChicanosauruses who nowadays wield about as much influence as a spray gun in a forest fire.

A flier with the slogan “Working for You!” rendered the Spanish as Laboral ¡Para Ti!, misusing a more formal word when the colloquial term, trabajando, would’ve made more sense. Caruso’s proud claim during the third mayoral debate with Bass that his Italian heritage made him not white but “Latin” drew widespread eye rolls, even though more than a few folks have asked me whether “Caruso” is a less common Mexican surname (it ain’t).

But he passed my test in Boyle Heights. He was more Daddy Warbucks than Mr. Burns.

A smiling man is surrounded by a few people in front of a gated shop.

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso meets with Latino supporters at a Nicaraguan restaurant in Los Angeles.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

He had no translator with him yet related to everyone on a genuine level. When a group of women sprinted past Caruso to greet Del Castillo, he gladly took photos of them. When his lunch arrived, he grabbed a handmade tortilla, spread house salsa on it with a spoon, put some chicken mole inside, then dabbed on a couple of drops of Tapatío hot sauce before folding up the impromptu taco and chomping with glee. After licking his fingers, Caruso made another one.

“Excellent, excellent!” he proclaimed to La Chispa de Oro’s owner.

After finishing lunch, Caruso answered a couple of my questions. I asked why he did so many meet-and-greets with Latinos when ads and mailers might suffice.

“Because I’m earning it,” he replied. “I love learning and talking to them, and it’s fuel for me.”

Caruso said that while homelessness and safety are the top issues for the Latinos he has talked to, “Nobody complains. Everyone just wants to work hard and have a better life.”

When I asked whether undecided Latino voters are his secret weapon, Caruso cited internal numbers indicating that most voters have made up their minds already. I followed up by asking whether previously undecided Latinos were breaking for him. He stayed quiet for a second — the first time I heard Caruso sound uncertain all afternoon.

“We’re doing — we’re doing well in the Latino community, very well,” he said. “I’m going to work for every one of the votes. Thank you.”

He returned to his adoring crowd, who kept interrupting our short interview. Shouts of “Gracias” and “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you) rose above the roar of the traffic. Caruso smiled, posed for more photos and repeated the plea he’ll probably recite like a mantra until election day:

“Vote, por favor.”


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