Whether next spring's Los Angeles mayoral race is a lively contest or a walkover for incumbent Antonio Villaraigosa may depend on the decision of one man: shopping mall magnate Rick Caruso.
Having spent his summer flirting with the idea of running for mayor, Caruso has until the Nov. 8 filing deadline to commit to a campaign. The man who gave Los Angeles the upscale shopping mecca the Grove has been consulting with political advisors and is expected to announce a decision next week.
Caruso's political dalliance has added a hint of drama to what was promising to be a sleepy campaign. Villaraigosa thus far faces no well-funded opposition. His supporters and detractors say that is due either to his successes as mayor or potential challengers' decisions to wait for an easier, wide-open race when term limits will force Villaraigosa to leave office in 2013. Or perhaps sooner, should he run for governor or go to Washington in a possible Democratic administration.
Even if Caruso relied on his considerable fortune to fund his campaign, he would face many challenges, and not just because he would be jumping into the race five months before election day. A longtime supporter of President Bush and fundraiser for GOP candidates, Caruso would have to win over a city where the vast majority of voters are neither rich nor Republican.
Caruso is also a real estate developer -- not a popular title for many of the city's most politically active residents, said Cal State Fullerton political scientist Raphael Sonenshein
"That said, I wouldn't write off Caruso," he added. "First of all, when you have lots of money, you can control your own fate in many ways. . . . The question is: Is the disappointment with Villaraigosa so widespread?"
Richard Riordan, the last Republican elected mayor of Los Angeles, believes that the deteriorating economy has created enough voter discontent to provide an opening for a fiscally astute, successful businessman like Caruso.
Riordan, a venture capitalist, swept into office in 1993 on the heels of the riots the previous year, running on the slogan "Tough enough to turn L.A. around" and a strategy to rescue the city from its economic slide and racial strife.
"Today, it's not as bad as it was when I ran. By the same token . . . people don't feel as confident as they did four years ago," Riordan said this week.
Riordan did not challenge an incumbent, however, waiting until the retirement of five-term Mayor Tom Bradley.
Republican Steve Soboroff, president of the Playa Vista development, narrowly missed making the runoff in the 2001 mayoral election. He said he learned very quickly that running for office requires total commitment -- and that it can be tough for a successful businessperson to grasp that reality.
"Either you're going to do business in Los Angeles, or you're going to run for office. You can't do both," said Soboroff, who has endorsed Villaraigosa for reelection.
Caruso declined to comment for this report. In July, he told The Times that "the question is if this is the right time, or sometime down the road."
His biggest concern about running, he said, would be spending so much time away from his family.
"As corny as it sounds, I have a great love for this city. I've spent a lot of waking hours working for this city," said Caruso, a former president of the Police Commission.
Recently, a source close to him said Caruso believes that making a frontal assault on Villaraigosa's record would be a major advantage, especially because of the city's current financial woes and criticism over whether the mayor has lived up to his promises on issues such as using funds from increased trash fees to hire more police officers.
For the second straight year, Los Angeles could be facing a budget shortfall of up to $400 million. Villaraigosa has laid the blame on the national economic turmoil, which has curtailed city tax revenues. But city expenses are also expected to increase by $283 million next fiscal year, driven primarily by employee pay increases and police hires that were both supported by the mayor.
In July, City Controller Laura Chick also found that most of the revenue from the increased trash fees, which Villaraigosa promised in 2006 would be spent exclusively on hiring more officers, had gone toward such expenses as police equipment and pay raises.
Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP political consultant, said Los Angeles voters would be well served if Caruso did jump into the race.
"It would be healthy for the city of L.A. to have a true mayor's race. If we don't, we'll be back to 9% voter turnout," he said.
Villaraigosa's biggest opponent so far is Walter Moore, a lawyer from Westchester who finished sixth in the 2005 mayoral race. Moore, a regular on local talk radio, has raised slightly more than $180,000 since January 2007, compared with the $2.3 million raised by Villaraigosa.
Villaraigosa's campaign manager, Ace Smith, said that Caruso's wealth would make the developer a "formidable opponent" but that he doubts Los Angeles voters would be enamored.
"You're talking about electing a Bush Republican as mayor of Los Angeles in the context of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression," Smith said.