Developer Rick Caruso is shown at Americana at Brand in 2008. Caruso was… (Los Angeles Times )
Will the mayor of the Grove run for mayor of Los Angeles?
With the deadline for entering next year's contest to replace Antonio Villaraigosa only weeks away, billionaire mall developer Rick Caruso is closing in on a decision.
The shopping center mogul has flirted with the idea for years, but interest in his intentions has intensified after another potential front-runner from outside City Hall, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, announced he was staying out.
Caruso has been conferring with a team of political consultants and recently told a magazine that "the timing is very right." He previously signaled that he would decide by mid-September, but aides would only say an announcement was coming.
They are quick to note that Caruso's newly disclosed plan for a sprawling mall near San Diego should not be read as a sign he's lost interest in City Hall.
The entrance of Caruso, a former Republican who recently changed his party affiliation to "decline to state," would shake up a field of candidates dominated by three veteran Democratic elected leaders, particularly if he was willing to draw on his estimated $2-billion personal fortune to finance a campaign.
Caruso declined to be interviewed for this article. But he appeared to be testing a theme when he told Women's Wear Daily last month that the contest's front-runners — City Controller Wendy Greuel and council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti — were "part of the problem, not part of the solution." In other venues, he has accused officials of doing too little to lower the city's high unemployment rate and reduce the taxes he says are driving business away.
Should Caruso enter and win, he would stand out among modern L.A. mayors, controlling a high-profile portfolio of real estate holdings in the same city he would be trying to govern.
Caruso's company is currently at work on a massive retail and condo development near the Beverly Center. And his signature shopping and dining venue, the Grove, occupies 17 acres of prime property in the Fairfax District, its winding streets, grassy park space and electric monorail channeling Mayberry more than a shopping mall.
Elsewhere, Caruso's company is trying to significantly expand its holdings with several large developments, including a resort in Montecito and an elaborate outdoor mall in Las Vegas.
Ethics expert Judy Nadler said his Los Angeles real estate could pose conflicts of interest, even if Caruso appoints somebody else to lead his company, as he has vowed to do if he decides to run.
"Hypothetically, if there were some other place in the city that someone wanted to develop that might compete with the success of his property, that would make it very difficult to have an unbiased opinion," said Nadler, a senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University.
Caruso would potentially have to recuse himself from decisions on a range of transportation, infrastructure and other issues that could affect his business interests. An aide to Caruso said the mogul had researched the issue and was confident he could avoid ethical dilemmas and govern effectively.
Others have successfully parlayed strong business backgrounds into running big cities, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan among them. But a Caruso candidacy could face special challenges, some stemming from controversies during his service on local government commissions.
As president of the city Police Commission a decade ago, Caruso drew fire from the black community for his role in denying a second term to then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and for a slur he allegedly directed at U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters.
More recently he withdrew from the Coliseum Commission after alleged financial improprieties by former managers of the venue.
There's also the potential political liability of his past Republican Party affiliation — he's helped raise money for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney — in heavily Democratic Los Angeles. But aides note he's also given to Democrats. And there's the fact that his name recognition outside business and political circles is limited, a point underscored last week in a random sampling of shoppers at the Grove.
"Who is that?" Xavier Ortiz responded when asked if he thought Caruso should run for mayor.
Ortiz visits the mall often — he and his girlfriend had their first date there six years ago — but like many visitors he said he knew nothing about the man who built it. Political analysts say that if Caruso runs, he'll have to spend heavily to correct that deficit before the primary in March.