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Rep. Bass is elected mayor of Los Angeles in a contentious and close race

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Los Angeles has elected a new mayor. After a week of counting votes, Congresswoman Karen Bass was declared the winner in her race against billionaire businessman Rick Caruso. Bass will be the first woman ever to lead Los Angeles and only the second African American. For more, we're joined by NPR's Adrian Florido, who is in Los Angeles. Good morning, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So Adrian, tell us more about LA's mayor-elect, Karen Bass.

FLORIDO: Well, Karen Bass is an LA native who's represented the city as a Democrat in Congress for 12 years. Before that, she was a California state legislator. But she made her name as a community organizer in Black and Latino neighborhoods in South LA. In 1990, she founded a nonprofit, the Community Coalition, to address the crack epidemic that was plaguing those neighborhoods. Two years ago, you might remember, she was on President Joe Biden's shortlist for a vice presidential running mate. All of this made her the early favorite to win the mayor's race. And now that she has, she'll be the first woman, as you said, to lead LA in its 241-year history...

FADEL: Wow.

FLORIDO: ...And only its second Black mayor.

FADEL: OK. So as you said, she was the early favorite, but she had a tougher race than expected. How did her challenger, Rick Caruso, manage to keep it so close?

FLORIDO: Well, in a word, money. Rick Caruso is a real estate developer who built some of LA's most well-known outdoor shopping malls, including The Grove. And he's a billionaire who poured $100 million into his campaign, shattering records and outspending Bass more than 10 to 1. He also sold himself as the best person to solve what is really LA's biggest problem right now, its crisis with homelessness. Poll after poll showed that homelessness was voters' top concern here, along with worries about public safety. And surveys also showed that many voters did think that as an outsider and as a businessman, that Rick Caruso was the better candidate to solve that problem.

FADEL: Wow. So he spent all that money, but then he still fell short. What happened?

FLORIDO: Well, LA is a dark blue, deeply democratic city. And although the mayor's race is nonpartisan, Rick Caruso was a lifelong Republican who only switched parties last year, so that made a lot of voters skeptical of him. Still, he earned a lot of support in richer, whiter neighborhoods, especially on the city's west side. But Karen Bass really dominated in the city's more diverse working-class neighborhoods. And in the end, her liberal credentials carried her to victory.

FADEL: And what can Angelenos expect from Mayor-elect Karen Bass?

FLORIDO: Well, she released a statement last night after she was declared the winner, saying that she planned to start immediately to solve the homelessness crisis and also to address LA's affordability crisis. These are tough issues that have vexed city leaders for a long time. Bass also has some powerful new tools that previous mayors have not had. In this election, LA voters chose a much more progressive city council. And they also approved ballot initiatives to address housing, including a large tax increase on high-value real estate transactions that's going to raise up to $1 billion a year for affordable housing. Fernando Guerra, who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, says these things give Bass a huge opportunity to deliver on her promise.

FERNANDO GUERRA: She knows how to negotiate. She's going to be pulled from the left and she's got the money. She now has the ability, the city of LA now has the ability and the resources to fight homelessness like never before.

FLORIDO: The city is also facing other issues, Leila. LA City Hall has been engulfed in scandal recently. Council members have been arrested on corruption charges. Others have gotten in trouble for making racist comments. So restoring public trust in city government is going to be another big challenge for Mayor Bass. And LA is also going to soon start making preparations to host the Olympics in 2028, a process that Bass is going to be highly influential in and that is sure to surface a lot of competing tensions and interests.

FADEL: NPR's Adrian Florido in Los Angeles. Thank you.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.