The two men share professional connections — and political consultants. And Newsom has been clear publicly that he’s fond of Caruso, a prolific campaign donor.
“I’ve known Rick Caruso for years and years and years,” Newsom said in August.
The governor’s neutral position has become more glaring as Bass, who would be the first Black woman to lead Los Angeles, is seeing her advantage slip away. As her opponent pours tens of millions of dollars into an advertising blitz and a recent poll had the candidates in a statistical dead heat, the Democratic establishment is rallying around the congresswoman.
For Caruso, “a non-endorsement is a win, honestly,” said Michael Trujillo, a Democratic consultant who has run LA mayoral campaigns, of the governor’s decision.
Newsom has defended his neutrality as a reluctance to meddle in Dem-on-Dem fights, but he’s had no problem weighing in on other such races — and the struggle between Bass and Caruso isn’t your typical intraparty battle. Caruso only recently switched his party affiliation after years of oscillating between Republican and no party preference.
He also has a record of promoting anti-abortion causes, though he now says he supports abortion rights.
Those factors make Newsom’s silence all the more mysterious, said Bill Burton, a Democratic consultant who advised Obama’s first presidential campaign and is supporting Bass.
“It just makes it strange in a race where you have essentially a Democrat versus a Republican that Newsom is neutral,” he said.
Caruso gave nearly $60,000 to Newsom’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign and donated $500,000 to California’s Covid-19 Response fund in 2020 at the governor’s behest. Caruso was also one of the several dozen members on Newsom’s business recovery task force.
Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, has on multiple occasions praised Bass for her decades of political leadership, but the two aren’t particularly close. In 2018, Bass endorsed former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in the gubernatorial primary over Newsom.
The governor’s decision to sit this election out could also expose him to criticism from within the core constituencies of the Democratic Party, said one California Democratic consultant, who has known Newsom for many years.
“He’s made the calculation that ducking and covering on this one is the safest approach, but he looks more and more like he’s on an island,” the consultant said.
The consultant said Newsom wants “literally no part in this race,” but that by not backing Bass, he’s helping her opponent — someone who has spent $92 million painting California’s largest city as a den of corruption and ineptitude.
“Him staying out when every other Democrat in the city, state, and country is with [Bass] is a huge victory for Caruso,” the consultant said.
Black political groups have already knocked Newsom for not endorsing Bass. A group of organizations late last month released a letter calling the governor’s support of Black women “selective.”
Those critiques could come back to haunt him in a presidential primary.
“I would think that, for someone with thinly veiled national ambitions, looking to effectively govern his state, he might consider showing his enthusiasm for the woman who is about to be one of the most powerful African American elected officials in the country,” Trujillo said.
Newsom’s longtime consultants at Bearstar Strategies are also running Caruso’s campaign. But other Bearstar clients, including Attorney General Rob Bonta, Sen. Alex Padilla and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, have endorsed Bass.
Newsom’s campaign spokesperson, Nathan Click, pointed to the governor’s earlier statements saying he liked both candidates. “I have great respect for the congresswoman,” Newsom said when he was asked about the race in August.
Partners at Bearstar did not respond to two requests for comment.
Newsom frequently endorses candidates in races with two Democrats, including in this election cycle. He recently threw his support behind Sacramento City Councilmember Angelique Ashby, who is running for state Senate against California Democrats’ preferred candidate, Dave Jones. He’s also backing former state Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg in his LA County supervisor race against West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath.
The governor also doesn’t have a lot to gain by falling in line with Democrats and endorsing Bass in the election, said Bill Wong, a California Democratic consultant and former political director for California Assembly Democrats. He was already popular in the party, and his recent forays into national politics — like going after Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis — have only raised his profile.
What Newsom loses by not getting involved in the mayor’s race,” Wong said, is “marginal compared to all the big wins he’s getting by going after DeSantis and defining himself on his own higher level as governor.”
Alexander Nieves contributed to this report.