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AEG's proposal to bring football back to Los Angeles is nothing if not audacious. The mega-developer would construct Farmers Field, a $1.2 billion, 72,000-seat stadium with a retraceable roof in the southwest corner of downtown Los Angeles, wedged in between the Staples Center and the Harbor Freeway (the naming rights have already been purchased by Farmers Insurance for $700 million). AEG would also tear down the part of the Convention Center above Pico Blvd. known as the West Hall and rebuild the space as an attachment to the South Hall, the larger half of the Convention Center, below Pico. And that's where things get complicated.
Although the stadium would be financed privately, AEG, which is run by Tim Leiweke (but owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz), wants the city of L.A. to float a $275 million bond to help finance the reconstruction of the Convention Center. AEG would pay back $80 million the bond. The rest would be paid back by would-be tax receipts (amounting to tax break somewhere in the range of $200 million).
Supporters of the stadium– and they appear to be legions– say the deal is a win-win-win for L.A.: bigger convention space, jobs, and football. Detractors say it's just another scheme to redevelop downtown at the expense of the rest of city.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is how little political resistance there is– unlike, say, in the late ‘90s, when AEG was building the Staples Center, and then-City Councilmember Joel Wachs made it a personal crusade to make sure the city of L.A. was getting a square deal.
"People believe they have nothing to lose by playing along with Anschutz," says David Abel, Editor-in-Chief of the Planning Report, a monthly newsletter focusing on development in Los Angeles. "Joel Wachs thought he could be mayor by resisting the Staples. There is no constituency, and everybody knows it.”
"It's been a done deal for nine months," says blogger and former editor of the Daily News Ron Kaye. "The mayor has had his people working on it for two years. And when Leiweke went public with it, it was a done deal."
The 2011 School Board Elections
Four seats on the Board of Education were up for grabs in the March 8, 2011, election. District 5, which covers parts of Los Feliz, Burbank, East L.A. and Vernon, was an open seat and pitted a school-reform candidate, Luis Sanchez, against the teachers union choice, Bennett Kayser. In this, the only competitive school-board race of the year, more than $3.3 million was spent — topping any local race this year, and almost reaching the amount spent on the mayoral race in 2009.
Kayser was something of a fallback choice for the United Teachers of Los Angeles. They had originally endorsed John Fernandez but later withdrew their support after a background check that, in the words of then-UTLA president A.J. Duffy, "raised serious concerns about Mr. Fernandez's truthfulness in the interview process and his qualifications and integrity to be a member of the school board."
There were five independent campaign entities: Bennett Kayser; United Teachers of Los Angeles to support Kayser; Luis Sanchez; the Coalition for School Reform to support Sanchez; and the SEIU Local 99’s campaign to support Sanchez.
Sanchez came in first in the primary with 45 percent of the vote, but didn't receive enough to avoid a runoff with Kayser (thanks to votes siphoned off by Fernandez). In May, Bennett Kayser was the surprise winner by a thin margin. Less than 21,000 people cast votes, representing roughly 9 percent of registered voters.
"There was just no turnout," says veteran political consultant Parke Skelton, who ran the Coalition for School Reform campaign. "So UTLA and the associated administrators of L.A. who were backing Kayser with 3,000 to 4,000 members in the district were able to win a seat that they shouldn't have been able to win."
The lesson, perhaps, is that when you're a power broker, you can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. The SEIU, the mayor and his donor base all had attention spans and war chests that were divided. United Teachers of Los Angeles doesn't involve itself in many election — except the school board, which still has only three out of seven members who are backed by UTLA. They're able to concentrate all their energies and spend accordingly, to the tune of $1.4 million, in the case of Sanchez v. Kayser. No one else came close in that race.
Spending totals (all spending data courtesy of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission) Luis Sanchez: $253,270.17 Coalition for School Reform: $667,640.86 SEIU 99: $861,920.39 Total for Sanchez: $1,782,831.42
Bennett Kayser: $25,167.89 UTLA: $1,446,060.47 (not including the $35,291 spent on John Fernandez) Total for Kayser: $1,471,228.36
Total by both sides: $3,254,059.78
The Green Energy and Good Jobs for Los Angeles Act, or Measure B, proposed, in March of 2009, the installation of 1,500 acres of silicon panels on top of city-owned rooftops. It promised to create jobs and reduce dependence on fossil fuels by providing 400 megawatts of electricity. At the time, 400 megawatts amounted to about 85 percent of the solar energy that had been installed throughout the entire country.
There was just one catch — the law called for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to install all the panels, and the Department of Water and Power to own all of them. What seemed at first blush like a bold step toward clean energy started to look like a cynical plot by the DWP — and the union that represents almost all of its employees — to corner the market in solar power, at a price way above market value, as much as $3.6 billion. It didn't help that the measure was rushed through the City Council on a unanimous vote and included vague language like, "The Plan's minimal elements shall include, but are not limited to ... "
The IBEW assembled an impressive coalition of labor unions, environmentalists, politicians (not least of all the mayor) and businessmen and raised an enormous amount of money. It should have been a cakewalk. But a collection of budget activists and neighborhood councils fought the measure tooth and nail. They were joined, perhaps surprisingly, by the L.A. Times, whose editorial pages and investigative reporting repeatedly hammered the proposal.
Despite being outspent $1.5 million to $65,000 (and nearly all of that was a last-minute independent expenditure from a carpenters union; according to campaign disclosure forms, the No on B campaign spent only $14 in cash!), Measure B lost by less than 3,000 votes.
(All contribution figures are from campaign finance forms obtained by the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.)Hillel Aron wrote this story while a Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow from Southern California
On the day after Christmas 1952, Southern California Republican Rep. Norris Poulson received a letter from Norman Chandler, then-publisher of the Los Angeles Times.
"Dear Norrie," the letter began. It went on to explain that Chandler, Asa Call (the president of Pacific Mutual Insurance) and a collection of powerful downtown businessmen had been talking, and they wanted him to run for mayor. They promised to "generously" bankroll the campaign and lobby for a salary bump that would include, as a perk, a Cadillac and chauffer for Poulson to "strut around in."
And so they did. Poulson won the election and served as little more than a puppet of a group that later became known as the Committee of 25, which, depending on your historical interpretation, was either an enormously powerful clique of the city's business elite or a shadow government running the city. By either interpretation, this one centralized group of players was recognized as being the de facto power center in the City of Angels for years to come. It was through their influence that the Brooklyn Dodgers became the Los Angeles Dodgers, and downtown skyscrapers began to sprout like wildflowers.
But even by then, the Committee’s power was on the wane, torn apart by political divisions and challenged for supremacy by different interests.
"There's nothing at all like that at play in Los Angeles now," says D.J. Waldie, a celebrated writer and former deputy city manager of Lakewood. "What you have instead is a much more complicated arrangement of consultants, lobbyists, political fixers and a shifting cast of city council members. Power is more diffusely parceled out among all of them. No one rules the county the way they did 40 or 50 years ago."
There are still nodes of power in Los Angeles: union heads like Maria Elena Durazo of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and Brian D'Arcy, who heads up the union at the Department of Water and Power; developers like Tim Lewieke and Rick Caruso; downtown boosters like the billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. Then there are hundreds of stakeholders: neighborhood councils, activists, nonprofits. Not to mention the mayor and the city council, who of course have enormous political power but are pulled in different directions by various interests.
The biggest change since the days of the "Dear Norrie" letter has been the L.A. business community's fall from grace. Once there were a myriad of large corporations with enormous footprints in Los Angeles: Firestone, ARCO, McDonnell Douglas, Pacific Mutual. Most of those companies have either been bought or have simply left town.
“Huge parts of the L.A. establishment are gone,” says urban historian and author Joel Kotkin. “What’s left are some very wealthy individuals who have their own shtick, their own things. But there's no longer a cohesive business community.”
It's not that there aren't any power brokers in Los Angeles, it's just that they have to work extremely hard to get anything done. They have to form coalitions, spend money on lobbyists, public relations and political campaigns. And even then, it's no sure thing.
"A city run by a small group of upper-class white Protestant bigoted businessmen is not a good thing in and of itself," says Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, a former Angeleno, referring to the old Committee of 25. "What you do have is a decline of mediating political structures. Obviously, that makes it hard to get things done. But in L.A. it's always been hard to get things done." Kotkin takes a darker view. He sees the decline of the business elite as a major factor in the decline of the city, which is losing jobs, young families and college graduates at a much faster pace than most other cities. "L.A. has become a very disconnected city with no coherent leadership structure," he says. "Twenty years ago, the Pacific was replacing the Atlantic, and L.A. was the emerging great city. I don't think anybody thinks that now. And it's tragic."
"I mean, I like it personally," he adds.
Others, like Waldie, had great hopes for the neighborhood council system, created in the 1999 charter-reform process, but so far have watched those councils fail to come to fruition.
"Ever since 1999, Los Angeles has been stuck in the middle of a half-finished revolution of political expectations," says Waldie. "We're in between the world that included the Committee of 25 and some other world, that could be more democratic and could be more representative of the aspirations of a very hybrid, very diverse community.
"I don't know how we complete the revolution. We talk about the Arab Spring — we had a Los Angeles Spring back in 1999, and we're still waiting for the summer to come."Hillel Aron wrote this story while a Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow from Southern California