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Who Runs Los Angeles | Introduction

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."

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