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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

The city core? The seat of power? It's just that it's, well, different here.

L.A. Defined, Loosely

August 13, 2000|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sooner or later, anyone who spends enough time trying to understand Los Angeles lights upon two questions: Where is the center, and who's in charge?

The glib answers, partly true, are nowhere and no one. The whole truth is more complicated.

Los Angeles today does have pockets of power, clustered in this community and that. Their tenuous ties and episodic alliances mirror the region itself, a corner of America memorably described by novelist Thomas Pynchon as "less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts--census tracts, special-purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to [the] freeway."

In a city and region where identification is so loose, power is hard to accumulate and wield. And yet, Los Angeles today is witness to a growing and changing leadership elite.

Often, the city responds to the will of a confederation of business executives--mostly but not exclusively white men--who come together on Los Angeles' iconic projects but whose chief relation to one another is mutual suspicion bordering on hostility. They sit astride a city government that struggles to do its job, led by an unconventional mayor, Richard Riordan, who has used his good standing with the public to make his most lasting marks by circumventing the government, not by mastering it.

They are joined by an increasingly influential labor movement that has picked its recent battles well and tapped the city's great and growing source of strength: Latinos.

And looming in the background, as it always has, is the Los Angeles Police Department, an institution rocked by scandal, undermined by brutality and wrestling with corruption--but also a proud organization embedded in community life in ways that make it a formidable presence.

The Business of Leadership

Through the early 1900s, Los Angeles was transformed by an oligarchy of willful businessmen who refused to let even the fact that the closest reliable water supply was hundreds of miles away dissuade them from building a city here. In those days, no one questioned who ran the place. They did. Mayors and others deferred. Los Angeles thrived under their leadership but ultimately outgrew it.

Today, Eli Broad--the city's most important business leader and philanthropist, a man who made his first billion dollars building homes and then compounded that success in a retirement services firm--may be the closest thing Los Angeles has to a civic-minded power boss in that old tradition. He is the person most responsible for reviving the stalled fund-raising for Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown. He periodically wades into school reform or other political debates. But he can be prickly, and he does not command a coalition like Los Angeles' old oligarchy. He doesn't, as even his many admirers acknowledge, play well with others.

More important than Broad's personality, however, is the changed business community around him.

The old Los Angeles business leadership was one of builders--chief executives and plant bosses of car companies, aerospace firms, banks, insurance companies, oil producers. Those businessmen were tied to Los Angeles not by goodwill but by their interests and the interests of their workers.

Not one Fortune 500 company is based downtown anymore. Los Angeles generally is a polyglot of small- and medium-sized businesses. Most political power no longer emanates from big industry but from the city's law firms. Warren Christopher is the preeminent example. He's a lawyer, police reform champion, former secretary of State, a sage and forceful presence in the life of Los Angeles. But Christopher is one of the city's most influential citizens because he loves politics and public service, not because he's the representative of a huge work force.

Just last month, the City Council helped prove how far the business community's power has ebbed. When Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg proposed allowing thousands of protesters to have the run of Pershing Square, in the heart of downtown, during the Democratic National Convention, the business community howled. The motion passed anyway, and though the council later reversed itself, that was mainly in response to the LAPD.

The Shift in the Labor Movement

Once one of the nation's foremost antilabor bastions--a philosophy stridently reinforced for decades by the Los Angeles Times and its founder, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis--Los Angeles today is riding a rebirth of organized labor. Indeed, the city's emerging labor movement, with its strong connections to the nascent political power of Latinos, may be the most potent political force in Los Angeles--not yet mature, but growing by the year.

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