Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
Election Day was a good day for Richard Riordan, which is news, since he wasn’t running. Until this Tuesday, the mayor had managed to get himself elected twice, but when it came to helping other candidates, he’d had the coattails of a nudist. Two years ago, he talked a protégé into a disastrous run for city attorney, and backed a slate of candidates for the Charter Reform Commission — nearly all of whom went down in a heap.
As of this week, however, Riordan’s losing streak is a thing of the past. Three of the four candidates he backed for the L.A. school board appear to have been elected; the fourth, Genethia Hayes, won a plurality over incumbent Barbara Boudreaux, whom she’ll face in a June runoff.
Riordan’s victories in the school-board races are just the latest in a string of successes he’s had over the last 18 months. During that time, he and a small cadre of his millionaire buddies have finally raised enough money to complete the Disney Concert Hall, put together a plausible bid to bring pro football back to Los Angeles, persuaded the Demo-cratic Party to hold its next convention here, and now recruited and funded the candidates to take over the L.A. Unified School District.
That is, our self-proclaimed business-mayor has reassembled something Los Angeles has been lacking for well over a decade: a civic elite. It is a peculiar achievement for a mayor, but then Riordan’s is a peculiar mayoralty. Midway through his second term in office, it is now apparent that his model in the job isn’t Tom Bradley or Sam Yorty or Fletcher Bowron or any other mayor from L.A.’s past. It’s Asa Call.
Asa Call was never one of the city’s mayors; he merely selected them. The head of Pacific Mutual Insurance, Call assembled and presided over the Committee of 25 — a collection of wealthy local business executives, all Republican, mostly Protestant, who for all practical purposes ran L.A. in the ’40s and ’50s. The committee could put money together for worthy cultural projects, but its chief role was political: recruiting and funding safe, conservative, pro-business candidates. In 1953, Call and the committee drafted Congressman Norris Poulson to run against incumbent Mayor Bowron, an Earl Warren– progressive Republican who dared to propose public-housing projects to replace the city’s slums. The 25 committeemen opened their checkbooks, and Poulson became mayor.
For the past de cade or two, however, it’s been hard to locate any civic elite whatever within L.A.’s city limits. The bank, aerospace and oil companies whose CEOs used to sit at Call’s side no longer are headquartered here. They’ve been supplanted by nouveaux riches individuals with no more than a tenuous connection to the city. When it came time for a civic establishment to step forth and persuade the NFL to put a football team here, say (which shouldn’t have been a hard sell), or to fund the city’s only major public work by its most celebrated architect, Frank Gehry (seemingly another no-brainer), nobody responded. L.A., by the time Riordan moved into City Hall, had no civic establishment worthy of the name.
Cobbling together a new civic elite has always been Richard Riordan’s mission. Even before he became mayor, he tried to form something he called a Committee of 100, but it never jelled. Since becoming mayor, though, he has put together a group of 30 or so friends whose names keep popping up in such various civic enterprises as the concert hall, the NFL bid, and the 2000 convention — as well as on donor lists of Riordan-anointed candidates. The key figure besides the mayor is homebuilding-and-insurance magnate Eli Broad. Others include supermarket maven Ron Burkle and music moneybags David Geffen.
At first glance, Riordan’s new elitists personify everything the old Committee of 25 loathed: They are heavily Jewish and Dem-ocratic; some come from show biz, some are even pro-union. But Riordan’s use of his business buds to fund his candidates is pure Asa Call — a throwback to the politics of the ancien régime.
The mayor’s conflation of roles seems to me without precedent in local politics. He is the man in front of the curtain, the public face of power, though he’s still painfully awkward and ill at ease in the public eye. And he’s the man behind the curtain, the guy pulling the strings — a task at which this onetime leveraged-buyout operator is much more adept and feels more at home. I cannot think of another public figure who became a public figure so that he could accomplish more behind the scenes, but for better and worse — better, surely, for certain major cultural projects; worse, certainly, for the state of small-d democracy — that is precisely what Richard Riordan has done.
Election Day was also a good day for the County Federation of Labor, which hardly qualifies as news at all. Since 1996, when Miguel Contreras took the helm at the local AFL-CIO, L.A. unions have prevailed in almost every election where they put forth an effort. Tuesday was no exception: In the only race where the County Fed intervened, the contest to fill an open council seat in the 7th District in the east San Fernando Valley, its candidate, the 26-year-old Alex Padilla, effectively blew away the other five candidates.
It’s clear now that the decisive moment in this race came early this year, when Padilla appeared before the political board of the County Fed, his immigrant father in tow, and in an emotional presentation, convinced the board that he came from and was committed to immigrant labor and the cause of L.A. unions. With that, the Fed mounted one of its patented campaigns on his behalf, turning out hundreds of volunteers to walk precincts and staff phone banks, and one mailing after another targeted to union members and new immigrant voters.
Padilla’s chief opponent was Corinne Sanchez, who for years had run a highly regarded health-services center in the district, and who boasted the endorsement of many leading Democratic, Latino and Valley officeholders. Padilla had an understandably shorter résumé: Since graduating from MIT a few years ago, he’d been a campaign functionary for a succession of L.A.-area candidates. But Padilla had the Fed’s support, and that was really all that mattered. On Tuesday, he pulled down 48 percent of the vote to Sanchez’s 25 percent. Since he failed to win 50 percent, the race will go to a runoff in June, but in effect it is already over. It’s hard to see how Sanchez can raise money against a non-incumbent candidate who nearly doubled her vote in the primary.
The specter of labor’s success in the 7th now towers over the June runoff in the 14th District as well. The two candidates who emerged Tuesday from the very crowded field in this Eastside district to go into the June runoff are, not surprisingly, the two candidates who had the most money: Victor Griego and Nick Pacheco. Griego, supported by Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, won 17.5 percent of the vote; Pacheco, supported by the mayor, won 20 percent. Unable to reach a consensus as to which of the 13 candidates on the primary ballot it should support, the County Fed took a pass.
But for labor, the choice between Griego and Pacheco should be an easier call. For decades, Griego has worked as a consultant for unions and unionists — from the United Farm Workers to Maria Elena Durazo (Contreras’ wife), whose successful 1989 campaign to take control of the city’s main Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees local from a corrupt old-guard leadership Griego managed. For his part, Pacheco offended some city-employee unions during his tenure last year on the Charter Reform Commission.
As decisive as labor showed its support to be in the 7th on Tuesday, it should make an even greater impact if it goes into the 14th, where the concentration of both union members and Latino voters — the two groups with which the Fed has been most successful — is very high. Riordan may think that his newfound coattails can sweep Pacheco into office in June. But if the County Fed endorses Griego, the mayor may discover that in today’s L.A., there are some elections even a reconstituted Committee of 25 cannot buy.