Eli Broad
Eli Broad
Photo by Ted Soqui

The 10 Most Influential People in Los Angeles in 2015

2015 was a big year for billionaires in Los Angeles. Eli Broad opened a new museum on Grand Avenue. David Geffen sprinkled more of his money around, donating $100 million to UCLA for a new private school called (of course) Geffen Academy. And Stan Kroenke got ever closer to bringing his football team to Inglewood.

It was also a year for rising stars in the political sphere to make their move. Some stories came from nowhere — did anybody see Donald Trump coming, except maybe Donald Trump? For others, the year marked another step in what seemed an inexorable path to power. 

Maybe it's always a good year for politicians and billionaires (not to mention billionaire politicians). But it was also a big year for social movements, as determined activists and academics pushed their causes from the fringe into the mainstream. Whether it was the police brutality protests that took shape under the banner of Black Lives Matter or growing outcries over the marginalization of women in Hollywood, this was a year for fighting back.

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Here's a look at the 10 people who most influenced events in Los Angeles this year.

10. Eli Broad

In September, Eli and Edythe Broad unveiled their latest gift to Los Angeles, a free museum to share their collection of contemporary art with the public. Opinions on the museum have been mixed, with some admiring its translucent veil and others comparing the building to a Bose radio or a cheese grater. Either way, it gave Los Angeles something to talk about, and something new to do on the weekend. September was also the month when Austin Beutner was fired as publisher of the L.A. Times. That kicked off a frenzy of speculation over whether Broad would buy the L.A. Times and restore it to local ownership. That did not come to pass, but he must have been flattered by the attention. To top it off, Broad undertook a controversial $490 million plan to double the number charter schools in L.A. Unified, with the goal of serving half of the district's children. Pretty big year for him.

The 10 Most Influential People in Los Angeles in 2015EXPAND
via David Ryu for Council District 4

9. David Ryu

It's hard to think of a Los Angeles politician who had a better year than David Ryu. A year ago, he was on leave from a job at a health services provider. He was one of 14 candidates running to succeed Tom LaBonge on the City Council. The favorite was LaBonge's chief of staff, Carolyn Ramsay, and Ryu was considered a long-shot at best. But he tapped into powerful opposition to the pace of development in neighborhoods from Silver Lake to Sherman Oaks. He finished a strong second in the primary and then scored an upset win over Ramsay in the May runoff, becoming the first-ever Korean American on the council. Since then, the currents that carried him into office have only grown stronger, with activists seeking a ballot measure to halt mega-projects.

The 10 Most Influential People in Los Angeles in 2015

8. Frank Gehry

The world's most famous architect got a loving retrospective at the L.A. County Museum of Art this year. Seeing the show, which runs through March 20, is like getting a tour of the top-secret Gehry Partners studio. The exhibit space is filled with models, sketches and photographs of famous works like Walt Disney Hall and the Guggenheim Bilbao, and some that were never built. But while he was being feted, Gehry was also being roasted for getting involved in the effort to naturalize the L.A. River. The L.A. River Revitalization Corp. invited Gehry to lend his ideas and technical expertise to the project. But that offended some old hands on the river, chiefly poet Lewis MacAdams, who blasted him as an interloper. It's not clear what exactly Gehry will contribute to the project or where the city will get the billions it needs to bring the river to life. But just having his name attached gives the project greater prominence and prestige. With that, what was once a forgotten storm channel may become more central to the city's identity.

The 10 Most Influential People in Los Angeles in 2015
via CNN

7. Alex Nogales

The story of the year in politics was Donald Trump. The orange-haired billionaire caused a stir when he entered the presidential race in June, vowing to build a wall at the border to keep out Mexican "rapists." Republican voters apparently liked what they saw, as Trump quickly took the lead in the polls and hasn't given it up. Trump also has many detractors, and among the most effective has been Alex Nogales. The president of the Pasadena-based National Hispanic Media Coalition has organized protests and boycotts, spurring the effort to get NBC to cut ties with Trump. Nogales also threatened a boycott of the PGA, leading to the cancellation of a tournament at Trump's golf course. His efforts haven't hurt Trump's poll numbers, but he did force powerful interests to rule a certain brand of anti-Mexican racism out of bounds for polite company.

The 10 Most Influential People in Los Angeles in 2015
Fortune Live Media / via Flickr

6. Casey Wasserman

Sports agent Casey Wasserman was named the most powerful man in L.A. sports by the L.A. Daily News this year — and that was in April, before L.A.'s 2024 Olympic bid, with Wasserman at the helm, arose Lazarus-like from the grave. L.A. got the nod when Boston got cold feet and backed out. That means that Wasserman has two years to convince the International Olympic Committee that L.A. deserves its third crack at the games. Wasserman, the 41-year-old grandson of late studio mogul Lew Wasserman, has been around this world before, having served as vice chair of L.A.'s 2016 bid. That didn't get very far. Neither did his effort to bring the NFL to downtown L.A. But the stars might be aligning this time. The Olympics have seen some costly boondoggles lately, leading many in the West to question whether it's worth it. After Boston withdrew, voters in Hamburg, Germany, pulled the plug on that city's effort as well. It's possible that only Los Angeles — where memories of the '84 Games are still fond — has enough community support to pull this off.

The 10 Most Influential People in Los Angeles in 2015
via Office of the Attorney General

5. Kamala Harris

The year began with Sen. Barbara Boxer's not-unexpected announcement that she would retire in 2016. While some political observers predicted a free-for-all, as a younger generation of ambitious politicians finally got a chance at one of the state's top jobs, it didn't work out that way. One by one they took a pass, clearing a path for the Kamala Harris. The California attorney general, who splits her time between L.A. and the Bay Area, has had a remarkable rise. She'll face lesser known Rep. Loretta Sanchez and three Republicans next year. Harris is nothing if not cautious. A trademark move came early in the year, when a malicious petitioner submitted a ballot measure calling for the death of gay people. She seemed to have but two choices: approve the measure for circulation, as the law appeared to require, and face the ire of LGBT groups; or reject it and face a lawsuit. Harris found a third option, filing her own suit seeking permission to reject the measure as patently unconstitutional. The gambit worked; the judge sided with her. More recently, she has faced unfavorable reports over campaign spending and lackluster fundraising. But she's still the odds-on favorite to become the state's junior senator in 2017.

The 10 Most Influential People in Los Angeles in 2015
Photo by Danny Liao

4. Tisha Banker and the activists behind Vaccinate California

When news broke in January about a measles outbreak at Disneyland, it sent Tisha Banker's family into a panic. Some of her relatives had been there in December when the disease began to spread, and it took a while to make sure everyone was OK. That moment turned Banker into an activist. She became one of a dozen volunteers behind Vaccinate California, the group that fought for and won state legislation mandating vaccines for schoolchildren. It was a difficult fight, pitting public health concerns against the fears of parents who worried that vaccines could do harm. Banker understood those fears because for a while she shared them. When she was pregnant she interviewed nine pediatricians seeking one who would agree to a delayed vaccine schedule. She eventually came to a pro-vaccine view. Banker and the other pro-vaccine activists balanced out the anti-vaccine demonstrators who flooded the Capitol trying to prevent the bill from becoming law. In the end, it was a (rare) political victory for science.

The 10 Most Influential People in Los Angeles in 2015
via YouTube

3. Michael Reich

Whenever anybody suggests raising the minimum wage, the business community argues that it will have the perverse effect of lowering employment. That makes sense. If wages are higher, it stands to reason that employers won't be able to hire as many people. But UC Berkeley economist Michael Reich has lately argued that the conventional wisdom is wrong. He contends that businesses can absorb higher labor costs thanks to lower turnover and higher productivity. Right or wrong, Reich's research gave L.A. leaders the backbone they needed to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020— which, as it takes effect, will lift earnings for hundreds of thousands of people. Reich's arguments are being picked up around the region and across the country.

Shamell Bell, Melina Abdullah and Povi Tamu-Bryant
Shamell Bell, Melina Abdullah and Povi Tamu-Bryant
Photo by Shane Lopes

2. The Women of Black Lives Matter

Police brutality has been an issue for generations, but this year it took on fresh urgency with the proliferation of cellphone video and body cams. The names of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray — all of whom died at the hands of the police or in police custody — were bound together into a nationwide movement for accountability. In Los Angeles, Patrice Cullors gave the movement a name: Black Lives Matter. Its key leaders tended to be well-educated middle-class black women. Melina Abdullah helped organize protests of Mayor Eric Garcetti, helping to shut down a community meeting in South L.A. That action generated big headlines and put the mayor back on his heels. Some more established leaders in the black community were offended, or embarrassed, but those aggressive tactics have given the protest its vitality.

The 10 Most Influential People in Los Angeles in 2015
via YouTube

1. Stacy Smith

USC professor Stacy Smith has been studying gender disparities in Hollywood for a decade, but this was the year the issue finally seemed to break through. It began with the revelation, via the Sony hack, that the lead actresses in American Hustle made less than their male counterparts. The issue gained momentum when Patricia Arquette called for wage equality for women at the Oscars. Smith, the director of the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC's Annenberg School, has been publishing annual surveys of gender representation in Hollywood films. One report found that of the directors of the 100 top-grossing films in 2013 and 2014, just 1.9 percent were female — a statistic that has been cited all over the place, including in an ACLU letter calling for a federal investigation. Smith and her colleagues released their most comprehensive report yet in August. In a survey of 700 films, they found that women made up just 30 percent of speaking roles, and that those characters were far more likely than males to be sexualized. The absence of women in directing, producing and writing jobs thus directly affects how women appear on screen and that affects how women and girls around the world see themselves. By carefully quantifying the disparity, Smith has helped shift the argument to what ought to be done about it.


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