A version of this article first ran in the Los Angeles Times.
In Los Angeles as everyplace else, the rich, for better and worse, we shall always have with us. The obituary tributes to Eli Broad have rightly noted the singularity of his achievements, most notably, making the city an epicenter not just of creating contemporary arts, but of exhibiting them as well, and most, in a sense, stamped with his name. At various points in the past three decades, he didnt so much personify the citys business-civic elite as actually comprise it in its entirety.
But the Broad version of rich-man civic engagement was just one of many that Los Angeles has seen. In the first half of the 20th century, the Chandler family, which owned the Los Angeles Times and a good deal else around town, and the Committee of 25, which consisted of leading local insurance, banking, and retail magnates, dominated local politics. Together, they ensured that neither unions nor liberals nor moderate Republicans would get much support from Southern California. The emblematic politician whose rise was funded by that generation of Chandlers and the Committee of 25 was Richard Nixon.
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By the late 1950s, however, their hold over the regions politics began to weaken and their determination to exclude Jews from the citys civic and political elites had become an obstacle to building a more vibrant Los Angeles. It was a Chandler by marriage, Dorothy Buff Chandler, who reached out to a number of Jews to help fund the construction of the Music Centermost prominently Mark Taper, a Savings and Loan magnate, who, like Broad, made his fortune in L.A.s suburban sprawl. Two of the Centers three theaters are named after Chandler and Taper.
By the late 1960s, when Broads KB Homes was building thousands of homes in the San Fernando Valley and on L.A.s peripheries, other major donors emerged to push the politics and culture of the cityand the nationin a decidedly progressive direction.
Like Broad, this group, sometimes known as the Malibu Mafia, consisted of Jews who were born back East and ended up on L.A.s Westside. Four of them initially came together to back candidates who opposed the Vietnam War: Stanley Sheinbaum, an economist whose fundraising prowess turned the citys ACLU into a local liberal powerhouse; Harold Willens, who funded and founded the nuclear weapons freeze movement; Norman Lear, whose shows brought liberal perspectives to network television and whose People For the American Way pushed back against Reagan-era intolerance; and Max Palevsky, a pioneering computer entrepreneur, who became the leading funder of the anti-war presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972.
Palevsky was also the leading donor to and top fundraiser for Tom Bradleys successful and historic 1973 campaign for L.A. mayor, when he became the first African American to preside over an American mega-city. Like Broad, Palevsky also played a key role in the citys contemporary art scene, including providing substantial funding to create the Museum of Contemporary Art.
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Broad was a center-right Democrat frequently at odds with progressives like the Malibu crowd. While they funded McGoverns campaign, Broad recoiled from it and co-chaired Democrats for Nixon. The political leader to whom he was closest, personally as well as politically, was his Brentwood neighbor Richard Riordan, the Republican mayor of Los Angeles from 1993 to 2001. At the state level, Broad ended up funding the elections of conservative Democratic legislators in Sacramento who favored the spread of charter schools, which he fervently supported; some also opposed ambitious climate change legislation, as they were also funded by the fossil fuel industry.
Broads relationships with politicians were largely transactional, as is common for most business leaders. He backed liberals like longtime Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, who was a strong supporter of the home-building industry, moderate Republicans like Riordan, and occasional right-wingers like Nixon. Like most business leaders, he had no affection for unions, and viewed the teachers unions as a public menace. Broad, like many of his fellow billionaires whove made charter schools their pet cause, attributed Americas rising inequality to the failings of public education rather than the offshoring of American industry, the rise of finance, systemic racism, and the decline of unions.
Beyond the estates of the rich, the most fundamental changes to Los Angeles have been the work of social movements far removed from the worlds of wealth.
He should have known better, as it was financialized capitalismin particular, the wave of mergers and acquisitionsthat positioned him to be the Lone Ranger of L.A. billionaire largesse in all things cultural. When Broad came to the city in the early 1960s, L.A. was the headquarters for a range of major banks, oil companies, motion picture, and aerospace companies. Some of them were major donors to L.A.s museums and concert halls, but over the next three decades, virtually all were merged into larger corporations headquartered elsewhere (the one major exception was Disney).
Big corporations often feel some obligation to fund projects in their hometown, but by the 1990s, when the fundraising effort for the Walt Disney Concert Hall stalled, the corporations that had once ponied up had been absorbed into bigger, distant mega-firms (the oil company ARCO was a prime example). When Riordan turned to Broad to find the funds to build the concert hall, it was not just because he was a friend but also because, well, there was no one else around who could do it. Riordan had tried to form a new version of the Committee of 25, but the flight of corporate headquarters and corporate leaders made that an impossible task. So Broad took up Riordans challenge, succeeded, and moved on to his grand design of turning Grand Avenue into a kind of cultural Acropolis.
That Broad stepped up when he did, with a vision that enhanced L.A.s cultural institutions, was a notable achievement. But it was hardly the only notable achievement that has transformed the city in recent decades.
By their efforts, rich, progressive donors like Palevsky and Sheinbaum helped reshape what had been a conservative and parochial political culture into a more liberal and tolerant one. And beyond the estates of the rich, the most fundamental changes to Los Angeles have been the work of social movements far removed from the worlds of wealth.
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To cite the achievements of just one such movement leader, Miguel Contreras, who led the L.A. County AFL-CIO from 1996 through 2005, remade the local labor movement into a vehicle for the political mobilization of millions of immigrants and Latinos. That movement turned Los Angeles into a bastion of liberalism and, ultimately, California from a purple state to a blue one.
The social movements and political forces that such Angelenos helped galvanize transformed the city perhaps less visibly but no less fundamentally than the many works of Eli Broad.
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