"Who runs L.A.?" repeated City Controller Laura Chick. "Labor. Contractors and vendors and lobbyists who do business with the city." Increasingly, she said, there has also been "more empowerment of communities, neighborhoods, activist groups, constituent groups ."
Instead it has become — well, listen to Villaraigosa describing in an interview his winning campaign formula: "I penetrated a broad swath of Los Angeles' ethnic and racial community . I'm not just talking about whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. I'm talking about the many different ethnic groups: Persians and Armenians, Israelis and Jews and East Indians and Pakistanis and Sri Lankans and Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos."
The early keepers of the Chandler dynasty sought to attract industry by thwarting organized labor. Today Los Angeles is considered a national model for union activism, in particular for its inroads into the immigrant population. This does not appear to be a short-term phenomenon.
"I think unions' power will grow," said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, "because local unions are dealing with the traditional union base, which is the people who do the work in this society, the immigrant populations, mostly Latino, who have begun to join unions in massive quantities — janitors, hotel workers hospital workers."
A city where corporate leaders came together as a "Committee of 25" and provided a sort of shadow government now has as its economic engine an army of lone-wolf entrepreneurs and small-business owners, churning away in anonymity with no time for lunch at the California Club or museum fundraisers.
In earlier Los Angeles, said former Mayor Richard Riordan, "you didn't have a lot of entrepreneurs. Today we have an overabundance of entrepreneurs."
And whether they are running small-bore businesses or international media conglomerates, they do not necessarily connect to the city and its pursuits in the same way power brokers of the past did. For starters, they tend to be too busy.
"It's not easy," said Alberto Alvarado, Los Angeles district director for the Small Business Administration, "to get up at 4 in the morning and work 18 hours a day" and then "move from that arena into the corridors of power and influence."
Also, at the opposite end of the entrepreneurial ladder, those engaged in international ventures — the Kirk Kerkorians and Sumner Redstones and the like — might live in Los Angeles, might have Harry Chandler-like fortunes, but the orbits of their interests can spin far beyond the day-to-day philanthropic and civic needs of the city.
"The secret to Southern California's old elites," said historian Mike Davis, "is that whatever they officially did as businesses — ran newspapers or studios or street car lines and so on — what gave them stability in terms of the local political landscape were their huge investments in L.A. dirt."
And today, he went on, "media barons and so on don't have the same kind of necessary relationship to the region."
"The super rich," said Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer active in Los Angeles on several fronts, "don't need the city for anything. It has nothing to offer them. The city has no jurisdiction over their deals. They don't need to borrow money ."
There is more wealth than ever in Los Angeles today.
"Los Angeles is thriving," said Steven S. Koblik, president of the Huntington Library. "The money is coming from all directions, and it's not always visible. You can run a ratchet company and make $100 million and become a player in this city."
Or you can run a ratchet company, make $100 million and start working in anonymity on the next $100 million.
None of this is to suggest that there is a universal yearning to re-create the Committee of 25. As real estate developer Steve Soboroff put it: "I can't think of anything scarier than having 25 corporate rich white people deciding what should happen to a city of millions of people."
And yet, there are trade-offs.
"I think what made the Chandlers great," said Franklin Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, "was that, yes, they had power, political power, social power, economic power, but they were willing to use it. Whether you agreed with them or not, they had a vision. And so you could mobilize for that vision or against that vision."