Business isn’t boss, but it can lead L.A.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, served as executive director of the Los Angeles Appointed Charter Reform Commission. He is the author of "The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles."

THE DEATH of former Times Publisher Otis Chandler recalls a time when Los Angeles was largely defined by its business class and family owners: the Chandlers’ Los Angeles Times, the O’Malleys’ Dodgers and even the Disneys’ park in Anaheim. In that era of cozy provincialism, businessmen on the Committee of 25 reputedly ran City Hall, and unions were a marginal voice at best.

Today’s L.A. would be unrecognizable to any member of the Committee of 25. Not only have The Times and the Dodgers been sold to out-of-towners, but the city’s once quiescent labor movement -- which the Chandlers, among others, fought so hard to keep out of The Times and out of the city -- has become national labor’s success story.

Labor is now a central force in L.A. politics despite the recent death of one of its fabled leaders, Miguel Contreras, and the even more recent fall of his much-ballyhooed successor, Martin Ludlow, who resigned as executive director of the L.A. County Federation of Labor last month under a legal cloud. Candidates vie for labor’s powerful endorsements. Unions can raise huge amounts of campaign money, man phone banks and fill precincts with campaign workers. Labor is particularly effective in district-level campaigns -- City Council and school board -- where grass-roots efforts and endorsements carry the most weight.


As a result, majorities on the council and school board have tended to be pro-labor. But labor can also strongly influence citywide races. Both finalists in the 2001 and 2005 mayoral races were labor-friendly.

So where does that leave business? Clearly, business is the underdog at City Hall and can only count on a handful of officials leading with a pro-business agenda. The school board majority that former Mayor Richard Riordan helped into office is long gone, replaced by a pro-union panel. The business community at times is divided between downtown and Valley interests and must absorb a far more diverse network of owners.

But business still has significant clout in the realm where formal power gives way to influence. In recent years, it has become a source of innovative ideas for addressing civic problems that labor is almost too powerful and too connected to take on. Especially in the struggle for governance reform, business has a chance to reach the high ground.

No smart city politician courts business’ enmity or fails to seek its financial support, especially in the era of term limits, when campaigning for the next office seems to begin right after the swearing-in ceremony. Even the most liberal Democrat who wishes to run statewide cannot afford to ignore business dollars when the cost of a statewide campaign can run into the millions and when the centrist image that business support bestows is a valuable political asset.

And labor is not a monolithic machine. Riordan was elected mayor twice despite the opposition of many elements of organized labor. The city employees and private-sector unions that share membership in the County Federation of Labor do not always see eye to eye.

In 2001, the labor movement split in the mayor’s race, with the county federation backing Antonio Villaraigosa and the city employees going with James K. Hahn. In 2005, the federation and city employees went with Hahn, with the teachers union and Department of Water and Power workers siding with Villaraigosa.


Nor does labor always get its way in elections in which image, issues, independent wealth (as in Riordan’s case) or ethnic identification can top its organizational strength. Villaraigosa, although a longtime member of labor’s family, is not in lock step with a union agenda. His drive to take over governance of the Los Angeles Unified School District directly challenges United Teachers Los Angeles, which carries great weight with the school board. And a budget-conscious Villaraigosa will probably not be as generous as city unions would like him to be when their contracts come up for renegotiation in the spring.

But labor is still more powerful politically than business. A result is that business now sells its ideas in a competitive political marketplace. One of its successes is that most politicians, from council members to the mayor, want to be seen as “business-friendly” by advocating less government regulation and lower business taxes, especially for small businesses. This not only wins these politicians campaign dollars from business, it is also popular and reasonable. Labor-supported elected officials must respond to the need for a healthy private sector to generate tax revenue to fund their programs.

Because business doesn’t run things anymore, it has the opportunity, greater than ever before, to provide leadership in civic reform. This role isn’t about power but about influence. Labor can’t easily play this role because a union’s effort is primarily directed at the day-to-day interests of its members. Business can’t be a voice for reform, though, if it simply tries to advance its interests at the expense of labor. Instead, if it can stimulate and encourage genuine community improvement, it can add great value to civic life. As the League of Women Voters has long known, holding the high ground of credibility on reform can be more influential than formal power.

In the 1990s, business leaders played a key role in bringing about radical reforms in Los Angeles. Warren Christopher, one of the city’s leading private citizens and a prominent lawyer with close ties to the business community, led a historic reform of the Los Angeles Police Department. Because of the Christopher Commission, voters for the first time brought the LAPD under true civilian control, which has led to closer monitoring of police behavior in the community.

Businessman-mayor Riordan was the driving force behind the first comprehensive City Charter reform in 75 years, and one of the two charter commissions was headed by attorney George Kieffer, later president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The new charter enhanced the mayor’s authority and accountability and created new mechanisms -- neighborhood councils and area planning commissions -- for citizen participation.

There are still many opportunities for business to be a leader in civic reform. The proposed mayoral takeover of the school district, public pensions and the future of campaign finance laws all need energetic civic leadership, and business leaders should play a role in that.

So business still helps shape the outcome of battles even if the lay of the political land has gotten much tougher. Mourning a past role is an obstacle to carving out present and future roles. A nimble, effective, diverse and decentralized L.A. business class, built around a different kind of city, may be able to create its own history -- and help the city as well.