How significant was Tim Leiweke to the deal between Anschutz Entertainment Group and Los Angeles for a football stadium? This is how significant: There is an escape clause in the agreement that makes the deal’s closing contingent on either Leiweke’s still being in place as chief executive officer or “a qualified replacement” having been named as his successor. The city gets to make that call, though it promises to “act reasonably” in determining whether the replacement is qualified. That language was placed in the agreement specifically because the city’s trust in the deal was based largely on its faith in Leiweke.
That’s a decidedly rare clause in any agreement, particularly one of this magnitude, and it suggests both the special place that Leiweke carved for himself in Los Angeles politics, as well as the special problems that his departure, announced last week, may now create.
There are plenty of successful business people in Los Angeles, and plenty of savvy political operators. What there aren’t is many who have mastered the city’s politics more consistently, over a greater period of time and to greater effect. Indeed, downtown Los Angeles exists in its current form because of Leiweke’s determined pursuit of the retail, sports and entertainment center that started with Staples and expanded into L.A. Live.
Not everyone loves it. I, for one, find it gaudy and anonymous, a collection of chain stores and restaurants you could find in Kansas City just as easily as here. (In fact, you can, as AEG has a similar project in Kansas City, with restaurants and stores adjacent to a sports arena). But it’s brought people and jobs to an area once occupied by parking lots, a few scruffy buildings and empty lots. It’s hard to argue with that.
L.A. Live’s most important achievement may be its very existence, which argues against the conventional wisdom that it’s impossible to build anything big in Los Angeles. The overlap between city and county government, the lack of strong leadership in so many key positions, the shortage of clear rules that allows councilmembers to make every project the opportunity for a stickup — all that has discouraged many a dreamer in this city. Too often, big projects go elsewhere, and, with them, jobs and economic activity.
Leiweke got his projects done by making sure that Los Angeles’ many interests all got something out of them. That wasn’t always pretty, and Leiweke sometimes resembled a ward boss. Labor got union jobs; community groups got parks or special treats; certain interests got donations to charity or programs for the homeless; politicians, of course, got political contributions.
Leiweke’s attentiveness to detail shows up in the breadth of his admirers. Madeline Janis is national policy director for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which works with labor, environmentalists and others to influence policy. Carol Schatz heads the Central City Assn., which defends business and tries to encourage the development of downtown. Schatz and Janis disagree about most things and dislike each other. And yet, they both admire Leiweke.
Schatz last week described him as a “force of nature” who “makes things happen.” Janis called him a “truly great civic leader.” Both lamented his departure, with Schatz expressing optimism that his successor will continue AEG’s commitment to the city and Janis ruing the dearth of business leaders who share Leiweke’s appreciation for what can be accomplished when business and labor work together.
Those rare points of agreement hint at what has made Leiweke a singular figure in contemporary Los Angeles. He got things done.
One memorable example of that dates back to 2002, when county supervisors were supporting a special trauma tax to pay for improved emergency medical services. As the campaign played out that summer, they were struggling to win over certain demographic groups, including Republican women. As it happened, just about that time, famed Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn fell at his Encino home and had to be rushed to the hospital, where he struggled for several days before dying.
So when County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was contemplating who might send a poignant message regarding the importance of trauma services, he lit upon Marge Hearn, the broadcaster’s widow. But Yaroslavsky did not know how to reach her, so he asked Leiweke for help. Two hours later, Marge Hearn had agreed to help. She signed a letter urging support for the tax, and supporters watched in wonder as the letter rippled through the electorate and pushed up its poll numbers. That fall, it passed with the support of 77% of voters.
“I’m forever grateful,” Yaroslavsky said last week. “Tim delivered.”
The ability to deliver made Leiweke powerful. Some people didn’t like it — and sometimes for good reason. But he proved that with the right leverage and the right friends, big things could get done in Los Angeles.