Op-Ed: Eli Broad and L.A.’s complicated history with civic leaders with cash

Eli Broad at his Century City offices on Aug. 3, 2000.
Eli Broad at his Century City offices on Aug. 3, 2000.

(Los Angeles Times)

In Los Angeles, for better and worse, the rich we shall always have with us. The obituary tributes to Eli Broad have rightly noted the singularity of his achievements. At various points in the past three decades, he didn’t so much personify the city’s 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 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 south of the Tehachapis. The emblematic politician whose rise was funded by that generation of Chandlers and the Committee of 25 was Richard Nixon.

By the late 1950s, however, their hold over the region’s politics began to weaken and their determination to exclude Jews from the city’s 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 Center — most prominently Mark Taper, a savings and loan magnate, who, like Broad, made his fortune in L.A.’s suburban sprawl.


By the late 1960s, when Broad’s 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 city — and the nation — in 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 city’s 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 antiwar presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972.

Eli Broad, a billionaire philanthropist and art collector, played a central role in building such Los Angeles institutions as Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art before building his own museum, the Broad.

Palevsky was also the top donor and fundraiser of Tom Bradley’s successful and historic campaign as the first African American elected L.A.’s mayor in 1973. Like Broad, Palevsky also played a key role in the city’s contemporary art scene, including providing substantial funding to create the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Broad was a center-right Democrat frequently at odds with progressives like the Malibu crowd. While they funded McGovern’s 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, he 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.

Broad’s relationships with politicians were largely transactional, as is common for most business leaders. And, like most business leaders, he had no affection for unions, and he viewed the teachers unions as a public menace. Broad, like many of his fellow billionaires who’ve made charter schools their pet cause, attributed America’s rising inequality to the failings of public education rather than the offshoring of American industry, the rise of finance and the decline of unions.

He should have known better. 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 and the like, but over the next three decades, virtually all were merged into larger corporations headquartered elsewhere (the 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 Walt Disney Concert Hall stalled, the corporations that had once ponied up had been absorbed into bigger, distant mega-firms (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. Broad took it on, 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.

To cite the achievements of just one such movement leader, Miguel Contreras, who led the L.A. County AFL-CIO from 1996 to 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.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and a contributing writer to Opinion.