Los Angeles: Drawn by Committee

By Jack ShakelySeptember 23, 2012

Los Angeles: Drawn by Committee

THIS SUMMER THE AIRWAVES are filled with people saying government should be run like business and, in fact, business executives should run government. Which brings to mind the question: has it ever happened before? The answer, as it turns out, is yes. The year was 1952, and the place was Los Angeles.

Gertrude Stein made her famous put-down "There is no there there" about Oakland, but in Los Angeles just after World War I, there wasn't much here here, either.

In 1920 Los Angeles was a city of a half million people, smaller than Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, St. Louis, or Detroit. By 1945 there were three million of us and everything had changed. People scattered everywhere for good jobs and affordable housing — El Segundo, Torrance, the San Fernando Valley — and people started referring to themselves as Southern Californians, rather than Los Angelinos (the capitalized "Southern" was insisted upon by legendary LA Times owner Harry Chandler, and it stuck). After the war, we even changed the way we pronounced our city. Old-timers called it "Las Angle-less," as if it had no corners. "Las Angeles" was how out-of-towners pronounced it, and since we became a city of out-of-towners, "Las Angeles" won out (with the exception of announcers on Univision, nobody has ever pronounced our first name right).

In the 1940s and 1950s, new residents of our sprawling city were by and large indifferent to local politics and we got the incompetent, occasionally corrupt, politicians such ennui often fosters. This was bad for business, and a group of businessmen decided they had had enough, and took control.

This was the Committee of 25 and its power for more than a quarter of a century simply cannot be overstated. Steve Gavin, my boss at the California Community Foundation for a decade, was the unofficial secretary to the Committee. And unofficial was the byword. The Committee of 25 had no bylaws, no membership roster, no minutes and as little in writing as was humanly possible. Even historians such as Kevin Starr give the group only passing mention, because so little was committed to paper. Starr's book about post-WWII Los Angeles, Golden Dreams, mentions the Committee only twice. The Committee of 25 knew who they were, even if we didn't, and they knew what they had to do.

The ringleader of the Committee (there were no elections or officers, of course) was the pugnacious and brilliant Asa Call, president of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company. "Are you paying $500 just to talk to Sam Yorty?" a bemused colleague once asked Call about a very expensive fundraising dinner for one of our mayors. "No, I'm paying $500 to make sure the sumbitch listens," Call answered calmly.

Los Angeles mayors, starting with Norris Poulson in 1953, listened carefully. Poulson was a relatively inexperienced congressman and a virtual unknown in local politics, but by the time the Committee of 25 got through with him, he swept into office, where he stayed for eight years. The lesson was not lost on other mayoral hopefuls. Sam Yorty, who seldom listened to anybody, listened just enough, and Tom Bradley listened a lot. Perhaps no one listened quite so intently, at least during his two terms as governor, as Ronald Reagan. Many members of the Committee of 25, men like Justin Dart, Milo Bekins, William French Smith and Alfred Bloomingdale, would show up later as part of then-president Reagan's Kitchen Cabinet.

The Committee of 25 read like a who's who of Los Angeles business: Bank of America's Chauncey Medberry, department store moguls Ed Carter, Phil Hawley, Norman Barker and Neil Petree, Howard Ahmanson, Armand Hammer, Norman Chandler, John Argue and Holmes Tuttle, among others. They met for lunch in the private upstairs dining room of Perino's restaurant in mid-Wilshire, close to Hancock Park and home for many of the members. Some of the committee members wanted to meet at the exclusive, and restricted, California Club, but Lew Wasserman, the group's only Jewish member and a favorite of Buffy (Mrs. Norman) Chandler, said he'd have to rethink his financial support of the Music Center if they did, so the California Club was out. (There were, and are, two very prestigious private clubs in Los Angeles — the Jonathan Club and the California Club. The old adage was that the Jonathan Club was for people who ran Los Angeles; the California Club was for people who owned Los Angeles).

The Committee's agenda was highly focused and limited: law and order and business-friendly city ordinances. It got both, but not without some back-room hardscrabble. Tired of blowhard, and decidedly loose-cannon mayor Sam Yorty, the Committee took advantage of the Los Angeles anomaly that the police chief position was independent of the mayor. By stacking the police commission, they made sure their choices, first William Parker and later Daryl Gates, got the chief's badge. Long-time Los Angeles County Sheriff Peter Pitchess was also a Committee favorite. So they got law and order their way, while Sam Yorty went his.

The Committee was also instrumental in bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1957 and, in one of its biggest and last achievements, snaring the 1984 Olympics, which became the first and probably last Olympics to make money.

But the Committee tended to ignore long-term, and expensive, infrastructure investments like paving city streets, building parks and improving public transportation. As a result Los Angeles is what one local newspaper calls "perennial medal winner in the worst roads of America contest;" we have one of the worst parks to people ratios of any major US city; and our subway system came in decades late and billions of dollars over original estimates. If the Committee of 25 had wanted more public parks, today we would have more public parks. If it had wanted better public transportation, we'd have better public transportation.

The Committee of 25 took an apathetic and fragmented community and breathed civic pride and orderly government into it. But its pro-business focus was both its strength and its weakness. Next time you hear people say government should be run like a business, remind them that is exactly what happened in Los Angeles, with decidedly mixed results.


LARB Contributor

Jack Shakely is president-emeritus of the California Community Foundation and is former chair of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission.


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