Eli Broad: The King of L.A.

Eli Broad, momentarily staring out at the panorama of Los Angeles from the Westside to the Pacific, busied himself in his 12th floor office, taking in the distant balmy winter afternoon palette of speeding cars on the San Diego Freeway and, above them and the swaying palm trees, jetliners gliding low and slow as they approached Los Angeles International.

To his staff passing by his open door, Broad struck the familiar image of the man they saw every day: Immaculately dressed in a business suit, his thick silver hair perfectly in place, his sturdy frame striking a pose men 20 years younger would envy -- the product of working three times a week with a professional trainer.

At 73 years of age, a personal net worth estimated at $6 billion, owner of a treasure trove of art and architect of part of the landscape emerging in his adopted home town, if anyone could be christened the king of Los Angeles, it would be Broad -- or as the Los Angeles Times called him, “the closest thing the city has now to a modern Harry Chandler, a ubiquitous power broker.”

But on this day in mid-January, his schedule of appointments come and gone, Eli Broad was having to endure what most people figure men of his stature rarely do. He could not yet go home to his 10,000-square-foot hillside home designed by Frank Gehry on four acres in Brentwood – where a 60-ton Richard Serra sculpture sits on his lawn and the balcony offers a shimmering vista of Mandeville Canyon below. Alone in his minimalist, beige-appointed office whose walls are adorned with several prints and lithographs by Jasper Johns and two acrylics by Mark Innerst, he could make no other plans. For the moment, he had been made equal to the housewife at the supermarket checkout, to the teenagers in line at movie theaters around town, to the tourists at Universal Studios, to fans at the Clippers game against the Golden State Warriors that night at Staples Center.

Eli Broad was having to wait.

His dinner plans had been changing throughout the day. Reservations had been made and cancelled. Later Broad would later politely insist that it “was not a big deal that the mayor changed the location. It was simply because the mayor's schedule changed.” But on that day, a Wednesday, just six days before Villaraigosa turned 54, Broad had been left up in the air -- cause for exasperation that perhaps only wives, loved ones and potential big business deals can be forgiven. But waiting was not something that he was accustomed to, nor that brings out his best attributes. For Eli Broad, the billionaire who dislikes being referred to one in print, is an impoverished man when it comes to patience. In college, he had given up pre-law because he said he was too impatient for law school. That impatience, however, led to a meteoric rise in business but a reputation for being brutally short with his time.

"Eli," his longtime friend and former mayor, Richard Riordan, said after touring museums in Europe with him, "doesn’t take the time to enjoy things.

"You walk through one of the most famous museums in the world with him and he spends about 10 seconds on each piece of art. Hiking ... you point out a great view, he looks, and 10 seconds later he’s talking about education."

Which is what Broad had on his mind for dinner conversation that night. Education. But it was a dinner for which Broad was having to learn, for him, the acquired taste of waiting – waiting until his office got word that it would be at Patina, the five-star restaurant at the Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown, which had come into prominence as a political power eatery during the 2000 Democratic National Convention which Broad had hosted.

 It would be the perfect location. Broad’s dinner guest that night was Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in what would finally be a formal rapprochement after their public spat -- over Villaraigosa’s legislative compromise watering down a full mayoral takeover of the city’s public schools -- that had lingered in the public eye for weeks and months.


Coincidentally, their dinner was taking place the same night that Villaraigosa unveiled his ambitious proposal to raise student test scores, reduce the dropout rate and improve the quality of education in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In a polished speech to some 100 elected officials, parents, educators and students gathered for a town hall-style meeting, the mayor evoked the image of an old-fashioned schoolhouse in outlining his appropriately named plan, “The Schoolhouse: A Framework to Give Every Child in LAUSD an Excellent Education.” Afterward, Villaraigosa hopped into his GMC Yukon for the three-fourths-mile, police-chauffeured drive from the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo to Disney Hall to join Broad at Patina.


"We had a three-hour dinner" Broad would later say of their breaking bread to bury the hatchet. "We talked about a lot of things. We may not agree on everything. We agree on about 95 percent of things."

But Broad wanted to make one point perfectly clear to the mayor:

"I said, 'Antonio, I’m not your lapdog that’s going to agree with everything you say.'"

The fact that Broad found it necessary to remind Villaraigosa about his independence and of not wanting to be taken for granted may have been an innate need to impress upon the mayor that he has some control in their decade-old relationship. Broad himself described it “a very cordial relationship” – but a relationship that effectively amounts to an investment, a political investment, to be sure, but still an investment not unlike the fortune he has put into his Warhols and other contemporary artwork.

"We drank a lot of good wine and talked about a lot of things," says Broad. "We’re great friends."

Meanwhile, Villaraigosa’s own assessment of the dinner was almost as brief as his response had been to Broad’s letter last summer.

“While Mr. Broad and the mayor don't always agree on every issue, they share both a deep mutual respect and an abiding commitment to improving our public schools,” said mayoral spokesman Matt Szabo. 

"The mayor was pleased to have a long and positive conversation with Mr.
Broad regarding the Schoolhouse framework on the evening of his education town hall."

As friendships go, the dinner between the two men underscored the reality of their mutual dependence: Arguably the richest man in Los Angeles with the ability to build fortunes and make kingdoms – but with the need to win over those in charge of public policy -- and the city’s most popular public figure with outsized ambitions that in a political world are increasingly dependent on wealth.

If ever there was a symbiotic relationship of two influential Angelinos with different outlooks on life and power, it is in Broad and Villaraigosa. Broad, Bronx-born son of Jewish émigrés from Lithuania who gave him a model home life in Detroit; Villaraigosa, the son of Mexican immigrants whose stormy marital breakup left him emotionally traumatized. Broad, who set education records in his home state of Michigan; Villaraigosa, the high school dropout who by his own admission “entered UCLA through the back door. Broad who at 21 married his hometown sweetheart, Edythe; Villaraigosa at the same age had the first of two children out of wedlock. Broad, who was a millionaire by age 30; Villaraigosa, sported “born to raise hell” tattoos while a union organizer at the same age. Broad, whose billions opened up a world of the arts and philanthropy; Villaraigosa whose ticket to those same worlds has been getting elected to public office. Broad, the idealist trying to use his fortune to improve education and find cures; Villaraigosa, who espouses idealism but know political power is built on compromise and backroom deals.

That their views would eventually clash on a solution to the education crisis in Los Angeles would seem inevitable, which is what happened last summer. With the mayor’s school district-takeover bill, AB 1381, in trouble in the legislature, Villaraigosa negotiated a deal with the teachers union and legislative opponents that saved the measure but radically limited the amount of mayoral control in the measure.

"I was disappointed that he frankly had to do this strange compromise with the unions which to me didn’t make sense," Broad recalled in a recent interview at his office in Murdock Plaza in Westwood, which is also home rapidly expanding Broad Foundation, which operates with $200 million donated by the family to improve governance, management and finances at the 65 largest urban school districts across the country.

Disappointment, Broad fired off a letter admonishing Villaraigosa for giving in and withdrawing his support of the legislation that he said would not provide “true mayoral control.”

"I wrote the letter out of frustration and never thinking it would go to the media," says Broad, "but I was naïve."

Both the letter and Villaraigosa’s surprisingly short, dismissive reply made headlines. More importantly, Broad’s unwillingness to support Villaraigosa’s bill has also meant that Broad and his money are now sitting out the upcoming school board election. Broad has contributed $15,000 to charter school operator Johnathan Williams, a candidate for a South Los Angeles school board spot, according to campaign finance reports – but that sum is far shy of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Broad poured into previous school board campaigns, when he and Riordan were attempting to gain control of the board.

In one of those campaigns, Broad reportedly offered to donate $10 million to Occidental College if its president, Ted Mitchell, would run against David Tokofsky, a school board member Broad and Riordan wanted out of office. Mitchell did not run, and Tokofsky won re-election.

"I’m not very involved in (this year’s) election," Broad said in an interview. "There are too many other things on the plate. (I’m) not heavily involved the way I was with Dick Riordan. Dick Riordan and I were really partners the way we raised a lot of money and so on. I’m not that involved."

Villaraigosa, meanwhile, has staked his political credibility in the school board race, hoping to elect a majority of board members that effectively would help him influence school reform – possibly his main means of doing so, with AB 1381 locked up in appeals after a Superior Court judge ruled it to be unconstitutional in January, half a year after the exchange of letters between Broad and the mayor.

Would the mayor wind up regretting the estrangement, knowing the extent of Broad’s willingness to financially back political campaigns in which he believed? His money had paid for a large chunk of the television advertising that helped defeat the 2002 San Fernando Valley secession attempt. He spent millions more on an unsuccessful county museum bond measure.

Instead, Broad had sunk his energies into the campaign to secure approval for the Grand Avenue project – his pet $2.05 billion development requiring tax breaks and land giveaways – that only last week got the final okay from city and county officials.

One of their rare appearances together over the past half year was in December when both Broad and Villaraigosa attended a History Channel competition of futuristic architectural designs for the city at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

For the better part of an hour that afternoon, Broad and Villaraigosa viewed exhibits of the architectural renditions, with an army of photographers, TV cameras and onlookers in tow. At each exhibit, an animated Villaraigosa pointed out aspects of the design to Broad, as if giving him a guided tour in which he appeared, in typical Villaraigosa fashion, as if he were trying too hard to please and entertain arguably LACMA's most influential trustee – who has given LACMA $60 million for the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, a new facility scheduled to open next February that is central to the institution's massive expansion plan and acquisitions.

"I want to live another hundred years!" Villaraigosa exclaimed at one exhibit of what Los Angeles would look like in the 22nd century. 

A smiling Broad patted the mayor on his back, leaned over and whispered to him.

"I can only look 20 years ahead," he had joked minutes earlier. "But I'm thrilled at what I see for the future."

How could he not be. If Broad’s personal imprint didn’t already loom over Los Angeles – the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown, the completion of Disney Hall, the expansion and redesign of LACMA, a new art center at UCLA, the underwriting of the L.A. Opera -- the Grand Avenue project will forever change the city skyline and set a course for future development in downtown. Is it any wonder that Broad loves to call Los Angeles "one of the four great cultural capitals of the world along with New York, London and Paris"? Broad, after, all loves hyperbole, going so far in championing Grand Avenue as to say it would be the “Champs-Elysees of Los Angeles” – a comparison he now begs off.

"Oh, I said that once and I’ve got to live that down," he says. "I think Grand Avenue has to be a Grand Avenue. It’s got the four venues of the music center including Disney Hall. People thought (calling it the Champs-Elysees) was overdone, over the top. (But) it does speak for itself."

Ultimately, what Grand Avenue does, Broad says, is to give Los Angeles a long-due identity, forcing a laugh as he recalls the Woody Allen joke that “the only cultural advantage in Los Angeles is being able to make a right turn on a red light.”

"Think about it," says Broad, "we’ve got a great opera with Placido Domingo, a great symphony and a great symphony hall, more theatrical productions… than New York, London or Paris, great universities and the biggest book market in America.

"But yet we’re viewed as a cultural wasteland and not a cultural oasis, which we are. So putting this all together and having a vibrant center, I think, helps everyone."

The Grand Avenue project, which Broad spearheaded, calls for 2,600 condos and apartments, a nine-acre recreational and cultural promenade, 400,000 square feet of retail space, a 275-room hotel and a 50-story translucent glass tower designed by Frank Gehry, the world reknown architect whose up and down history with Broad is not altogether that different that of Broad with Villaraigosa.

Those relationships perhaps say as much about the unknown Eli Broad, the man behind the curtain, and his frustration at times of finding that it can be far more difficult collecting people than art.

Gehry was also the architect of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a project that began in 1987 with a $50 million gift from Walt Disney's widow, Lillian, but which in 1996 remained unbuilt and in Broad’s words “was dead and ready to be buried.”

"Dick Riordan and I are friends and we said we can’t let it happen, so we raised (nearly $175 million) that we needed and it happened," said Broad.

But not before Broad attempted to fire Gehry, who years earlier had taken so long to complete Broad’s ultramodern Brentwood home that he hired another architect to finish the house. Gehry ultimately disowned the house, even excluding it from an architectural book of his complete works. Broad had made his first fortune building homes, a partner in Kaufman & Broad where he often had homes constructed in six weeks and didn’t have the patience to see Gehry through on his own personal house. Broad wanted to do the same thing in completing Disney Hall and sought to demote Gehry to handle only the design.

"He didn't believe I could get the building done," Gehry recalled in one interview. "He wanted the right to run the project with another architect. I couldn't accept that."

Only when Gehry threatened to resign altogether and Walt Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller intervened on his behalf was Gehry allowed to complete what he had started.

Today, Broad can’t say enough about Gehry. When he talks about how proud he is about the Grand Avenue project, his praise invariably includes the lines: "We’ve got a great architect, Frank Gehry" and "We’re great friends now."

But that is typical Broad, say people who know him: A micro-manager, even though he denies being one; obsessed and obsessive – Gehry has called him “a control freak”; your biggest cheerleader at times, your biggest critic as others.

"It’s in Eli Broad’s nature," former MOCA associate director Sheri Geldin to Los Angeles magazine in 2003, "to second-guess everything and everyone, regardless of your position in the world."

So there is hope for such future praise from Broad for Villaraigosa, whom Broad sees, in a sense, as his architect for education reform in Los Angeles, for education seems to be an issue that Broad holds as dear as his beloved Grand Avenue development or his art treasures that curators and dealers estimate at $500 million.

Broad’s various foundations have committed an no less than $2.25 billion to education, the arts and medical research, and The Wall Street Journal last summer called him and wife Edythe part of the “new wave” of philanthropists that include Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

"The biggest part of our foundation is education reform in urban areas," said Broad. "And we do believe in mayoral control. We believe what’s happened in New York with Mayor Bloomberg and in Chicago with Richard Daley and Boston with Tom Menino.

"They’ve made great stride in reforming and improving education and boosting certain performance. I’m convinced the future of this city is fully dependent on how you educate kids. And you cannot separate public education from other municipal (areas). It doesn’t make sense. It’s got to be all tied together.

"You cannot have a system where 39 percent of Latino children graduate. What happened to the other 61 percent? They go to gangs. They go to prison. They go to welfare. We’ve got to change education. We’ve got to create 21st Century education."

As Broad talks about education, his passion and commitment are obvious, which undoubtedly accounts, at least in part, for the frustration that built up last summer when he feels Villaraigosa compromised any kind of LAUSD mayoral takeover on the same scale as what mayors have achieved in New York, Chicago and Boston.

Broad will not say so publicly, but he hints at being exasperated with Villaraigosa, even after their dinner at Patina, especially when you learn that Broad believes he had set mayoral control in motion in August 2005, a little more than a month after Villaraigosa had taken office as a historic and symbolic figure: The city’s first Latino mayor in more than a century and the self-described “poster child for the American Dream.”

 Broad had been among those at City Hall at the mayor’s swearing-in ceremony inspired by Villariaogosa’s "Dream With Me" inaugural speech in which he had said, "Reforming our public schools is the central challenge facing Los Angeles, and it will be a central priority of my administration." So Broad tried to help out. He met with State Senator Gloria Romero, the State Senate Majority Leader from East Los Angeles, and shortly afterward she introduced Senate Bill 767 that would have allowed Villaraigosa to appoint the school board if schools failed key performance measures. To Broad’s surprise, Villaraigosa did not support the bill – his aides raising “concerns” about the measure – and that bill.

"The mayor," says Broad, "'wasn’t ready' at that time."

Villaraigosa has argued that Romero’s original bill was "premature" and that his subsequent bill, which Romero also sponsored, was better – arguable, Broad believes, given that mayoral authority was greatly watered down in the compromise measure which now looks doomed by court decisions.

In an interesting twist, even though Broad had disavowed any support for the compromised school takeover legislation, he tried unsuccessfully to sway the district from undertaking a legal challenge, writing in a letter to school board members:

"Despite our differences over the degree of control the mayor should have over our city's schools, I am hopeful that Villaraigosa will succeed in achieving a goal upon which many of us in Los Angeles can agree: an improved public school system that successfully educates every child for college, work and productive citizenship. Our city and our students deserve no less."

Somewhat ruefully, Broad today now says:

"I think (the mayor’s) answer is to go to the people and get a constitutional amendment."

It is as if Broad now recognizes Villaraigosa for what he is – not the artistic philosopher-prince that idealists often look for in their leaders but as first and foremost an artful politician, perhaps the consummate charismatic politician capable of succeeding at the polls with a better school district takeover plan that the one that has been diluted through legislative compromise and seemingly foiled by the courts.

"I’ve known Antonio for 11 years," says Broad. "I liked him in the Legislature. I liked him as Speaker (of the State Assembly). I supported him in his first time for mayor. When he lost that, he got involved with me and USC in trying to create a biomedical center."

Sandwiched in between were dozens of private meetings and conversations between the two men of which almost nothing has been reported – and what little has been talked about has been by sources unwilling to go on the record and risk offending either or both.

In its 2005 campaign profile of the future mayor, L.A. Weekly reported that while Assembly Speaker, Villaraigosa “to appease billionaire Eli Broad, sources say, he removed a requirement from the ($9.1 billion school-construction) bond that developers provide land or build new schools.”

After Villaraigosa’s 2001 mayoral election defeat, several news outlets reported that Broad recruited him to help wage a campaign to build a 100-acre biomedical research and industrial park near County-USC Medical Center, which had stalled because of County Supervisor Gloria Molina’s opposition to the project because it would require the cost of relocating the Juvenile Justice facility that sat on the site.

Villaraigosa, sources close to that project said at the time, was brought in to  lobby Molina – his onetime mentor and supporter, though their relationship had cooled over her objection to his well-publicized1994 extramarital affair -- and to use his Sacramento connection to obtain funds to relocate the Juvenile Justice facility.

The paradox of Villaraigosa’s bitter 2001 defeat may have been that over the next four years it brought both men closer, especially given the estrangement that came shortly after Villaraigosa’s 2005 triumph.

For the image that stands out most of Broad during that campaign was not of him with Villaraiosa but of him on primary election night, when Villaraigosa finished first in the voting, buoying hopes for the runoff among the thousands of supporters celebrating at Union Station in a scene that seemed more fitting of a Hollywood political movie.

Standing above the crowd, almost like a film director on risers to accommodate television cameras, was none other than Broad himself, a rare smile of controlled satisfaction on his face as he watched the celebration. Eli Broad, the impatient man, was taking the time to smell the roses. He would later tell friends that it was unlike any kind of satisfaction he had ever experienced – different even that the satisfaction that came with the 1998 sale of his SunAmerica to the AIG insurance group that netted him $3 billion, and, of course, much more satisfying than when he co-chaired Democrats for Nixon in 1972, something which he now hates to admit. The only thing he could compare it to, Broad said, was maybe creation, the birth of his two children.

Broad was seeing the birth of a new Los Angeles, a Los Angeles he says he recognizes to be different but of which he felt compelled to be a part of. To build a better Los Angeles and save the parts that needed rescuing, like his attempt with fellow billionaire Ron Burkle, to buy the Tribune Company and save the Los Angeles Times.

"I believe that local ownership is important for newspapers," Broad said in the recent interview. "It’s a civic trust. I think the Times is a great paper, but I think it has do more in the community. We’ve got to reinvent the American newspaper with the Internet and so on. It’s not a good business, we know. But we cannot lose the American newspapers. What would replace them? It’s part of our democracy. It’s part of civilization here."

Civilization. It is not a word you hear too often in 21st century America. It is the reason Broad invests so heavily in art and in the arts, and the reason he gives back so much – his money, his art, his time.

"My wife and I have a longstanding interest in giving back,”"Broad says. "We realized that our children were taken care of and we were very comfortable, so we focused on how we could make the greatest impact on society."

It’s all also part of a legacy Broad would like to leave: What is a man who does not leave the world better than how he found it?

"I’m not getting any younger!" he joked during the interview. "Maybe I ought to take a couple of days a week off!"

Broad will turn 74 on June 6, a day he celebrated when he turned 70 with a huge bash at his Brentwood house where Supremes legend Mary Wilson, a fellow native of Detroit, entertained and serenaded him with “Happy Birthday.” It was a birthday that was especially significant for Broad and which commemorates in his office with 34 framed pictures on a credenza with individual shots of his Broad Foundation team with the notation in calligraphy: "Happy Birthday from the Broad Class of 2003."

In the interview, Broad also spoke about his friend and former mayor Riordan in glowing terms, especially when juxtaposed against his comments about Villaraigosa.

 "I don’t think Dick Riordan did get enough credit for what he did in many areas," said Broad. "Disney Hall would not have happened without him. His legacy will be that he got people from all communities working together, whether it’s the Valley or the Westside, other parts of this city.

"I think he was a great leader. I think he knew how a city should work. He had a vision of what a great city should be and didn’t have enough time to make it all happen."

Then, almost as if offering advice to Villariagosa:

"(Riordan) was able to do things in education by using the bully pulpit, his personality, getting people like me and others involved.

 "I think Antonio has great energy. I think Antonio is a bridge between many communities. Antonio has a very different job now as mayor than in the legislature. Now he’s chief executive of this city. That’s different than being the head of a legislative body where you do all sorts of compromises.

"And I think he’s doing fine. I think he will focus more on specific things like education and other things in a different way going forward than he did in the first 18 months. I think he’s doing very good work in public safety with Bill Bratton. He’s a great police chief.

"(But) I think he’s got to build better bridges in the Valley and in Southeast Los Angeles. He’s got a lot of work to do."


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