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Saturday, Sep 23, 2023

LEADERS—Follow the Leaders: Valley’s Power Elite Shifts

James Acevedo has been invited to join the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley several times over the years, but he’s never considered it until now. As a lobbyist and governmental affairs consultant, Acevedo, who led James Hahn’s successful mayoral campaign, needs to stay plugged in, but he’s never felt organizations like the Alliance represent the East Valley, where he lives, personally or professionally. Now, with a growing number of elected officials drawn from the Latino community that makes up most of the neighborhoods in the eastern and northern Valley, Acevedo sees a glimmer of change on the horizon. “It’s different when you have people who walked the streets there. It makes them different kinds of leaders,” Acevedo said. “They’ve gone out and chosen people from the community to sit on commissions and boards, and you’ll see that slow change.” As much as anything, the Business Journal’s lists of Valley leaders 25 who hold positions of economic and political power today and 25 whose stars are likely to rise over the next five years reflect Acevedo’s sentiments. Change is coming, even if it isn’t yet readily apparent. “What’s tended to happen is the population changes before the power structure changes, and that’s the history of all of Los Angeles,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. “There’s a lag time between getting your life together and getting settled in before they rise up and play a role. Generally, the business leadership in all parts of the city tends to be older and whiter than the population.” Since the years right after World War II when it emerged as a middle-class bedroom community, the Valley has grown into an urban center with Asians, Blacks, Middle-Easterners and Armenians and where Latinos represent the largest ethnic group. Many hold blue-collar jobs or small business operators earning wages well below the white collar professionals who came before them. Along with the demographic changes, the Valley’s business base has grown, from one centered in real estate and law to a broad array of industries including entertainment, technology and healthcare. “The Valley is in the midst of a major change in demographics,” said Joel Kotkin, senior fellow at Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University. “It’s become more of an urban area and less of a conventional suburban area.” To be sure, the Valley’s leadership reflects some of those changes, a shift from old boys to young turks, from old-line to first generation, from real estate money to paper money. Los Angeles City Councilman Alex Padilla, identified as one of the Business Journal’s emerging leaders, was born in 1973, more than 20 years after Bert Boeckmann, president of Galpin Ford Inc. and arguably among the most influential of the Valley today, began selling cars. Roberto Barragan, president of the Valley Economic Development Center, and one of the Journal’s emerging leaders, was born to Mexican parents. The parents of Bonny Herman, his counterpart at the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, who landed on the list of present-day influentials, hails from Boston. Another influential, Rick Caruso, president of Caruso Affiliated Holdings, builds shopping centers. Alvaro Villa, CEO of AVG Productions, tapped as an emerging leader, builds animatronic robots. Indeed, real estate, which produced eight of the Journal’s established leaders, only accounts for three of the emerging leaders. Five of the emerging leaders work in the area of technology, although only one of the established leaders comes from that sector. “Those numbers show the higher cost of entry into the old, established modes of economics,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “It costs a lot more to get involved in real estate than it did 20 years ago. Whereas in the new technologies your garage or your sweat equity can lead you to be the next Bill Gates.” Politics too has embraced the changing demographic profile of the Valley. In addition to Padilla, Assemblyman Tony Cardenas and State Sen. Richard Alarcon reflect the rising influence of both Valley Latinos and the Northeastern portion of the region. But for every young turk, there are several old boys still very much in prominence. The newer industries and ethnic groups have yet to unhinge the traditional power base, especially in the economic sector. For the most part, the newcomers have not reached the kind of economic critical mass they need to wield power. There’s little time to sit on a chamber board when you’re struggling to feed a family. Nor can you contribute to political campaigns when you’re working to meet the loan payments on your fledgling business. Even the professionals in entertainment and technology have little time to immerse themselves in the broader issues of the community. “Economic stability is what gives people the ability to do a bunch of things, said Acevedo, “to get politically active and socially active.” The fact is that change is slow, not only because newcomers are less equipped to seize power but because old-timers are reluctant to give it up. “Demographic change is really a matter of evolution,” said Gregory Rodriguez, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy institute. “This is something that takes generations. Some of the players will continue to be players for a long time to come by virtue of their social status.” Still, the staggering population changes are laying the groundwork for a wholesale change in the leadership sometime down the road. “The same social trends that led to political power will inevitably lead to economic power,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “The political marketplace demanded there be a ‘Padilla’ type. The economics will demand that there be Latino business leaders. It’s just a foregone conclusion.” The seeds are evident in the ranks of small businesses emerging in the Northeast Valley and in local schools. Latinas are taking over their father’s businesses and starting their own, often in non-traditional areas like construction. And women of all backgrounds are comprising an ever-larger slice of the student population at Cal State Northridge. “Economic power is still pretty limited in terms of white and male, but having said that, you’re seeing many more minority entrepreneurs and many more women entrepreneurs and the growth in those areas is in large part because women and minorities were quick to address their own markets,” said Bill Flores, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science at Cal State Northridge. “The female population is now the largest segment of the campus population and that’s pretty much the case in regards to every ethnic group.” How these changes will eventually affect the Valley’s future direction has yet to unfold. “The problem is that most of the political institutions will be captured and dominated by the old (economic) sectors,” said Guerra. “The new leaders are going to try to use government to benefit the new sectors, except they don’t have the juice. You see this everywhere where old sectors dominate politics and pursue things that advance those interests, so new, emerging technologies have to depend a lot less on government.” The potential influence of the growing Latino population is equally unclear. Reluctant to adopt the same stance as their counterparts in East Los Angeles, Valley Latinos have yet to define themselves as a block, pundits say. And as with the larger community, ethnic groups in general, and Latinos in particular, don’t vote as a unified group. Witness Padilla’s endorsement of Hahn in the mayoral race. Or President George W. Bush’s ability to attract 38 percent of the Latino vote in the presidential election. Still, there is some indication that many of those climbing the ladder to power come with a different sensibility that reflects their past. Their predecessors worry about home prices, traffic and taxes. They fret over housing, jobs and transportation. “To some extent, the people that become power players play the role that power players have had for a decade, but yes, they bring a different sensitivity,” said Rodriguez. “The Mexican Americans are only one generation away from the working class themselves and they bring a different level of consciousness.”

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