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Who Really Runs L.A.? Nobody's quite sure...

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Last night, Zócalo L.A. hosted a panel discussion at the Central Library to explore the question, “Who Really Runs L.A.?” The discussion, moderated by Mariel Garza of the Los Angeles Daily News, featured panelists Kerman Maddox, who works for public affairs consulting firm Dakota Communications; L.A. Weekly city hall reporter David Zahniser; political scientist and Director of Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. Jaime Regalado; and Los Angeles Magazine writer Jesse Katz.

The enigmatic (and possibly, pointless) question was debated for about an hour, launched by Zahniser’s comedic diatribe about who doesn’t run L.A., ultimately settling on immigrants as the real steam of the city engine. “Immigrants run Los Angeles, just not in the way we think they run Los Angeles,” said Zahniser. “It’s more like an object in motion stays in motion, and the people keeping the city in motion are immigrants.”

The primary difficulty underlying the panel’s discussion was the inability to define the nebulous concept that is “power.” Garza loosely suggested that power might be measured by one’s ability to get higher-ups to answer phone calls. Katz, echoing themes expressed in Los Angeles Magazine’s December 2006 list of the 100 most influential people in L.A., recommended going beyond “traditional notions of the business elite, the civic elite, the political elite.” To demonstrate that point, he offered up some more scrappy power folk such as Mark Lisanti of Defamer.

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The most interesting part of the discussion came when Maddox suggested Maria Elena Durazo of the L.A. County Federation of Labor and Regalado followed with labor giant Tyrone Freeman, sparking a discussion about the potency of labor today. Maddox stressed the power of labor and its relationship to issues "important with the regular people" such as jobs, wages, education and health care, but Zahniser rather deftly deflated the suggestion by adding, "I've had a hard time sensing where labor has made real strides in the city in the last two years."

Ultimately, panelists bandied about an assortment of potential local power brokers, including gang-battler Connie Rice; L.A. City Planning Department's Jane Blumenfeld, who passed a pivotal rezoning law easing the path for mixed-use projects; an assortment of philanthropists; church leaders; Ruben Castro, the head of the Mexican mafia; and even a denim model whose derrière has been the "face" of the denim advertising industry.

Zahniser probably summed it up best by acknowledging the preposterousness of the question itself. "Power is everywhere and nowhere. ... Is there ever going to be a center again of civic conversation?"

Zócalo has two more upcoming panel discussions: "Can Progressives Save Iraq?" on April 18 and "Is California Ready for Its Close-up?" on April 19. For more information, visit Zocalo.