Owners of The Forum and Los Angeles Clippers are waging an expensive proxy war in Inglewood, pumping nearly $1 million into the race for Inglewood mayor in a bitter dispute over potentially competing arenas on each side of a new NFL stadium.
Battle lines are clearly drawn in the fight between Steve Ballmer, who owns the Clippers and supports two-term Mayor James T. Butts Jr., and the Madison Square Garden Co., which owns the revitalized Forum concert venue and supports challenger Marc Little.
MSG has gone to court to try to block a new arena for the Clippers because it would directly compete with The Forum for business. The New York-based company sued the city of Inglewood and the mayor earlier this year after alleging the mayor tricked executives into giving up land for the Clippers arena by promising it would be used for a technology park instead.
The company backed Butts in prior races, but is now backing Little, a lawyer and pastor at the Inglewood-based Faithful Central Bible Church. At the same time, companies tied to the Clippers have amassed a war chest to support Butts. Ballmer has said he’ll relocate the Clippers to Inglewood “come hell or high water.”
Money flowing into race
In the past two months, MSG contributed more than $614,400 directly to Little’s campaign, in chunks ranging from $50,000 to $250,000 at a time. Other donations have flowed to Little from celebrities like reality TV star Kris Jenner, actress Jennifer Morrison and musician Joe Walsh. None of his contributions has come from Inglewood residents.
Butts’ largest supporters are contractors, investment firms and companies doing business in Inglewood. Ballmer contributed $220,000 on Oct. 24 to support Butts through an independent committee. Other contributions — $10,000 and $20,000, respectively — have come from Murphy’s Bowl, the LLC behind the arena project, and Hollywood Park, the former racetrack where a new NFL stadium is under construction.
In an interview, Little said he understands people may perceive the money as an attempt to influence him, but he argued he would still support a Clippers arena, even if MSG opposes it. The money from MSG is necessary to break through in a community that Butts has “locked up,” he said. Little’s campaign has spent more than $100,000 for ads on television networks ranging from BET and FX to the Hallmark Channel and VH1.
“Everybody is intimidated by him,” Little said. “Madison Square Garden is the only independent voice in the community today.”
Little said he’s chosen to accept corporate support rather than ask members of his church community — the group most familiar with him — to donate.
Mayor ‘unaware’ of Ballmer donation
In an email, Butts said it’s “incorrect” that he received support from companies with ties to the Clippers.
“I was unaware that Steve Ballmer donated to any (independent expenditure) for this race and have only your word for that,” Butts said. “How could you be beholden to someone when you are unaware of their participation and have no input into what the IE committee does?”
Ballmer and Hollywood Park’s donations were made to an independent committee called the “Inglewood Coalition for Safe Streets and Good Jobs — Re-elect Mayor Butts 2018.” The committee does not take direction from Butts. The mayor has separately raised about $300,000 through his own campaign, according to campaign disclosures.
“I have always been independent and will always make decisions in the best interest of residents,” Butts said in an email.
In a dueling statements, both MSG and the Clippers continued to stump for their candidates. Howard Sunkin, a spokesman for the Clippers and the independent committee backing Butts, said the involvement of MSG is “unconscionable.”
“We believe the people of Inglewood have a right to self-determination,” he said in a statement. “It is unconscionable that New York-based commercial interests are spending more than $1 million to try and buy a mayor. Mayor Jim Butts has been a transformational leader for the City of Inglewood and deserves the support of residents and business owners.”
MSG abandons prior support for Butts
Campaign documents showed roughly $700,000 raised by Little’s campaign as of Oct. 24.
In a statement, a MSG representative said the company regularly supports candidates and committees “when appropriate.”
“MSG is a long-term stakeholder and community member in Inglewood,” a MSG company spokesperson said in a statement. “We have contributed to Marc Little’s campaign because we believe he is the right candidate to lead Inglewood into the future.”
MSG has donated heavily in the past to support Butts and his allies, something Little pointed to as a hypocrisy among those crying foul now.
Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and expert on government ethics, said such large single donations can create a perception of corruption, even if no strings are attached. That perception is why many cities have contribution limits, she said.
“It’s really high for what we would expect to see in this kind of race, but given the question of where to build the arena, $600,000 is basically a coffee break for them,” she said.
Though Little says he would support a Clippers arena, he isn’t committed to the current location near Prairie Avenue and Century Boulevard.
Little wants to verify the land can’t be used for affordable housing before he supports that site. Butts and city officials have said an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration limits the potential uses. Little is willing to find other space for the Clippers, if necessary. He said a partnership with MSG might be an option, too.
MSG has argued it isn’t opposed to a Clippers arena, but that the company deserves a seat at the negotiating table.
Little no stranger to Inglewood
Little moved to Inglewood in July after having worked in the community for decades. The timing of the move was intentional to qualify for the race. He said he has wanted to relocate to Inglewood for years but had struggled to sell his home. The house hasn’t sold yet and Little’s family is currently living in a condominium. The stakes were too high to wait for the perfect circumstances, he said.
Little faces an uphill battle in the election. He is a registered Republican in a heavily minority community with one of the highest percentages of Democrats in the state. In an interview, he was quick to stress he does not support President Donald Trump.
“I’m not hiding that I’m a Republican, I’m not hiding that I moved to Inglewood in July to do exactly what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m not going to be a politician and deceive people about my party affiliation.”
Little isn’t a stranger to Inglewood. He was part of the negotiations — along with Butts — when Faithful Central Bible sold the Forum to MSG in 2012. The two men were allies until their relationship soured as the fight over the Clippers arena heated up.
Little alleges Butts tried to get him fired from the church and removed from the Chamber of Commerce after Little attempted to mediate the dispute between MSG and the city. Little sued Butts over the allegations, but then dropped the case — and gave up his right to sue — after he decided to run for mayor.
“It was only after I stood up that I began to understand the abuse that people were suffering under his leadership,” Little said. “When I become mayor, that abuse of power will stop.”
Butts has denied the allegations. Court filings show Butts’ attorneys planned to challenge Little’s argument that he had been harmed by Butts’ actions. Little did not lose his job and is still a member of the chamber, the attorneys stated.
Butts said he has no issues with The Forum even after the hostilities. The city did not initiate the lawsuits, he said.
If re-elected, “life will go on as it did before,” he said.
3 other candidates in race
The money flowing into the campaigns has drowned out the other three candidates in the race for mayor, including retired nurse Mohamed Ben Amour, entrepreneur Brandon George Myers and business owner Joseph Soto. They each have raised less than $10,000. Soto could not be reached for comment.
Myers said he isn’t discouraged by the billboards for Little and Butts that he says he sees “every two blocks.”
“Their money is able to reach the masses of people,” he said. “We’re passing messages, we’re spreading by word of mouth.”
Ben Amor similarly described his campaign as grass-roots. He called both Little and Butts “crooks.”
“I’m going to be doing what the people ask me to do, not what the big businesses ask me to do,” Ben Amor said.
Butts credits himself with ‘transformation’
Inglewood is undergoing an economic transformation, driven in large part by the revitalized Forum, the new NFL stadium for the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers and other large investments in the community. Butts has led the city through these deals and often is credited with Inglewood’s successes.
Butts, a former Inglewood police captain first elected mayor in 2011, lists a drop in unemployment, lower crime rates, increased property values and investments by the NFL, MSG and potentially the Clippers as his accomplishments. Moody’s Investors Services noted Inglewood’s stronger fiscal strength in 2016 and 2017, but also advised investors to expect Inglewood’s fiscal position and reserves to “decline in fiscal 2018 and 2019 to levels that are consistent … with the city’s historical levels.”
Last year, Inglewood ended the fiscal year with a $25 million surplus, which Butts touts as a $46 million “turnaround” from the $18 million deficit he inherited in 2011. Despite the surplus, the city just narrowly avoided a $17 million deficit last year, and has dipped into its reserves three of the past seven years.
Using a higher credit rating, the city covered the missing revenue by refinancing pension obligation bonds. The $25 million left over — the entire surplus mentioned by Butts — was put into the reserves.
The budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year projects a $56,000 surplus. But at least $2.25 million of the revenues hinge on “ongoing negotiations” that Butts called “confidential.” Another $7.5 million is listed as “developer fees,” but officials have been unable to provide a more specific explanation over the past 10 days.
Little called the city’s accounting “funny math.” He’s pledged to address “fiscal mismanagement” if he becomes mayor.
“What he is doing is waiting for the football lottery to hit, it’s that simple,” Little said. “We need a forensic audit of the city.”
City faces major issues
Inglewood faces several issues in the near future, particularly from the complications caused by having a concert venue, a stadium and a potentially a basketball arena next to each other.
Butts said one of his priorities is limiting the impacts of these new developments on the day-to-day lives of residents. He wants to build a new connector — potentially a city-run people mover — to link the Metro’s new Inglewood station to the stadium project for the 2022 Super Bowl. He also wants to add 20 police officers in the next four years.
All of the candidates described a desire to help revitalize the Inglewood Unified School District, which has suffered from financial instability for years and was taken over by the state in 2012 under a cloud of mismanagement.
Little, Myers and Ben Amor agree there is a need to tackle Inglewood’s growing affordability problem. While property values are skyrocketing, some renters fear they’re being priced out of the city.
Little and Myers said they support Proposition 10, the state initiative that would make it easier for cities to enact rent control. A regional assessment found a need for up to 567 very low- to moderate-income units by 2021, but activists and Butts’ challengers have criticized the city’s leadership for allegedly prioritizing sports venues over homes.
The city will add 180 affordable units in the next three years, according to Butts. He argued the affordability problem in Inglewood is not unique as rents are rising across the state. Rents in Santa Monica — which has rent control — are much higher than in Inglewood, he said. For comparison, the median income is $44,000 in Inglewood and $82,000 in Santa Monica.
“We will monitor investor acquisition of apartment buildings,” he said. “If we see a trend for wholesale eviction, I will recommend local legislation to stop this.”
Controversy swirls around mayor
Butts has frequently been embroiled in controversy during his tenure in Inglewood. Earlier this year, he was caught on camera telling a resident to “go choke yourself” at the end of a City Council meeting. When activists called him out, someone in the city edited City Council recordings to remove his comment.
Butts has been investigated by the District Attorney’s Office for allegedly asking trash haulers to hire his brother. The company that did got a $100 million contract from the city. Butts’ brother was also his tenant at the time, according to a bankruptcy filing, but Butts denies ever asking anyone to hire him. The district attorney declined to file charges.
Earlier this year, Butts bought a house from a city contractor for less than the asking price, according to the Los Angeles Times. He also is under investigation by the FPPC because of a complaint that alleges he lent $160,000 to another councilman’s campaign that has still not been repaid, according to KCET.
Butts has complete support on the Inglewood City Council, where not a single dissenting vote was cast from June 2016 to June 2018, according to an analysis by this news group. Weekly council meetings last just an hour on average.
The mayor is paid $111,000 a year for what is considered a full-time position.
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