Business & Economy

How James Butts made Inglewood LA's unlikely NFL frontrunner

“I don’t think I have a chip on my shoulder,” said James T. Butts. “But I do find it fascinating that this story seems to always revolve around the stadium, as though this is something that fell out of the sky.”
“I don’t think I have a chip on my shoulder,” said James T. Butts. “But I do find it fascinating that this story seems to always revolve around the stadium, as though this is something that fell out of the sky.”
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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For years, politicians have tried to lure an NFL team back to Los Angeles. None have succeeded yet, but Inglewood mayor James T. Butts has come closer than any, making Inglewood an unlikely frontrunner.

He is not shy about his accomplishments.

“If this were Los Angeles or New York, people would say, 'Gosh, that mayor is a genius!'” screamed Butts last month, after Inglewood’s city council unanimously approved plans for a $1.86 billion NFL stadium.

When KPCC sat down with Butts recently at Inglewood City Hall, he said "60 Minutes" should be doing a profile on him.

He wants everyone to know that more than 25 years after the Lakers and Kings left Inglewood's “Fabulous” Forum, "The City of Champions" is back - and it wasn't just luck.

“I don’t think I have a chip on my shoulder,” said Butts. “But I do find it fascinating that this story seems to always revolve around the stadium, as though this is something that fell out of the sky.”

Butts says Inglewood’s image as a haven for violent crime and graft hasn’t helped.

“The city didn’t have the best reputation as it related to our government persona,” he said.

In 2010, Roosevelt Dorn, who had been mayor for a decade, pleaded guilty to public corruption. Two years later, the city’s insolvent public schools were taken over by the state. Rod Wright, who represented Inglewood in the state Senate, resigned last year after being convicted of voter fraud.

There’s also the race factor.

“It’s easy to discount a city that now is mostly black and brown,” said Butts. “No one would believe that — 'How could they play in this billion-dollar sweepstakes?'”

And be winning it, at least for now.

AEG’s Farmer’s Field downtown? Officially dead.

Real estate developer Edward Roski’s plans for a stadium in the city of Industry? Unofficially dead.

The Raiders and Chargers sharing a site in Carson? Butts says they’re copycats.

“The Carson scenario sprang up almost overnight after we announced our stadium proposal,” he said.

Turning Inglewood around

Butts moved to Inglewood just before running for mayor, touting himself as an outsider who could clean the city up. He did serve for nearly two decades in Inglewood’s police department before leaving to Santa Monica, where he was chief of police for 15 years.

“I come from a results-oriented discipline, where if you don’t get the job done, people are in danger or get hurt,” said Butts.

That discipline was tested as soon as Butts got into office; the city was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, in danger of following in the footsteps of San Bernardino and Stockton.

“It was shocking,” remembers Butts. “It was demoralizing.”

Inglewood was burdened by pensions so generous that even if a retired employee remarried, the new spouse would get full healthcare on the taxpayers’ dime.

The city struck concessions from six unions to save hundreds of millions of dollars in pension liabilities and turned around the city’s finances, says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Inglewood-based Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.

“The thing that the mayor was able to do was bring, essentially bring, financial responsibility to the city of Inglewood,” said Hutchinson.

Butts didn’t stop there. He wanted to make Inglewood a destination again, so a year after he was elected he negotiated with the Madison Square Garden Company a deal to buy the deteriorating Forum, which re-opened last year after undergoing a $100 million facelift.

“Within 11 months, the Forum was the number one concert venue in the greater Los Angeles area,” said Butts. “That deal – maybe it was connected, maybe it was not – coincided with a sudden infusion in investor capital into the Hollywood Park Tomorrow project, a $2 billion mixed-use development that languished since it was entitled in 2009."

That 234-acre project included a mall, office space, and thousands of apartments, but it didn’t include a stadium until St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke quietly purchased an adjacent 60 acres last year.

“It’s the largest contiguous block of land in Southern California,” said Butts. “It’s twice as big as Vatican City.”

Criticized as dictatorial 

Butts has moved with papal-like authority to get a stadium built. Instead of letting voters decide whether to allow the project, he and the council surprised many when they approved it outright. That only reinforced the suspicion Butts is in the pocket of stadium developers who’ve donated more than $100,000 to the city council in recent years – a notion he strongly disagrees with.

“That’s their free speech, and it’s also not mentioned when I ran for mayor in 2010, they donated in four elections against me to my opponent,” said Butts.

He also keeps careful track of journalists who write good stories about his city, and ones that he sees as negative.

Last year, he was re-elected with 83 percent of the vote, the greatest margin of victory in city history. He also landed a seat on the powerful powerful Metro board. The real estate blog Curbed-LA recently named Inglewood the “neighborhood of the year.”

But not everyone likes his leadership style.

“I think it is very much that of a dictator and a bully,” said self-described community activist Diane Sambrano, who has lived in Inglewood for almost 60 years.

She says Butts can be hostile to those who disagree with him in council meetings.

“He shouts them down,” she said. “He interrupts.”

The Urban Policy Roundtable’s Hutchinson says Butts deserves credit for uniting a factious council, but he is single-minded to a fault.

“There’s the always the concern that the mayor is very heavy-handed, even authoritarian,” said Hutchinson.

Build it and they will come

To Butts, it’s simply inconceivable why anyone would be against the stadium deal, which involves no public money unless the city gets $25 million a year in tax revenue, huge for a city with a $79 million dollar annual fund.

“The question I have come to ask people is: ‘What is it you don’t understand about $25 million we would have never received?”’ said Butts. “’And what is it you don’t understand that even if they built the stadium and it was never occupied, we would derive over $3.6 million in property tax revenue if it sat vacant?”’

Of course, Butts isn’t going to all this trouble to allow an 80,000-seat stadium to sit vacant, but whether an NFL team actually moves to Inglewood is one thing that is out of his control, a decision up to far away team owners.

“For us, it’s build it and they will come,” said Butts. “And we actually believe that.”