James T. Butts Jr.: Bare-knuckled mayor who rebuilt Inglewood

James Butts
James T. Butts Jr., photographed at the Los Angeles Times in El Segundo on Sept. 7.

To listen to James T. Butts Jr. rattle off Muhammad Ali-style boasts about Inglewood, its people and all that he has accomplished in more than a decade as its mayor, you'd think he grew up in this city.

But he didn't. He couldn't.

In the 1960s, racial covenants were still being used to try to keep Inglewood — once the headquarters for a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan — filled with white residents. So his family lived eight blocks away.

"I would go to Inglewood when you would pay a dime to swim if you were a resident," recalled Butts, 70. "A Black kid would come up and put up a dime and they say, 'No, it's a quarter for you.'"

The city has obviously changed a lot since then. White flight has led to a population that's now mostly Black and Latino. But a twisted version of the racial territorialism that defined Inglewood remains. Only this time, Butts is being blamed.

"What's happening isn't gentrification," he insists. "It's integration."

It's an argument that has overshadowed Butts' four terms as mayor. First elected in 2011 after a barrier-breaking career in law enforcement, he has transformed the city into a destination for sports and entertainment.

Inglewood had been on the brink. Once known as home of the Showtime Lakers, the city was beset by violence, corruption and financial ruin in the 1990s and 2000s.

James Butts
James Butts

Butts took office and started courting billionaires, inking deals to build SoFi Stadium and Intuit Dome, and to recruit the Rams, Chargers and Clippers. In 2027, Inglewood will host Super Bowl LXI and, in 2028, the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics. The Forum, meanwhile, is a draw for major concerts. And Hollywood Park is getting a makeover with high-end housing and retail.

Butts was the driving force behind all of this, a combination of sheer determination and a willingness to engage in cavalier, bare-knuckled and sometimes legally dubious decision-making. One notable example is the months he spent fighting a lawsuit filed by Madison Square Garden Co., which had alleged all-around dirty dealmaking linked to the development of Intuit Dome. The mayor's reputation then took another hit when that lawsuit revealed a relationship with a highly paid aide who later sued over harassment and wrongful termination.

Still, Inglewood has transformed under Butts' tenure. And while celebrated, that also has led to a transformation of the city's once affordable housing prices. Homeowners are happy. But not renters, many of whom are Black and Latino. As people of means — many of them white — continue to move to Inglewood, there's a push to keep them out.

That irks Butts.

"My intent was to provide a city that had jobs for the residents and would give them properties that would provide generational wealth for their children," he complained. "I knew all I'd hear about was gentrification."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.