Los Angeles mayoral candidate Richard Riordan, who has damned his opponents for accepting public matching campaign funds, was the largest individual financial backer of state and local drives to establish such funds.
Riordan's role in backing initiatives that created the funds--whose use he now says is fundamentally wrong in light of the city's fiscal crisis--surfaced during an examination of campaign contribution records by The Times.
The records show that the wealthy lawyer-businessman gave $10,000 to the 1990 campaign to pass Los Angeles' Ballot Measure H, an initiative making its public-funding debut in this year's city elections.
He also gave $30,000 to the campaign to pass 1988's statewide Proposition 68, which called for making public matching funds available to legislative candidates.
In both instances, records show that Riordan was the largest individual donor, surpassed only by a handful of corporations and organizations.
Riordan also gave $2,000 to the campaign to pass 1990's Proposition 131, which called for making public matching funds available for state legislative and executive races.
Riordan, who has a $100-million fortune, said Tuesday that he made the contributions because friends, or friends of friends, were supporting the measures, "and plus I believe in them. What I'm saying now is that it is wrong under this budget crisis to take public money for campaigning."
All three matching-fund measures were sold to voters as reforms, because candidates would be eligible for public financing only if they agreed to spending caps. The caps were designed to limit pressure on candidates to raise large amounts of money and therefore limit the influence special interests could buy with their campaign contributions.
In the current mayor's race, Riordan is the only major candidate who has not pledged to abide by a $2-million spending cap for the primary. He has argued that, as a non-politician, he needs to spend more on advertising than incumbents who have advantages such as routine media coverage of their government activities.
Riordan has made other candidates' decisions to accept public financing a significant issue, suggesting that candidates who accept public funds are immoral and beholden to "City Hall moneyed interests." He recently announced that he would not accept the funds as a matter of principle.
"I believe that for a candidate to take public funds--with the city in a major recession and facing a deficit of up to $500 million--is fundamentally wrong," he explained in a letter to city officials. He announced in the same letter that he was making a $1-million contribution to his own campaign.
"The only matching funds I will accept are my own funds," he wrote, "and I can assure the voters that, by doing so, I will be independent of the City Hall moneyed interests that are bankrolling the campaigns of many of my opponents."
Riordan also has aired a television commercial in which he attacks other candidates for accepting public funds. "I'm angry that $8 million of your tax money is being spent by politicians on their own campaign," he says in the ad. "With only 350 police cars on the street at any one time, it is wrong to take city money for politics."
Measure H, which voters passed, required the City Council to appropriate $2 million per year--up to a maximum of $8 million--for use as public matching funds. So far, about $1.2 million in matching funds has been distributed to candidates.
California Common Cause, a political watchdog group disturbed by the Riordan commercial, launched a counteroffensive, asking mayoral and City Council candidates to refrain from attacking public financing.
Ruth Holton, the group's executive director, said 11 mayoral candidates responded, including City Council members Michael Woo and Joel Wachs and state Assemblyman Richard Katz. They reaffirmed their intention to stay within the $2-million spending cap for the primary unless it is lifted because Riordan exceeds it. Seventeen City Council candidates also renewed pledges to abide by spending limits.
"The voters wanted to limit campaign spending and, by passing Measure H, proved that they were willing to pay for it," Holton said.
"Riordan, at the time he supported Measure H, clearly indicated he supported public financing and indicated his support of spending limits."
But she added, "It's one thing to support it in theory. It's another to support it in reality."
Riordan said that he provided financial backing to the city measure in part because William Wardlaw, a business associate who is now his campaign manager, was a friend of Geoffrey Cowan, a lawyer and lecturer at UCLA. Cowan was a leading proponent of the measure and also "somewhat of a friend" of Riordan's.
Riordan said he gave to Proposition 131 because Wardlaw was close to its sponsor, then-Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp.
He said he gave to Proposition 68 "because my best friend and one of my big supporters was the backer of that. Walter Gerken (chairman of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co.). He's probably the leading Democratic businessman in California."
Records of the committees formed to promote Proposition 68--Californians to Limit Campaign Spending and Taxpayers to Limit Campaign Spending-- show that Riordan gave $5,000 in 1986 and $25,000 in 1988.
His support was surpassed only by Common Cause, which contributed $219,000 in money and services in the hope that California would serve as a national bellwether for campaign finance reform; the estate of the late state House Speaker Jesse Unruh, whose trustees decided to chip in $100,000 of Unruh's unspent campaign funds; the McKesson Corp., which gave $54,000, and Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co., which gave $42,000, according to an analysis by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
(Then-McKesson Chairman Neal Harlan and Pacific Mutual Chairman Gerken were both officials of the private, nonprofit Commission on Campaign Financing, whose staffers had come up with the campaign finance blueprint used in both Proposition 68 and the city's Measure H.)
As for the city measure, records show that Riordan's $10,000 contribution was surpassed only by Pacific Enterprises, the holding company for Southern California Gas Co., which gave $10,565.
The city measure is the only one now in effect.
Proposition 68 was approved by voters, but invalidated by state courts because another measure on the same general subject got more votes. That measure, Proposition 73, called for limiting the size of campaign contributions without public matching funds.
Proposition 73, however, was declared unconstitutional by federal courts, which held that it gave incumbents an unfair advantage.
Supporters of public financing tried again on the state level with 1990's Proposition 131, which sought to combine public financing with term limits. Voters defeated it by a nearly two-to-one margin.
Times staff writer Rich Connell contributed to this article.