NEWS ANALYSIS : For Riordan, It May Come Down to Matter of Candor : Mayoral race: His handling of attention surrounding arrest disclosures is seen as a test of his approach to office.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With the Los Angeles mayoral election only 10 days away, Richard Riordan is confronting the political hobgoblin of our time--the character issue.

It is the one thing that can break a seasoned politician or inhibit an amateur, such as Riordan, from running for office in the first place.

Experts say that for Riordan, who does not relish talking about any aspect of his personal life, the test is how well he deals with the disclosure of his three arrests and whether he can quickly put the issue behind him.

"How he responds to an adverse personal situation as a candidate is really a test of how he can handle such a situation when he holds public office," said Dan Garcia, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and a senior vice president of Warner Bros. "Politics is a rough-and-tumble world, and for people like Dick, coming to it from the private sector, it poses a challenge that he may find distasteful. But like it or not, it's part of proving you're a leader."

Supporters insist that Riordan has not been hurt by the disclosures, and Riordan appeared more comfortable discussing the matter Saturday. He also put his campaign back on the offensive by accusing a Woo aide of coaching a woman to cry as she criticized Riordan for shutting down the Fresno business where she worked.

Woo "has sunk to a new low," Riordan said. "The exploitation of this woman is despicable."

Still, people inside Riordan's campaign and outside it acknowledge that he has not mastered a seasoned politician's ability to swiftly leave controversy behind.

Riordan's test grows out of a campaign debate last Wednesday when, in answer to a question from the audience, he said he had been arrested twice, once in 1964 for interfering with a police officer and in 1971 for drunk driving--a charge reduced to reckless driving. On Friday, after more questions from the press, the Riordan campaign issued a statement saying he had also been arrested in 1974 for driving while intoxicated.

Veteran political consultant Joe Cerrell said he believed that the revelation of the second drunk-driving arrest was damaging but by no means fatal.

"First time, it was no big deal, an old charge," he said. "Nothing to get excited about. Now, we got the second time and it raises eyebrows. It gets people wondering: Is this a pattern (or) is there going to be something else to come up? A third (revelation) could start showing some ill effect."

Throughout the episode, Riordan sometimes has veered from active participation in the discussion, allowing aides to respond to the press.

But this is not the first time that he has come up with incomplete or inaccurate answers to provocative questions. Nor was this the first time that Riordan's veteran operatives have taken over the job of clearing the air while the candidate stood to one side.

His staff had to correct his statement about his role in reorganizing Mattel Inc. In a recent debate before a hostile audience, Riordan grew so flustered that he was barely capable of responding to his opponent's attacks on his record.

On Friday, as Times reporters asked about his brushes with the law, an agitated Riordan allowed his campaign chairman, Bill Wardlaw, to step in like a lawyer defending a client. Wardlaw took charge of the meeting and made it clear when he wanted Riordan to answer a question and when he did not.

Wardlaw said Riordan is not being overly managed. "What you're dealing with is a man who's not a politician; a very accomplished man, but one who has not been in this setting before," he said. "That is a great strength, but in the political process it also has some weaknesses."

But Wardlaw added that he would have preferred Riordan to have remembered all the arrests the first time he was asked. "Obviously, it would have been much better if he would have remembered with great precision the first time," he said. "There was nothing to be gained by not remembering precisely; all we do is extend the story."

Paul Clarke, formerly a Republican campaign manager and now a corporate consultant, said: "It would have been better if all of it came out at once. You can't just string out these things."

Any further revelations would "raise questions about forthrightness" and "create problems that he doesn't need" in the final days of the campaign, Clarke said.

Aides are trying to control Riordan because he is a "neophyte running for a very high office," Clarke added. "He just isn't on his guard all the time the way a seasoned politician is. He blurts out things.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political analyst at Claremont Graduate School, said Riordan's handling of the matter "goes to the issue of credibility, it goes to the issue of trust, it portrays a bit of a splotch on his armor. If he handles it, it will not be harmful, but if he doesn't, he may well be in trouble.

"And it has hindered the ability of the (Riordan) campaign to make its case," she added. "It's taken them off balance."

But the Riordan who appeared before the press and public Saturday wasted no time in refocusing attention on his opponent.

He charged that a Woo aide had primed a woman to cry at a news conference where Woo criticized Riordan's business practices.

With his arm around her, Woo introduced the woman, Pam Pearson, as "one of the 10,000 victims of Dick Riordan"--people, he said, who had lost their jobs at companies Riordan took over.

Pearson blamed Riordan for the loss of wages and medical benefits after Fresno-based Advanced Tactile and Controls Inc. fell on hard times in 1991.

In tears, she said she could not afford a doctor after she developed toxemia. When she was eight months pregnant, her baby died, she said.

The Riordan campaign said several people, including a Riordan aide, overheard Woo press aide Rick Ruiz tell Pearson before the news conference: "If you can cry for the camera, that would be great. Do you think you can do that? Great."

"To equate this woman's personal tragedy to a passive shareholder of a company does not make sense and it's not proper," Riordan said.

Ruiz denied coaching Pearson, saying she was nervous about speaking in front of a crowd of reporters and he was only trying to calm her. "We were talking about how she was going to act. I said I know this is very emotional for you and if you feel like crying, just let it out," Ruiz said. "I was trying to reassure the poor woman . . . who had never seen a crowd of reporters like that before."

Riordan also appeared more relaxed and more talkative about the issue that has been bedeviling his campaign for the past several days.

"I've been taking lots of hits lately. Sometimes I feel like I'm Oscar De La Hoya's punching bag," he joked to about 30 supporters at the Crenshaw Square shopping mall. "But I still stand tall and proud."

Responding to questions about the potential impact of the arrests on his campaign, Riordan said: "I don't know. I think it's up to the voters to determine whether it affects the campaign. I think it's one more thing that defines me; it's some troubles I went through 18 to 29 years ago. I learned a lesson. . . . I believe it's made me into a better person and a better leader."

By the end of the day, Riordan was working his arrests into a broader message about empathizing with poor people.

The arrests, he said, "have made me appreciate what a lot of other people have gone through. I think to be booked is to put you through something that a lot of poor people in this city have gone through and it makes you really empathize more with the people in this city."

Riordan supporters from South-Central Los Angeles to Tarzana seemed unfazed about his arrest record.

Peggy Johnston, a Tarzana homemaker and Republican, said she had lost no enthusiasm for Riordan.

"There (are) so many other issues that are more important to me," Johnston said. "It seems like he is really going to turn things around. . . . He really wants to help the people.

"I'm a native Californian and I've seen things really deteriorate, just in the last few years. I trust him," she said.

Ted Stein, a supporter and president of the City Planning Commission, said: "He has admitted to making mistakes under a very tense situation. He is doing a good job for a guy who is not the best debater, who is not a natural politician."

City Council President John Ferraro, a key supporter whom Riordan called Friday to advise of the third arrest, said: "Let's face it: The guy hasn't had that kind of (campaign) experience, or experience with press.

"I don't think he knew what he was getting into."

Ferraro said that Riordan remains the best qualified to lead the city and that going into the final weeks of the campaign, the race is "Dick Riordan's to lose."

Times staff writer Rich Connell contributed to this story.

Countdown to Election Day: 9 Days Left in the L.A. Mayoral Campaign

THE DAY IN REVIEW

How the mayoral candidates spent their day:

Businessman Richard Riordan attended one morning rally with supporters in Koreatown and another in the Crenshaw district. He repeated his message that crime must be reduced for the city to attract new business and fielded reporters' questions about his arrest record. In the afternoon, he campaigned door to door in Tarzana.

City Councilman Michael Woo spoke to an African-American businessmen's group in the morning. Later in the morning, he held a news conference and introduced a woman who said she blamed Riordan for shutting down a Fresno firm where she once worked. Riordan later said he was only a "passive shareholder" in the company and had no decision-making authority.

AIRWAVES / MAILBOX

How the campaign was waged in the realm of advertising:

Woo's campaign continued to air two TV ads, one highlighting his support for abortion rights and another trying to depict Riordan as an abortion foe. Riordan's campaign continued to broadcast a new ad that criticized Woo for not opposing city investments made through the firm of convicted "junk bond" king Michael Milken.

COMING UP

Some of the key events on the candidates' schedules today:

* Woo is scheduled to visit several churches in South-Central Los Angeles this morning. In the evening, he will attend a North Hollywood temple and be interviewed on radio station KGFJ.

* Riordan will attend morning services at two Valley churches. At noon he is scheduled to hold a news conference at his Westchester campaign office to respond to Woo's criticism about the businessman's investments.

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