Mystery Mayor : He’s Got 40,000 Books, Friends All Over Town, and a Reputation as a Soft Touch. He’s a Risk-Taker and Problem Solver. Yet He Can Be Absent-Minded, Inarticulate, Contradictory and Downright Sloppy. Can a Entrepeneur-Turned-Politican Lead L.A.?
Mr. Riordan is running about 10 minutes late,” the secretary apologizes politely. “Can I get you something to drink?” The plush Bunker Hill penthouse is still trimmed with the deflated victory balloons of election night. Inauguration day is exactly two weeks away, but Richard Riordan, Los Angeles’ mayor-elect, seems as guarded as Riordan the candidate as he takes a seat on a low beige couch. This isn’t even his office we’re sitting in.
He radiates the afterglow of victory, a king newly crowned. Settling back with a cup of black coffee, he agrees to show us more of himself than the slick images projected during the race. It isn’t easy. He is still wearing pancake makeup from a television interview earlier in the day, a habit acquired during the campaign. The public spotlight makes him squint. And suddenly everything about him is news--what he has for breakfast, where he buys his suits, what time he gets up in the morning. It’s annoying. With every personal question, he puffs out his cheeks in exasperation and blows out a gust of air before answering, grudgingly.
But when the conversation rolls around to his passion for books (he owns 40,000), Riordan perks up. He started writing one 30 years ago, a mystery novel based on his life. The central character is him, a corporate lawyer in a firm that has just lost one of its biggest clients. “It’s at night and we’re going out, and we’re getting drunk ‘cause we just lost the client . . . and I have too much to drink.” He pauses to consider the irony of what he’s just said. The crisis of his campaign was the revelation that he had been arrested three times in the 1960s and ‘70s on alcohol-related charges, including drunken driving. “Actually, I wrote this about the time I had those arrests. Anyway, I go to sleep in the car and . . . “
The plot unfolds. Riordan meets a man in a beard and a sweat shirt who turns out to be a Howard Hughes type, one of the wealthiest men in the world. “He says, ‘I want to hire you,’ ” Riordan prattles happily on, “and I say, ‘You don’t want to hire me, you should have seen what I’ve been through last night.’ And he says, ‘I know, my people followed you.’ And he hires me to represent his empire. And then the mystery starts.”
The mystery in the novel, never finished, is a murder. The mystery in the saga of Los Angeles is him. Newly installed in City Hall, he is an enigma with contradictions at his very core. The more you study Dick Riordan, the more you can’t define him. Mixed signals beam from him like a scrambled cable channel that will not tune in: he’s a Republican who gives money to Democrats, a candidate known to land squarely on both sides of a controversial issue, a good Samaritan who ran one of the meanest campaigns in the city’s history, a devout Catholic who has trouble publicly confessing his sins.
He’s worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million, and he invested $6 million of it to win this election. But this idea keeps emerging--he sees himself less as politician than rescuer. The day he took out his filing papers to run for mayor, he spotted a blind man at 1st Street and Broadway about to step into a manhole. Riordan leaped from the passenger seat of his car. “Stop! Don’t take another step!” he hollered, then ran over and guided the man across the street.
But the rescuer image collides with his reputation as one of the great exploiters of the ‘80s, the decade of greed. It was a paradox that dogged him through the campaign: Dick Riordan the philanthropist who repaves inner-city basketball courts; Dick Riordan the bottom-line businessman who saves Barbie at the expense of 250 Mattel jobs.
For a 63-year-old Princeton alum, top-of-his-class law school grad, respected downtown lawyer and wildly successful venture capitalist, he has a surprising tendency to misspeak, a sort of political Tourette’s syndrome. When his much-debated plan to lease out Los Angeles International Airport came under attack, a peeved Riordan defended himself: “I feel very confident I’m wrong.” When it was suggested at a televised debate that Riordan had to be scolded for his lousy attendance record while he served on the recreation and parks commission, he shot back: “That’s not true! I was never scolded.” And the campaign was haunted by a 1986 magazine interview in which Riordan made a joke worthy of the ancien regime: “I’m taking lessons in learning how to wave to the poor people.”
A scholarly student of philosophy, he can lapse into meditative repose in the middle of a business meeting and still recall everything said. But his prodigious intelligence is frequently sabotaged by a Swiss cheese-like memory for detail; a campaign source says he required extensive prepping before public appearances, even on issues he supposedly knew well. He pauses so long between clauses you’re tempted to run out for coffee. The word women always comes out woman . And he is not exactly suave in embarrassing moments. When a mostly African-American audience in South-Central Los Angeles asked how many black lawyers he employs, Riordan gulped his water, choked and lost his voice for several seconds before revealing that only one attorney in 55 was African-American.
“You’d think that a guy with $100 million, a titan of industry, would bowl you over when you met him,” one political observer noted after first meeting Riordan. “But he turns out to be a guy who doesn’t pay much attention to detail, who doesn’t speak well. His presence is not consistent with the presumption one has of him.”
This back-room dealmeister has been influencing Los Angeles politics for years, and Los Angeles is about to see what happens when the director takes center stage. In private life, money equaled power. But now he finds himself at the tiller of a city with a million needs and no cash. His personal fortune allows him to keep his pledge to voters to not accept a salary while he is mayor. (He’s agreed to do the job for $1 a year.) Beyond that, he will have to rely on the skills that made him rich and that made him electable. But are they portable? Can a mayor run a city the way a CEO runs a corporation?
“When you close down a plant, it isn’t the subject of media attention, it isn’t debated in the City Council,” says Harry L. Usher, a businessman who discovered what it was like to be under the glare of publicity when he helped Peter V. Ueberroth direct the 1984 Olympics. “Any decision to consolidate a department or privatize a city operation will be a lot more complex. How will he react to all the scrutiny? That’s the $64,000 question.”
TWELVE PAIRS OF SHOES HAVE HAD TO BE RESOLED AND NOW, JUST WEEKS BEFORE THE ELECTION, DICK Riordan is still walking precincts, his entourage tagging behind him as he bangs on door after door in the San Fernando Valley. It becomes apparent that Riordan is propelled less by his campaign message than by his obsession to relate to every person he meets. His skill at this is uncanny. By the end of the block, he has managed to find something in common with a bunch of strangers.
First house: A woman answers. He learns she is a teacher. “I’ve put 1,000 computers in schools to teach 5- and 6-year-olds to read and write.” (At another house, the 1,000 computers becomes 20,000 computers. Swiss cheese.)
Second house: Another woman. She is Armenian. “I’m very good friends with the archbishop of the Armenian church.”
Third house: The Rodney G. King beating trial comes up. “The judge is one of my best friends. We went to school together.”
Fourth house: A waitress. “I have a restaurant downtown called the Original Pantry. When the Pope was in town, he came by the Pantry in his Popemobile.”
Fifth house: Man with a Boston accent. “Where did you grow up? My dad grew up in Dorchester.”
Sixth house: A prospective voter and a golden retriever. An inveterate animal lover, Riordan pays more attention to the dog.
Riordan’s desire to be liked is a trait that may contribute to his reputation as a straddler of the big issues. “I am pro-choice, I am pro-choice, I am pro-choice,” a perturbed Riordan recites when challenged yet again on his stand on abortion. So why did he give $10,000 to a pro-life group? A friend asked him to. The consummate corporate executive, he has spent most of his professional life fighting labor unions. But wasn’t that Dick Riordan we saw at a United Teachers Los Angeles conference in Palm Springs wearing a UTLA T-shirt? First, he’s in favor of breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District, then he’s opposed, then he’s in favor again. His mayoral opponent, former City Councilman Michael Woo, was quick to seize on this. Who is the real Dick Riordan? How can you trust him to run the city? What does he stand for?
“I really don’t know where he stands philosophically,” says UTLA president Helen Bernstein. “He kind of takes on one position at a time and that’s kind of refreshing. He tends to judge each issue on its own.”
Some call his approach open-minded, others say he flip-flops. Riordan calls it problem-solving, the way to get the job done, the details be damned. If privatizing the sanitation department will help the city save money, do it. If it won’t, don’t. “I look at the ultimate goals, and the means are not that important. I believe in solving problems. I believe in the greatest good for the greatest number. That’s my belief. I’m not an ideologue on the means. I’m an ideologue on the end.”
Never did those words ring more true than during the campaign, when this neophyte set his sights on City Hall and gave himself unto his handlers to get him there. They told him to stop wearing penny loafers and start wearing wingtips, to buy five new suits, comb his hair, apply some makeup and quit slouching. They isolated him from the press, keeping interviews brief, infrequent and on sterile turf. Rarely was there an immediate answer to even the simplest question.
This resolve to control him is somewhat understandable. When left to his own devices, Dick Riordan is a man who will walk into a business meeting with the remnants of his lunch on his lapel. At a loss for words, hair awry, he was one of those candidates who never seemed comfortable with the cameras or the microphone, no small deficit in this media age. In tense situations, he let the lawyers and consultants do his talking.
At perhaps the nadir of his campaign, following his revelation that he had been arrested more than 25 years ago for drunken driving and interfering with the arrest of a friend with whom he had been drinking, Riordan agreed to meet with four reporters in a plush conference room at his downtown law firm, Riordan & McKinzie. They wanted to know if there were any other arrests. Red-faced, his shirttail sticking out of his pants, he looked as if he might explode. “Dick!” his advisers reprimanded whenever he tried to speak. He obeyed them and kept quiet.
They excused themselves to confer privately for 45 minutes, then handed the reporters a brief statement: a third arrest in 1975, drunken driving. Why didn’t you reveal this before? the reporters demanded. Riordan seemed spent. Another piece of the Dick Riordan puzzle took form. We’d seen this behavior before in the campaign--Dick Riordan recoiling under pressure, cowed by a boyish reluctance to ‘fess up to his foibles even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, as though he could not imagine himself doing any wrong.
There was the precinct walk when a woman commented: “Black people are just awful--don’t you think so?” and Riordan replied: “Some of them.” A Dallas Morning News reporter recorded the exchange, but Riordan denied ever making it. There was the public television debate when Riordan was asked about his role in restructuring the debt-ridden Mattel, a deal that ultimately saved the toy company but shut down a Los Angeles factory, laid off 250 workers and transferred its manufacturing operation to Mexico. “You’re absolutely wrong,” Riordan insisted. “That was way before I got involved.” Hours later, his campaign was issuing a correction; he was on the board indeed.
Forced to expose yet another arrest, Riordan slumped in his conference room chair, a boxer who didn’t want to respond to the bell. His voice was low and weak. “I started to worry about it, and started to check, and then of course (a reporter) asked me. I said I didn’t recall because. . . " his voice trailed off. His lieutenants seized the floor. OK, so he drank too much at one time in his life and got in trouble. It was 29 years ago. All in the past. Not a single endorsement lost. The public would probably forgive him.
It’s difficult to know if that assessment was right. With less than a week to go in the campaign, Riordan’s 101-year-old mother died. Riordan flew east to bury her; his sad mission put to rest the question of his character. One does not throw stones at the bereaved.
If Riordan demonstrated one thing during his campaign, it’s that he doesn’t take kindly to dissent. Surprisingly, he read almost no newspaper reports of the race, saw none of his opponents’ TV ads and only one of his own.
“I wanted to keep my equilibrium. I didn’t spend a sleepless night,” Riordan explains. “There were a lot of hits and stuff, and I was surprised and proud of myself for being able to keep my equilibrium. I thought it reflected on the person doing the hitting certainly more than (on) me.”
A candidate can ignore an attack, but a mayor cannot tune out public opinion. And there are those in the private sector who wonder whether Riordan knows what he is in for now that he’s moved from his lawyerly penthouse suite to Room 305 at City Hall.
He sees himself as a no-nonsense, bottom-line businessman who has whipped many a failing company into financial shape. If the department is too fat, cut it. If the city isn’t safe, put more cops on the street. No money? Find some. “Even in my private life it wasn’t just my fortune. It was a matter of networking with others, other foundations, (finding) other people to make things happen,” Riordan says. “I’ve always had a theory that if you can come up with solutions and get people to agree on the solutions, you can find the money to take care of it. And certainly, I was able to do that in the private (sector).”
But Riordan is known as something of a gadfly, moving from project to project, igniting enthusiasm for a cause but leaving the sweat equity to others, the great pollinator who doesn’t stick around to bring up the kids. Whether his quixotic ways will work at City Hall raises doubts in the minds of people who know how slowly government operates, people who remember that it took all of Tom Bradley’s two decades in office to begin to realize his dream of a metropolitan transit system in Los Angeles. A colleague once described Riordan as having the metabolism of a hummingbird. But hummingbirds slam into marble walls at City Hall.
“A short attention span is OK in venture capitalism, but Dick now runs into a city government that doesn’t run on expediency, where you can’t quickly allocate resources,” says David Abel, a member of a bipartisan policy group advising the new city Administration. “You need focused attention year in and year out. Whether those skills that were good in the private sector translate to public-sector capacity is a question.”
His first collision with front-row politics came the day after his election, when a revved-up Riordan raced to Sacramento to fight proposed cuts in city funding. He boarded the plane home a wiser man: “I had not realized the incredible complexities that go with the budget crisis in Sacramento. I thought I did, but it’s infinitely more complicated and difficult than man could ever dream of,” he told reporters. In his first visit to the city attorney’s office, Riordan--accustomed to nothing less than cutting-edge technology--was astounded to discover that city lawyers still plod through pages of depositions and transcripts by hand as they prepare for cases. “Their office is run like a buggy-whip company,” Riordan later told his advisers.
It is in this bare-bones setting of neglected equipment and meager budgets that Riordan takes on the formidable challenges of his Administration. He has promised to put 3,000 more police on the street, make the city safe, improve schools and streamline a gridlocked bureaucracy that is driving businesses and jobs out of Los Angeles. There will be little time to get up to speed. Already, the challengers are lining up. Freshman City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg--liberal, openly gay and a former school board chief--has declared her intention to battle Riordan if he intends to conduct city government like a corporation. Many others around City Hall are girding for a battle over privatization, Riordan’s plan to save the city money by putting sanitation department jobs up for private bidding. Riordan concedes that city workers could lose as much as 8% of their wages and benefits in the process. Two-thirds of the workers in that department are minority, and the notion is already whipping up resentment in the African-American community.
But Riordan is no stranger to conflict. Supporters say he can handle anything City Hall has to dish out. He is a complex, intelligent and unpredictable man driven to win, they say, a master at finding common ground between enemies and pulling off what others said could not be done.
RICHARD JOSEPH RIORDAN LIVES ALONE IN A $6-MILLION FRENCH COLONIAL BRENTWOOD MANSION THAT bears the marks of a somewhat distracted owner. Guests have found the refrigerator empty and the floors festooned with the droppings of Riordan’s live-in companions--three Yorkshire terriers named Minnie, Tessie and Albertine. A hopeless dog lover, Riordan, it is said, once dispatched his entire law office to search the city when Albertine jumped out of the car and ran away. “Not quite true,” he says. “But it would have been true if I hadn’t found her. I got a call that she’d been found, fortunately, before that was done. But I’ll tell you, I would have done anything. If I was mayor, I would have had the whole fire department and police department out looking for her.”
The campaign said much about the politician but little about the man, as complicated in private as he is on the stump. His bedside reading includes the dense musings of French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; he is sometimes so absent-minded that he once left his car running at the airport, keys in it, and got on a plane.
He is an intense worker with a restless intelligence that some say is both his strength and his weakness. He often overbooks his day, causing him to run 20 minutes late. He is so driven that he carries a portable phone in his golf bag. He rises at 4:30 a.m., puts on the kettle for instant coffee, looks at the morning paper, then reads a couple of chapters of a book. To say he is a collector of books is an understatement; he built a two-story library, complete with a circular staircase, to house them all.
“He is a very quick study,” says Riordan’s longtime friend and real estate partner Peter Mullin. “He has the ability to get 90% of the right answer in 10% of time. He has a great nose for good ideas. He has the ability to extrapolate an idea forward and see what could be. And he has the guts to take risks. All entrepreneurs love the opportunity to put themselves where they are taking risks to win big. I’m sure there is a certain adrenaline in that.”
Riordan was born into privilege May 1, 1930, and seems to have been at odds with it since. He grew up the youngest of eight Irish-Catholic children and lived in a handsome home in New Rochelle, the New York suburb whose residents inspired Norman Rockwell’s Americana portraits. Riordan was born seven months after the 1929 stock market crash plunged the country into a depression, and the most he remembers of the hungry years was the steady stream of unemployed men who came to his family’s back door looking for a job or a meal.
Enrolled by his parents in the isolated world of an all-male Jesuit prep-school where coats, ties and four years of Latin were mandatory, Riordan attended classes six days a week and Mass five. He transferred to Princeton in 1950 and was promptly invited to join one of the snootier clubs on campus. He turned it down for a less elitist crowd. He graduated from law school at the top of his class and served in Korea but not in combat. He parlayed a substantial inheritance left by his businessman father into a large personal fortune.
Wealth and success seemed to roll his way. But Riordan’s life has been marked as much by tragedy. He lost a 5-year-old sister to a brain tumor, a 35-year-old sister to a fire. A 41-year-old brother was killed when a mudslide swamped his Mandeville Canyon home. Two of his five children died a decade ago--his only son entangled in sea kelp while diving and a daughter succumbing to bulimia. His first marriage to Eugenia Warady, a waitress he met while he was a law student, ended in annulment after 23 years. His second wife, Jill, from whom he has been separated for four years, lives in Carmel.
Bachelor life seems to suit him and he is considered in some circles to be quite the ladies’ man. Riordan is dating Nancy Daly, a children’s-rights advocate and member of the Los Angeles County Commission for Children’s Services. She is separated from Warner Bros. chairman Robert A. Daly. Riordan is reticent about their relationship, saying only that they were brought together by their mutual interest in the plight of children, have seen one another “off and on” for a couple of years, and that she will accompany him to his inauguration but will probably not take an active role in his mayoralty. “I think we’re good friends but I don’t think she wants to let City Hall control her life,” he says.
His grown daughters, Tricia, Kathleen and Mary Beth (who recently made Riordan a grandfather), are expected to play an equally limited role in their father’s newly public life. “They’re not like that,” Riordan says. “They’ll be there any time I want them, dinners and things. But it’s nothing they aspire to.”
Los Angeles is likely to be without a first lady for some time. Riordan is a man who enjoys his time alone, plunking on his Steinway piano and reading his books. “Maybe I’m too much of a loner, but loner’s not really the word,” he says. “I love my home, I love my daughters, I like reading books, being licked by my dogs. But I also like to be in love.”
Are you in love now? we ask him. He pauses, embarrassed. “Yeah, with Albertine.”
Money has come easily, and some say it’s an Irish-Catholic guilt that compels him to share it (even he uses the phrase). He invites junior law partners to invest in sure-fire deals and donates $3 million a year to charities, most of which benefit children. He couldn’t save his own so he is trying to save all the rest.
After the death of his children, he “seemed to put himself a little more into work and then politics,” Jill Riordan has said. But a friend dismisses that explanation as too simplistic for such a complex man. “There is something we call Irish guilt or Catholic guilt and it is part of Dick Riordan,” says Bill Wardlaw, Riordan’s transition chief and former law partner. “But some people have tried to dismiss all of his good works by claiming they were acts of guilt. It is extraordinarily unfair.”
Riordan still attends Mass and occasionally has breakfast at his Pantry restaurant with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. (Riordan once organized a small group of businessmen to donate a $395,000 helicopter to keep Mahony out of SigAlerts.)
Not even Riordan is sure why he gives so much, why a man of his means doesn’t just buy a yacht and jet-set into the horizon. “Why am I my brother’s keeper and others are not?” he has asked himself. “I think it’s partly growing up in the Depression. I’m surprised I’m not an ultraliberal communist, you know, having grown up and seen people beg.
“I’ve given away money since day one. When I was a young boy, I gave away a disproportionate amount of money compared to my income. I remember getting a letter from the dean of (University of) Michigan Law School when I gave him a thousand dollars that said he realized I was a fairly new grad and how amazing it was I was the one who did that. Doesn’t seem like very much now. Maybe it’s a total confidence in my ability to set goals, such as the goal of giving every kid a skill to read and write, and then having the will and everything to do what is necessary to get there, such as giving my own money. To me, it’s more logic than guilt. It’s obvious that it is wrong in society to have young children who are doomed to a life of poverty and disaster when I can do something about it.”
Whatever the motivation, Riordan has compiled an impressive list of giving. Last Christmas, responding to an appeal to help the children at the Aliso Village housing project, Riordan showed up toting a bag of toys and wearing an oversized Santa Claus suit. He gave the PUENTE Learning Center in East Los Angeles $1.5 million and 27 computers to help children and adults learn to read and write. He financed the purchase of the property on which it sits. If that wasn’t enough, he showed up at a Christmas party and danced with the children.
Although he clearly enjoys some of the benefits of wealth--cycling through Poland, golfing in Scotland--Riordan says he has never felt comfortable in a rich man’s clothes. He eats at McDonald’s. He buys his suits off the rack. When he came across a friend’s original Alexander Calder mobile, valued at several hundred thousand dollars, he pinged it so he could watch it move. The couple he hired to cook and clean for him left one day in a huff because they didn’t have anything to do. “I didn’t know how to live like a rich man,” he reveals rather proudly. “I was doing too many things myself.”
His wealth has given him the opportunity of a lifetime--it bought a slick campaign that zoomed him from political obscurity to the mayor’s suite on the first try. Now it gives him his chance to perform the ultimate rescue, the mother of all good deeds, to save the city of Los Angeles.
IF RIORDAN’S GENIUS LIES ANYWHERE, IT MAY BE IN HIS ABILITY TO REACH ACROSS IDEOLOGICAL divides and bring warring parties to a truce. This, more than anything else, observers say, could make his Administration memorable.
When City Hall was coming unhinged after the police beating of Rodney King two years ago, and civic leadership was in disarray, Danny Goldberg, chair of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and a liberal Democrat, gave Riordan a call. Two men couldn’t be more different. Riordan, a golfing buddy of then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, was the point-man for a downtown business community determined that the chief not be made a human sacrifice. The ACLU was calling for Gates’ head.
Yet across this gulf, Goldberg and Riordan struck up a friendship. Goldberg is convinced it was a behind-the-scenes Riordan who drafted a resignation letter that ultimately allowed Gates to leave with his dignity. (Riordan says that he helped negotiate a deal that led to Gates’ departure.)
“Although he comes from a Republican background, he has developed a real ability to reach out. I’ve never had a Republican do that with me,” Goldberg, a Woo supporter, said later. “He’s much more open to minorities than the typical Republican. He could make a great mayor if he doesn’t get caught up in trying to impress the national Republican Party.”
At first glance, Riordan seems to fit every liberal screenwriter’s vision of the rock-ribbed Republican, right down to his bridge-playing sessions at the elite California Club, where he is a longtime member. He supported anti-abortion groups and led the drive to unseat former California Chief Justice Rose Bird. His election brochures boasted of support by former President Ronald Reagan and Gov. Pete Wilson, while members of a conservative Christian group headed by evangelist Pat Robertson helped out on his campaign. He describes himself as an Eisenhower Republican; Harry S. Truman and Abraham Lincoln are two of his political idols.
Garry South, Woo’s communications director, had said that Los Angeles was not about to elect an old, rich white Republican. Despite the city’s deep roots in conservative politics, the idea of a Republican renaissance struck people as comfortingly anachronistic. Los Angeles is a trendy place, and early this year, in the wake of a Democratic presidential victory fueled by L.A. votes and money, Republicanism could not have seemed less fashionable.
But Riordan stormed into Democratic territory all over this riot-scarred, recession-weary city. He boldly courted both parties with a mean message--Los Angeles is a “war zone,” a place where mothers have to duck behind cars when they walk their children to school. Eliciting just enough prominent ethnic endorsements from unsuccessful black candidate Stan Sanders, Jewish City Councilman Joel Wachs and Latino Councilman Richard Alatorre, he made it easy enough for Democrats to cross over to his side.
It was the sense of Riordan the conciliator, Riordan the moderate, Riordan the philanthropist that enabled a city of mostly registered Democrats to elect him with hardly a pang of partisan conscience. In the end, nearly half of the union households in Los Angeles voted for Riordan. He captured nearly half the Jewish vote, with some Westside neighborhoods voting Republican for the first time since before the Depression. He won 43% of Latinos, 31% of Asians, 28% of gays and 14% of blacks. Not quite 40% of all Democrats who went to the polls in June voted for Riordan. (As if to reassure them, Riordan the Republican was out jogging with President Clinton before he had even moved into City Hall.) All the while, he held on to his base, winning 79% of the voters who call themselves conservative.
It was a sweet victory for a novice candidate rendered speechless more than once by the efforts of his opponent to make him look like Simon Legree, but there was a flip side. People in Los Angeles don’t vote, and Riordan won nearly 315,000 ballots in a city of 3.5 million people. The majority of voters who elected him were white in a city where white people are now becoming a minority. Exit polls indicate most of the people who voted for him were not wildly excited when they punched the hole next to Dick Riordan’s name--51% saw him as the lesser of two evils. The election only proved that a Republican--a Riordan Republican--can get elected. Successfully governing is another matter.
But it wasn’t just political strategy that made converts of the people who should have been Riordan’s political enemies. It seemed to be the man himself. When he is relaxed, there is a warmth and openness about Dick Riordan. He laughs in braying gusts. His body English, darting and halting, is awkward but endearing, full of blarney and charm, the perfect foil to the coiffed politician, invaluable attributes in a town where the mayor must sometimes finesse the power the city charter denies him.
“I think he is a very charming man. He is very seductive and I mean that in a very positive way,” says the UTLA’s Bernstein, whose support Riordan sought when he helped found LEARN, a program dedicated to decentralizing and revamping the city school system. At the outset, Bernstein made clear that she viewed partnership with a rich white male the way another woman might regard sharing her garden with a venomous snake. But Riordan won her over. He did it in part by giving $75,000 to one of UTLA’s pet projects--Dial-a-Teacher, an after-school homework hot line--and partly by being Dick Riordan. “He gets you to sort of trust him. He makes you feel comfortable. Then he sort of comes in for the kill,” Bernstein says. “If the kill is making the city safe, then fine.”
THE SUN IS A LOW BALL OF FIRE IN THE EARLY EVENING SKY WHEN A REDFORD EXPLORER PULLS INTO A parking lot of a small park in Koreatown. Riordan climbs out of the front seat and rolls down the sleeves of his blue button-down Oxford shirt. He slips into a dark jacket, crisply pressed, a typed sheet of prepared remarks tucked into the pocket. His gray hair is parted on the side and sprayed. He is made up for the cameras. Dick Riordan, candidate for mayor, is there to address a candlelight vigil commemorating the riots that, precisely one year before, had the city in flames. The national anthem begins to play; Riordan stands and sings. A breeze kicks up, but his hair does not.
This is the Dick Riordan the Dick Riordan Campaign wanted us to see, in full public-relations armor, a gaggle of aides encircling him like Secret Service agents hired to protect not the man, but the image.
But on this evening six weeks before the election, Riordan will surprise them. He starts for the baseball diamond where he is to make his remarks brief and wrap up by 6:15 to head for the next campaign stop. The program is running late and an aide keeps checking her watch. When he finally speaks, Riordan puts the script aside. The grieving mother of the only Korean killed in the riots is in the audience, and he is compelled to reach out to her. He shares the pain he felt when his only son died. “I know the grief I had, but I can’t imagine the grief and despair you had losing a son over such a meaningless act.”
The aides gather to whisk him away, but the mother is faster. She has collapsed in Riordan’s arms. He sits down on a metal folding chair, stunned. Even over this squealing public-address system, he has touched her. She is sobbing. He is late for his next event, but she will not let go of him and he does not seem to care. Television cameras zoom in around them. An aide taps Riordan on the shoulder as if to say, “Let’s go.” Another aide taps that aide on the shoulder as if to say, “Let’s not.” Riordan bites his lower lip. Tears roll down his makeup.
The mother releases him at last and he stands, reluctantly, as the handlers converge and steer him toward the Explorer. He peels off the blue jacket and climbs into the front seat. His chest heaves with emotional exhaustion. One troubled Angeleno rescued; 3.5 million more to go.