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Rich Mayor Still Learning Politics of Working Class

Monday, I hitched a ride with Mayor Richard Riordan for a brief interview.

We got into the back seat of his Eddie Bauer limited edition Ford Explorer in the parking lot of the Los Angeles school district headquarters, where Riordan had met with men and women who volunteer their time in classrooms. One woman stepped up to the Explorer and asked Riordan for his autograph.

The mayor was holding a paper cup filled with coffee. Without looking at me, without asking “do you mind holding my coffee,” he handed me the cup. Later, he reached for the cup, again without looking at me or saying a word.

When I told my colleague, Patt Morrison, about the incident later, she said, “Reminds me of Queen Victoria; she never looked to see whether there was a chair behind her, she just sat down, knowing someone would put one there.”

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That’s the way I felt about it. The guy is a multimillionaire who ran his own company. He goes through life with someone at his side holding his coffee or his coat. I happened to be sitting in the gofer’s seat. Nothing personal. It’s just that the very rich and powerful are different.

Except this rich guy must now deal with the working class of American politics, the Los Angeles City Council. Nobody there will hold his coat or coffee. He’s got to do it himself, and so far, he’s shown he has a lot to learn.

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That’s what Riordan and I talked about as we rode down the hill from school district headquarters to City Hall.

I asked him about the impact of the 11-1 defeat last Friday of his proposal to sell the new downtown central library to a Philip Morris subsidiary. The deal had been killed largely because of the protests from community groups worried that the complex financing of the deal would endanger the city’s financial support of low-cost housing.

Riordan’s chief of staff, Bill McCarley, had rounded up seven votes, one short of a majority on the 15-member council. But when he couldn’t win the eighth vote, support melted away. “I started with seven votes and now I’m down to zero,” McCarley told me during the council session.

As Riordan and I talked, he sounded like a man who’d been taught a lesson. “I ought to write an essay on the eighth vote,” Riordan said.

What had he learned?

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“I learned how I have to play politics,” he said. “I learned we should have been working and lobbying the groups in the community early. . . . You have to predetermine who will be offended by (a proposal) and get them to buy into the solution from the beginning.”

Riordan said he came away with a sharper understanding of how outside political forces can sway the council.

“They (the council) are politicians, and they aren’t going to take a vote that will have a substantial number of voters coming out against them,” he said. “We’ve got to get citizens in on it. If I am going to be a great leader, I am going to have to learn to do better at it.”

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Today, Riordan gets another chance when he begins the most important initiative of his young administration. He is scheduled to tell the council how he intends to resolve a budget deficit estimated at more than $30 million this year and more than $200 million the next. He envisions breaking with past City Hall practices. For this year, he’ll cut more than the $30-plus million needed to make up for the deficit, hoping to set aside money for an even bleaker 1994 and for Police Chief Willie L. Williams’ forthcoming plan to put more cops on the street. That will mean a reduction of 150 city jobs, including the possibility of 20 to 30 layoffs.

The cuts are expected to be fought by council members who want to get by with minimal reductions.

In another innovation, Riordan intends to take a second look at city spending in three or six months to see if more cuts are needed. “We will reduce the spending base and set money aside,” said Chief of Staff McCarley. “We will need a great deal of money for next year.”

As was the case with the library sale, community groups will pressure the City Council to save favorite projects. Other interest groups may join an attack on the Riordan budget, including the Police Protective League, the union that is seeking a pay raise for police officers.

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Riordan will have to travel around the city to build support for his tight fiscal program. Faced with a multitude of pressure groups, Riordan will have to create pressure of his own to sway the council. The question is, has he learned to hold his own coffee cup?


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