THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Great Expectations : As head of RLA, Linda Griego has definite ideas about getting things done. Still, supporters say her chancs of making a real difference with the trouble agency are slim.

Times Staff Writer

After a long morning of nuts-and-bolts meetings, RLA President Linda Griego is running late for her noon appointment.

Striding with the grace of a racehorse through an elegant Biltmore ballroom set for a luncheon, the lanky Los Angeles riot recovery czar stops momentarily for a handshake at the Catellus Development Corp. table, smooches from two attorneys at the Latham & Watkins table, and a succession of hugs from women in conservative business suits and a bearded man topped with a turban.

Griego has barely stopped smiling when a waiter plops down her lunch--a hunk of salmon swimming in an unidentifiable beige sauce.

"Why do they have to do this to a nice piece of fish?" she says with a sigh, giving up after a single bite. "I like things simple."

An hour later, the architecture awards ceremony of the Los Angeles Conservancy is still droning on. Griego rises ("I never stay beyond 1:30--that's it. I've got to get back to work") and returns to her functional 8th Place office. After scanning her phone messages, she slips out the back door and through an alley festooned with razor-wire fencing.

Her destination? A Mexican food stand in the Downtown Carwash at Figueroa and Olympic where she orders the usual: a tostada sans guacamole and a Diet Pepsi.

"Now this ," she says, munching contentedly before heading off for yet another appointment in City Hall, "is good stuff."

For Griego, life sometimes seems a high-speed blur, with as many twists and turns as Madonna has had make-overs.

Small-town, Spanish-speaking youngster to Washington, D.C., Senate staffer; telephone company field crew supervisor to deputy mayor of Los Angeles; chili stand operator to Downtown restaurateur; mayoral candidate to newly appointed head of the much-maligned nonprofit assistance agency initially known as Rebuild L.A.

The few constants have been her dogged persistence, brimming optimism and keen ability to move with ease among the diverse worlds that make up the crazy-quilt megalopolis commonly referred to as Los Angeles.

"She's very approachable and she doesn't have ego problems," says City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. "She's a businesswoman who is guided by results, not by the assertion of power for the sake of exerting power."

Those qualities are sorely needed at RLA, which has had its own slew of make-overs since its inception as the city's primary response to the 1992 civil unrest.

Under the agency's first leader, 1984 Olympics chief and Orange County resident Peter Ueberroth, RLA focused on a single source of aid, corporate America, after government declined to dish out big-time financial help. Although major firms pledged several hundred million dollars for job training and other community-involvement efforts, Ueberroth, in a recession-racked economy, failed to persuade large corporations to create the tens of thousands of jobs needed to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods.

Instead, RLA earned the reputation of being arrogant and out-of-touch with the long-neglected neighborhoods hit by the brunt of the fires, lootings and shootings.

When Ueberroth stepped down last year, its four remaining co-chairs--selected more on the basis of ethnic diversity than on their ability to run the agency in tandem--concentrated on securing money for small- and medium-size businesses. But the quartet of bosses, since departed, stumbled over each other. Today, one lending fund has yet to be launched and a second, now operating independently, has distributed only a handful of loans.

As RLA teetered on the brink of oblivion, Griego and Arco Chief Executive Officer Lodwrick M. Cook agreed in February to come to the rescue, he as voluntary chairman and she as a hands-on, $150,000-a-year, seven-day-a-week president.

For the ambitious Griego, it was a relatively swift return to the public spotlight after her unsuccessful run for mayor. She won only 7% of the vote last spring but finished a respectable fifth among 24 candidates. And she will long be remembered in local political circles for her TV ad, a striking example of niche marketing:

"It's pretty hard to change things when you're just like all the other guys at City Hall," Griego, in a bright red jacket, declared as she walked amid a sea of black-and-white cardboard cutouts of her male opponents.

Three months into her new job, Griego, who is noncommittal about a second run for mayor, has given the floundering agency a new sense of life.

On a typical afternoon this month, she ran the gamut of Los Angeles public life, speaking to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors in their wood-paneled meeting room and accepting a public service award from the Central American Resource Center (CARACEN), a Latino immigrants rights group. Also sandwiched in was an interview in Beverly Hills with a corporate RLA volunteer.

"There are only a handful of individuals who can bridge a lot of the gaps between different parts of a city," says First Interstate Bank President Bruce Willison. "Linda has the confidence and respect of the business community, both large and small. She empathizes with the segment of our community looking for RLA to assist them and the city in rebuilding and enhancing our socioeconomic conditions."

Griego does not have the same long-term roots in the city's Latino neighborhoods as such top elected officials as Gloria Molina. She is friendly with the owners of the chi-chi Patina restaurant on Melrose Avenue, for example, but has never visited the blue-collar mercado shopping and restaurant complex on the Eastside. Still, Latino community leaders know her and see her as an ally.

"She's built bridges between the community, grass-roots groups and people in the corporate world and does a real good job by being honest about it to boot," says Roberto Lovato, executive director of CARACEN. "Sometimes when you are a bridge-builder you end up becoming one side of the bridge and disconnecting the other. Linda has kept up both parts."

Griego's foremost goal at RLA is to help small businesses expand their markets and create jobs. To do that, she plans to establish voluntary networks linking groups of up to 20 firms that manufacture the same type of commodities, such as textiles, electronics parts and furniture.

She has also begun reaching out to the more than 300 property owners whose lots remain empty and weed-strewn since burning in the riots. Eventually, Griego hopes to get them tax breaks or financing to help them rebuild.

Such strategies play directly to Griego's strengths as a successful small businesswoman, most notably as co-developer of Engine Co. No. 28, a posh and popular restaurant she owns with several investors in a carefully restored 1912 Renaissance Revival structure Downtown.

Yet they also represent a giant step back from RLA's original mission of turning around the living conditions in Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods.

"It probably is a lowering of expectations. It's more of a pragmatic, realistic approach," Griego acknowledges. "But to me, a lot of small changes equal one big change."

At this early stage, she has had few successes. And despite her exuberance and vast network of contacts, it's unclear whether Griego has the herculean management skills and support required to make a difference.

"From restaurateur to deputy mayor to RLA president makes an interesting profile," says a former co-worker in the Bradley Administration who requested anonymity. "But you have to ask, besides putting together a menu with meatloaf on it, what do you have to say for yourself? When it came to governance, I don't think she cast a long shadow from City Hall."

With the riots a receding memory, even Griego's strongest boosters predict that her impact will be limited.

But that won't hurt her career, they add. The RLA post is a no-lose situation, they say, offering Griego a platform from which to further her reputation as a consensus builder in a city whose demographics are becoming increasingly Latino.

"This job gives her publicity, without many expectations, while providing her with a chance to hone her public-speaking skills," says Dan Garcia, a former city police and planning commissioner. "She's intelligent and she listens. She's not somebody who's easily deterred from her mission.

"And she doesn't carry her ethnicity on her sleeve like a lot of politicians who use it as a knife."

It's six hours after the Conservancy lunch, and salmon is once again on the menu. This time, though, Griego is pleased. The fish has been prepared simply, and tastefully, on an outdoor grill by her husband, Ron Peterson, a Downtown business lawyer.

The leisurely dinner is complemented by an 180-degree view of Los Angeles from the living room of their Baldwin Hills abode, a bold cinder-block-and-glass structure built at the edge of a cliff in 1957 by Southern California Institute of Architecture founder Ray Kappe.

Talk about ethnic diversity. Griego, a Latina, and Peterson, an Anglo, have lived for the better part of two decades in a largely African American neighborhood above the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. The exquisitely furnished house, designed by a leading proponent of the stark, angular International style of architecture, has a distinctly Japanese feel.

Longtime friends say the ethnic eclecticism has wider meaning.

"She makes a real statement in terms of her willingness to be part of the community--it predates any political interests or motivations," says Brenda Shockley, who heads Community Build, a rival post-riot economic recovery agency founded by Rep. Maxine Waters. "Of course, she also has a great home."

The sparkling house on a hill is a long way from Griego's modest origins in the rolling ranch lands of New Mexico, three hours east of Albuquerque.

She was born in Tucamcari in 1947 and raised by her grandparents, whom she refers to as her father and mother. He was a railroad worker and she a baker. Her biological mother lived there too, and Griego looked upon her as an older sister. The situation never seemed awkward to her and was not unusual in her town, she says.

In fact, growing up as the youngest of seven in her grandparents' home, rather than as the eldest in her mother's fledgling household, gave her a grown-up perspective at an early age, she says.

"When you're living with older family members, you're treated like an adult by the time you're 7 years old. You sit at a dinner table where your brothers and sisters discuss politics, or if they are looking for a job, you're privy to all that."

Most of her relatives and childhood friends remain in tiny Tucamcari, but Griego, who learned English in the first grade, had a hankering to explore the world beyond.

She attributes her wanderlust to a love of reading and to the feisty spirit of her grandmother, now 85.

"When I was young, I remember her buying a car even before she was able to drive," Griego recalls.

Years later, Griego jokingly reminded her grandmother of that incident when she asked Linda, an inexperienced cook, why she planned to open a restaurant-food market, the Chili Stop, in West Los Angeles.

"I answered, 'Remember that car you once bought?' says Griego, whose specialty at the family bakery was slicing and wrapping.

After finishing high school in 1967, Griego moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a clerk for her hometown congressman, Democratic Rep. Thomas Morris. She got the job through an old grade-school teacher, Morris' wife.

Fighting off loneliness, Griego grew to relish the big-city lifestyle. When Morris was defeated in 1969, she joined the staff of newly elected California Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston. There, she met Peterson, a summer intern from Yale Law School; they married a year later.

After a late honeymoon spent camping for five months in the wilds of East Africa ("My mother still doesn't understand that one," Griego says), where they had close brushes with elephants and wart hogs, the couple moved to Los Angeles. Griego continued working for Cranston while attending college at Pomona and UCLA. Nine years after beginning school part time, she received her bachelor's degree in history from UCLA in 1975, becoming the first member of her family to graduate from either high school or college.

In 1976, she took a job as a telephone company field supervisor after being challenged by a phone company executive who belittled the blue-collar skills of women. Griego occasionally climbed telephone poles and wrestled, verbally, with chauvinist customers who refused to have equipment installed by a woman.

The Chili Stop, which lasted a couple of years, was next. Then, a short-lived enterprise operating outdoor flower stands Downtown.

"They have a tremendous amount of rewards, both the businesses that don't make it and the ones that do," she says. "If you knew all the things you'd run into in opening one, you wouldn't do it."

To establish her next enterprise, Engine Co. No. 28, Griego got a contractor's license and scrapped successfully for more than 50 city zoning variances. Although she rarely has time to eat at the restaurant--never mind run it--she remains a general managing partner.

In 1991, after serving on a few city boards (and a less successful fling with an Engine Co. spinoff in West Hollywood), Griego was appointed by Bradley as deputy mayor in charge of economic development. The riot occurred several months later, and much of her time was spent monitoring the meager flow of money from Washington and assisting individual business owners.

"I think anybody who was here during that period of time would feel less than satisfied about the way things went," Yaroslavsky says. "Not only Linda, but the city got overwhelmed by the problems caused by the riots."

With RLA's start-up momentum long depleted, Griego is much like a salmon swimming upstream as she seeks to produce significant results before RLA's scheduled shutdown in 1997.

Yet if anything, she stresses, she is a tenacious soul. Or, as her husband jokes, stubborn.

"I was concerned if this agency was closed down (this year), it would have been very bad symbolism for the city," says Griego, seated in a long, narrow office brightened by a pair of framed South American tapestries and an antique hotel reception desk she purchased at an auction. "I think about being a longtime resident, and what I experienced two years ago driving through all that smoke, and feeling in the bottom of my stomach, 'My God, how can this be happening?'

"I just really feel you can't continue to ignore the systemic problems. No one is going to solve them for us. It has to come from the people who live here."

Griego has taken firm charge of the financially shaky agency in recent weeks, slashing its paid staff in half to 15 people--mainly minority women--and hiring several consultants to help with her plans to establish small-business consortiums.

At the same time, she has kept the $150,000 salary that was approved by RLA's corporate executive-dominated board. Her pay is far higher than that of heads of comparably sized nonprofit corporations. The figure has been privately questioned by some community leaders, but Griego says she has received no complaints.

On many days, Griego serves as a one-stop ombudsman, the host of a sort of "Tell It to Linda," as business people share their plans and woes.

One recent afternoon, she met with the owner of a riot-torched Figueroa Street strip mall and with a young real estate developer researching a project whereby he would make a living by building affordable housing units for homeless veterans.

Griego called the bank that holds the strip-mall owner's mortgage to stave off a foreclosure sale for at least a month. She asked the developer to keep in touch if he makes any progress.

Griego later explained that RLA chairman Cook had asked her to meet with the developer, whom she believed to be well beyond the vision stage.

At this stage in her tenure, miscommunication and missteps are not unusual.

To explore methods for assisting the sidewalk vendors who peddle food and clothing near MacArthur Park, Griego recently toured downtown Santa Ana. Not until she was en route to Orange County did she learn that the carts there are operated by merchants from adjacent shops. The MacArthur Park vendors in Westlake, on the other hand, work independently in a setup that many shop owners strongly oppose.

The $150,000 park RLA is building on the grounds of East Los Angeles College is another example.

When Griego arrived at RLA, the campus green space was on a list of unfulfilled commitments, so she asked capable RLA project manager Virginia Oaxaca to get it constructed as soon as possible.

What Griego didn't know--and did not learn until she heard a progress report from the college's acting president at an RLA board meeting--was that the park had first been promised a decade earlier by Ueberroth's Olympic Committee.

The project symbolizes Griego's ability to get things done. But it also raises questions.

Why, with the myriad problems in South-Central Los Angeles, Pico-Union and other high-intensity riot zones, would RLA invest its limited funds and woman-hours to plant sod and ivy miles away in Monterey Park?

"The correlation I see," says Griego in her characteristically unflustered fashion, "is that community colleges are very important to us. . . . It's who they educate here who goes to work in the small and medium-size businesses we want to help."

With the park nearing completion, Griego is making a visit to East Los Angeles College at the invitation of its acting president, Ernest Moreno.

Driving east on the 10 freeway with two associates, the RLA president learns that Moreno plans to pitch her about joining the board of a foundation he wants to jump-start.

After half an hour of waxing eloquent about the college's illustrious alumni and pressing needs, Moreno springs the request.

Griego listens intently, letting him finish his sales talk before tactfully responding that she is overbooked.

"I get spread very thin," says Griego, who is already a director of organizations ranging from KCET to Scripps College to the Los Angeles Conservancy to First Interstate Bank. "I don't want to go on a board just to put my name on a board.

"(But) I can help you in two ways," she adds. "I would not mind acting as an adviser to the board. And I can provide you with a list of maybe half a dozen names of people who I think would be interested in serving. . . . "

"I think that's great," interrupts Moreno. "That's music to my ears."

"You know, you have to do a little arm-twisting sometimes," Griego continues. "But I think that you could get this foundation off the ground."

On her way out a few minutes later, Griego is asked whom she might include on the list of potential directors. "Ueberroth," she replies with a smile. "He's not off the hook yet. It's not over until it's over."

Linda Griego

Age: 46.

Native: No. Born in Tucamcari, N.M., lives in Baldwin Hills.

Family: Married to attorney Ron Peterson; no children ("It just never happened," Griego says).

Interests: Traveling to such far-flung destinations as East Africa and Nepal.

On being raised the youngest of seven children: "When you're living with older family members, you're treated like an adult by the time you're 7 years old."

On starting a small business: "If you knew all the things you'd run into in opening one, you wouldn't do it."

On redefining the goals of RLA: "It probably is a lowering of expectations. . . . But to me, a lot of small changes equal one big change."

On maintaining myriad directorships on boards citywide: "I get spread very thin."

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