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Riordan’s First Year at the Helm : L.A. Mayor Sees Glory, Gaffes and Goals Still Ahead

Times staff writers

One year ago, Richard J. Riordan, a multimillionaire attorney and businessman, took the helm at Los Angeles City Hall. His top priorities have been to shake up the government of the nation’s second-largest city and put more police officers on the street. But the new mayor has struggled at times with the city’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. He spent his freshman year learning the customs of the contentious City Council, laying the groundwork for his police expansion plan and balancing a debt-prone budget. There have been moments when he shined--such as his quick and compassionate response to the Northridge earthquake. And there were stumbles as well. It took many months to get his staff in place and Riordan has had difficulties with the city’s unions. Sitting in his wood-paneled office recently, the 64-year-old Riordan reflected on his first year in office with Times staff writers James Rainey and Marc Lacey.

Q: What do you wish that former Mayor Tom Bradley had told you a year ago? And would you have done anything differently?

A: I wish that he had told me that his real name is Clark Kent. I would have realized that’s how he got around to all these events when he was mayor.

I would have moved more quickly to hire and put on board outstanding young people to implement my plans. I can come up with ideas, but I need people to implement them. And it’s taken me a good part of a year to really feel satisfied with the breadth of the staff I have.

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Q: What do you miss most about being a private citizen? Has your life changed dramatically?

A: There have been some very significant changes, 90% for the better. One thing about the job is that it takes tremendous discipline and a tremendous amount of organization and planning. If I want to ride a bicycle I’ve got to plan it a week or two ahead. I can’t afford to ever be tired. So I’ve learned how to take catnaps. I can’t afford to be late for a lot of reasons. One is that’s just arrogant to people. It says I’m more important than they are.

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Q: Are you able to do things you like to do?

A: You can’t go out drinking beer with the guys for “Monday Night Football.” Some guy from the L.A. Times may show up with a camera. (But) there are things I do all the time, like last weekend going biking out at the beach or going to a movie. And I really like to play chess.

I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. And I think a lot of it is the discipline that the job puts on you. When you’re mayor everybody expects a lot of you. You’re the father image. . . . You’re somebody that’s expected every day to do things right. And to me that’s probably the biggest challenge of anything and the one I feel the best about.

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Q: Is there anything you thought would be completed by now that isn’t?

A: I can’t think of anything that I wish I’d done that hasn’t been done. Government doesn’t work that efficiently.

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Q: Were you prepared for the bureaucracy and working with 15 different council members?

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A: I think this is why a lot of people from the private sector fail, because they don’t learn the patience to handle those kind of obstacles. It’s another challenge that I enjoy. I’m sort of proud that I’m learning it.

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Q: What have been the saddest moments for you as mayor?

A: Calling the families of police officers who have died, talking to firemen that were badly hurt. But I think the worst is really going into some of the inner-city neighborhoods and realizing that they’ve been cheated for decades.

If you have an underclass that is poorly educated, doesn’t have jobs, doesn’t have hope, the first step has got to be at least to clean up the environment. Along with that is job training and education.

In (City Councilwoman) Rita Walters’ district, we wanted to get rid of a block of buildings that had dope dealers, homeless and others in it. We wanted to tear ‘em down, and it’s something that should have been done in a month. It took a little over six months to get done. There is frustration that you can’t simply do things quickly.

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Q: When you see problems like that, do you think this is a job that will take more than four years?

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A: Oh, I think it’ll take a lot more than four years. I mean a lot more than eight years. In my second term, we will change the (City) Charter back, so I can go for more than two terms. (Laughter).

If I take my job seriously, if I care, and if I think I can be of value, I would go for a second term. Put it another way, if I feel the way I do today, I’d probably go for a second term.

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Q: Could you imagine being Gov. Riordan someday?

A: My worst nightmare in the world is waking up in the morning, and realizing I’m governor of the state of California. I mean, this job is so much better than governor. If I get bored at least I can go out and work in a maintenance group and fill a pothole or something. (The governor) is just running the most convoluted bank there is. He’s just a banker, putting strings on everything.

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Q: Immediately after the earthquake, you were very visible and active in directing the city’s emergency response. Some observers said your experience as a business executive must have served well. Do you agree?

A: It was more like what I used to do. I felt very, very good doing it. But if there was anything that was exhilarating, it was to see how well the people in the city did their jobs.

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Q: Did you feel badly that during your campaign that you called city workers . . .

A: Brain-dead? (Laughter) One thing I’ve learned, and I think the earthquake proved, it’s the system more than the people that stifles. People in government are equally as good as the people in the private sector. It’s just the bureaucratic system of having agendas and not being allowed to embarrass any elected official. That trickles down, so you don’t want to embarrass the guy above you, who doesn’t want to embarrass the guy above him. And you know, eventually people end up not doing anything.

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Q: Has it been hard for you that some police, your big political supporters, accused you of letting them down during contract negotiations?

A: I think the rank-and-file police respected me all along. There’s some posturing done on their part. But every place I’ve gone in the city, I’ve had respect from the police I’ve come across. Even the one night where they were organized to picket, I didn’t feel any tremendous anger.

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Q: Didn’t some of their tactics make you angry--such as threatening to expose embarrassing information about you and council members?

A: Yeah, it did. I publicly chastised them. I think putting up the billboards (depicting a carjacking) and other things done by the (union) leadership were counterproductive. And certainly that was not going to get me to move, in fact, if anything, the opposite.

But my attitude is getting to the goal. We have to get the police contract behind us as quickly as possible and get the city moving and healing again.

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Q: How does this settlement with the police, which could amount to as much as a 12% raise, and the 9% raise for Department of Water and Power workers jibe with your campaign image as a tough negotiator who wouldn’t knuckle under to unions?

A: I think your question’s inaccurate. The base raise (for police) is 7%. There’s no long-term tremendous cost to the city. And that’s great. We gave up a little bit in the front end (in bonuses) but not that much. We were way below the demands of the police, I mean by leaps and bounds.

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Q: Shortly after you gave the DWP a raise, you called it a mistake.

A: The thing is, you make a decision, you have to live by that decision and put everything in the future in the context of that decision. Probably my biggest mistake was calling that a mistake. (Laughter).

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Q: You proposed during your campaign adding 3,000 police officers to the LAPD over four years. After taking office you introduced a plan to add slightly fewer officers, 2,855, over five years. The Police Department has already fallen 130 officers short of that less ambitious goal. Aren’t you falling short of your campaign pledge?

A: That’s still my goal. It will be a little bit tougher, but we will look for money from other places during the year to get there. And if I were a betting person I would bet that I’ll reach the goal.

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Q: When do you see the Los Angeles economy rebounding?

A: Well, I think we’re getting better right now . . . but I think as far as significant increases you’re not going to see it for a couple of years. And the reason is that with the (economic expansion) we’re having now we’re also going to get more hits on aerospace jobs. Things like that.

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Q: Then why should people stay in Los Angeles?

A: If you could sit back in three or five years time and say: ‘OK, my income is going to be 20% less and the value of my house is going to be 20% or 30% less, and I can adjust to that,’ then I think the future will look good to you.

I think the problem is we got spoiled. I mean you had lawyers making a million bucks, $500,000 or what have you. God never ordained that. Automotive workers, aerospace workers were making 40 bucks an hour, in a sense being subsidized by people around the world to build things to kill people. Those were artificial (wages). . . . Say you know the real jobs now are going to be $12 to $15 an hour, the lawyer’s going to make $100,000 to $150,000 a year and houses are going to be worth $500,000, rather than a million, and then I think the future looks very good.

When you look back 10 years from now, when you put it in that context, this city will have done well. Another reason the city will do well are the various ethnic groups and immigrants that have come to this country over the last 10 years and are starting to come into their own. The African Americans, the Latinos, the Iranians, Asians. I think in 10 years you’re going to look back and you’re going to see a lot of the new growth has been in companies started by these ethnic groups.

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Q: That doesn’t sound like a great advertisement for Los Angeles: “Come to L.A.--lower your expectations.”

A: Compared to the rest of the country--if you can convince everybody of what I said--the whole rest of the country will move into L.A. because our future looks so much better than anyplace else in the country. I mean the Northeast has got virtually nothing going for it.

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Q: Have you told New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that? Maybe he should take a deputy mayor’s post here?

A: He would be better off, I’ll tell you. I mean, New York City has no middle class. You have the rich and the poor. And the fear I have here is the flight of the middle class. You look at South-Central, it has lost, what, probably two-thirds of its middle class over the last 15 years. This is not healthy and we’re starting to see some flight of the middle class from the (San Fernando) Valley and that’s not healthy.

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Q: What industries are going to be creating jobs in Southern California?

A: Well, I think a lot of high-tech, computer jobs, medical devices.

All of a sudden we’ve awakened to the fact that because of changes in the economy, some public sector employees make more than the private sector. And that distorts things, with more people moving toward government jobs. At the same time, government jobs are the major way that minorities can get into the middle class right now, and this is important for society. You can’t pull the rug out from people who have gotten there. It just isn’t right or fair.

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Q: Isn’t that one of the complaints about giving government jobs to the private sector--that you might destabilize the middle class in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods?

A: It’s a very tricky thing. The one thing I’ve had to say over again, nobody’s going to lose a job because you’re privatizing it. By the same token, government has become very inefficient. As a result of competition, my prediction and my hope is that it will make the public boys, the city, do a much better job so we won’t need the private sector. And I predict that’s what’ll happen.


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