THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Supporting Players : Behind Mayor Riordan and Other Politicians Stand Bill and Kim Wardlaw--Advisers Who Don’t Orchestrate Campaigns for Money, but for the Thrill of It
Kim Wardlaw’s surprise of a Valentine’s Day getaway to the wine country in 1991 started out as a strictly personal affair.
But it became--if not exactly the stuff of history, at least grist for a footnote--the trip that led to a new era at Los Angeles City Hall.
Knowing that her husband, Bill, hated to take vacations, Kim had arranged everything, checking with his leveraged buyout firm to make sure he would not be missed, packing his bag, asking her mother to watch their child, and booking a room at one of the finest Napa Valley inns.
She lured him to her Downtown law office on the pretext of having lunch, then spirited him off to the airport in a limousine.
Until the next day when, sipping champagne on the patio of a winery along the Silverado Trail, the conversation turned, as it often did, to politics.
“We started talking about Los Angeles and what a frightening place it was to raise a child,” Kim recalls. “We started thinking about who should be mayor--who could change things.”
Then one of them--exactly who is lost to time--floated an idea that neither considered the least bit presumptuous.
“We decided it could be Dick Riordan.”
As two of the biggest backstage names in California politics, the Wardlaws were used to pulling strings. When he returned home, Bill tested the idea on a receptive Riordan, then a virtually unknown lawyer and venture capitalist for whom he had once worked, over drinks at the exclusive Regency Club.
Discussions continued that spring in Rome, where Riordan and the Wardlaws joined a group of other prominent Catholics to watch Archbishop Roger P. Mahony become a cardinal.
Ultimately, Bill ran Riordan’s 1993 campaign, with Kim in a significant supporting role. Riordan ponied up $6 million of his vast personal fortune to win name recognition and the election. Acknowledged by the mayor as “the guy who put the will in me to make this happen,” Bill Wardlaw remains Riordan’s closest unpaid political adviser.
At a private party in the mayor’s Bel-Air back yard, Riordan presented Bill with a symbolic key to the city--the only one he has given out. Asked to describe their relationship, Riordan uses terms a medieval king might reserve for a fiercely loyal knight: “He is my best friend,” he says. “He is someone who would die for me. He is somebody who would never mislead me, somebody who has no agenda other than his friendship--a rare commodity.”
Riordan has rewarded Kim in other ways, making her a sort of ambassador by naming her to head unsuccessful efforts to bring the 1996 Democratic National Convention and 1998 Super Bowl here, to co-chair the host committee for the Grammy Awards in March, and to act as his liaison to the Clinton Administration.
But the Wardlaws’ clout extends far beyond Los Angeles.
Besides masterminding Riordan’s campaign, Bill chaired Clinton’s successful drive to carry California and served as what Kathleen Brown describes as her consigliere in her attempt to oust Gov. Pete Wilson. By many accounts, Bill is either among the top, or the top hand at running Democratic campaigns in California.
A political junkie since he began stuffing envelopes for John F. Kennedy at 13, Wardlaw says he is drawn by the “intoxicating . . . thrill of seeking and capturing power.” If he does not have a candidate, he is looking for one, an associate says: “He has never seen a political fire he didn’t want to run to.”
He works as a volunteer only and, unlike many campaign chairmen who give a lot of money but rarely meet with the candidate, he is hands-on. “He is the chief tactician,” says former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, for whom Bill oversaw several campaigns. “There is nothing he’s not involved with.”
Despite his support for Riordan, a Republican, Bill would never leave the Democratic Party, Reiner says. “It’s a class thing.”
Bill Wardlaw may be a multimillionaire, having made his fortune as a partner in Riordan’s law firm and later as a businessman, but his roots are working class. His father managed a five-and-dime. His mother worked in one, in the Inland Empire city of Colton.
Bill deflects questions about his extreme success, marveling that God has been so good to him.
“The picture he always presents of himself is just a kid from Colton lucky enough to get a job in a law firm,” says his best friend, labor leader Jim Wood. “His basic view of the world is, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ”
Deeply conservative, Bill is known in the councils of the state Democratic Party as a consistent voice for white working men--the key swing group that deserted the party in droves to become so-called Reagan Democrats.
Bill feels a kinship to the group and wants its members back. The crime issue, he believes, may be the ticket. “It’s a heartfelt position on Bill’s part that Democrats have ignored people’s concerns about personal safety,” says Wood, who heads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
But Bill has little interest in the intricacies of governing. His passion is for winning.
Fond of the clear thought, simply expressed, he says: “Some people were meant to storm castles. Others were meant to run them.”
Known as someone who plays his cards close to the vest, critics say Bill can be Machiavellian.
But Los Angeles lawyer Neil Rincover, a friend and campaign colleague, has a different perspective: “Bill Wardlaw is a genuinely nice guy, but when he gets in a political campaign, he just doesn’t take prisoners.”
Kim has worked for some of the same candidates as Bill, but the couple isn’t in sync on every issue.
In politics, for example, Bill played a major role in the 1986 ouster of former state Supreme Court Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, whose anti-death penalty rulings upset him, while Kim supported Bird.
Kim’s more moderate outlook is also apparent in her choice of private clubs. For meals Downtown she favors the City Club, the first non-discriminatory club in the area. Bill is more at home in the staid California Club, which allowed women to join only when the city threatened to pass a law forbidding discrimination, and still requires them to show their legs.
Like Bill, Kim McLane rose from the working class. Raised in the Bay Area, she was born to a door-to-door furniture salesman and his bookkeeper wife.
After graduating summa cum laude from UCLA, she went on to law school there, clerked for a federal judge and then joined O’Melveny & Myers. A partner in the high-powered firm since 1987, she is now busy defending the makers of Miracle-Ear against suits alleging that the hearing aids aren’t all that their name implies.
Until recently, she devoted most of her political efforts to rising within the ranks of lawyers’ professional groups. She has served on the board of governors of the Assn. of Business Trial Lawyers, as president of the Women Lawyers Assn. of Los Angeles and as a trustee of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.
Then in 1992, thanks to her husband’s influence, she started at a high level in a national campaign, scheduling Hillary Rodham Clinton’s appearances in California.
She was hooked.
“It’s awesome,” she says, “being around people who are clearly historical figures.”
When the Clintons invited the Wardlaws to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, Kim was spellbound.
“Bill slept,” she recalls. “I was so struck by the sense of history, I stayed awake all night.”
In subsequent campaigns, Kim has had bigger roles, using her litigation skills to prepare Riordan and Brown for televised debates.
Riordan found her to be “tenacious and intolerant of fuzzy thinking.”
Says Brown: “She is a lawyer’s lawyer and moves the agenda with a focused determination.”
By all accounts, Kim has a huge appetite for work. “On a five-hour flight, she’s got a full briefcase and is on the phone the whole time,” says Mary Leslie, a friend from the Clinton campaign who is now Riordan’s deputy mayor for economic development.
But her critics suggest that Kim--whose single-spaced resume consumes four pages--sometimes overcommits.
Now 40, eight years Bill’s junior, she has hoped for some time to be named to the bench. But lately she is torn, she says, because being a judge would require her to give up active politics.
On the other hand, a friend says, a judgeship would offer much more limited hours. “You can spend more time with your kid.”
Because of their heavy work and travel schedules, the Wardlaws employ two full-time aides, a housekeeper, and a nanny to provide around-the-clock care for 5-year-old Billy. The couple’s second child is due in June.
With Brown’s defeat in the governor’s race, Kim’s only chance for a judicial nomination in the near future rests with Clinton. And he seems to like her.
At an airport reception after the Northridge earthquake, the President caused a mild stir when he broke protocol, reaching past a crowd of elected officials to greet her. On his most recent L.A. trip, she was the only Southern Californian invited for a semi-private chat with Clinton and a few aides.
Bill Wardlaw, campaign colleagues say, was the principal architect of a strategy to recapture California’s Reagan Democrats for Clinton.
"(He) believed the campaign would be won in the eastern part of the state, places where you have a lot of Reagan Democrats and swing voters like the Inland Empire,” says White House aide John Emerson, who worked under Bill on the Clinton campaign.
The efforts there worked so well that then-President George Bush pretty much wrote off the state a month before Election Day.
Bill seems unsentimental about the win.
His 16th-floor corner office in West Los Angeles is dominated not by campaign memorabilia, but by three huge fans that suck up the last traces of his one-cigar-a-day habit. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view stretching from Century City to Santa Catalina, but the blinds are drawn against the sun. Bill is so pale that a friend once jested that his color might improve if he fainted.
His interior view is of reminders of home--of a large ceramic cocker spaniel like his Willy, sitting on the floor, and of photographs of Kim and Billy. The only testimony to Bill’s more than 35 years of political involvement is a photograph of him hoisting Riordan’s hand in victory.
Their friendship goes back to the early 1980s when Bill, who had become a partner at O’Melveny & Myers after Whittier College and UCLA Law School, decided to leave the firm. He did so partly to clear the way for Kim to advance without charges of nepotism.
Riordan invited him to join his much smaller law firm, Riordan & McKinzie, and two years later made him managing partner. Riordan also provided useful contacts. From 1986 to 1993, Bill served as general counsel for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, for which Riordan was a key financial adviser and donor. Bill eventually left the law firm to negotiate deals for the leveraged buyout firm Freeman & Spogli, which Riordan had co-founded then left.
In business and in politics, Bill is known as a “closer.”
In the mayor’s race, he was instrumental in keeping Clinton’s endorsement of the opponent, City Councilman Michael Woo, a lukewarm one. He also helped arrange, Riordan says, for Dianne Feinstein to stay neutral in return for Riordan’s pledge to do the same in her U.S. Senate race. (Much to Bill’s delight, Riordan went so far as to endorse Feinstein over Republican Michael Huffington.)
“In the mayor’s campaign, Bill was the one guy we didn’t have,” says Woo’s campaign spokesman Garry South, now chief of staff for incoming Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. “He was the well-connected insider who could work out deals and endorsements.”
He also insisted on meticulous planning. Conventional wisdom had it that television was the only way to cover the vast city. But, according to insiders, Bill and others decided that, rather than rely on that broad net, Riordan should build a coalition by painstakingly targeting likely supporters with mail and, in many cases, visits from the candidate.
After analyzing voting patterns, the strategists concluded that Riordan would need the support of only about one-tenth of the 1.4 million registered voters to win the primary. His Republican base would supply most of those votes, with the rest coming from the city’s much larger pool of registered Democrats. Among the Democrats, they believed that blacks and young people would go for Woo. Deciding that their best hopes lay with older renters, homeowners and Jews, they used marketing data to target those groups.
When Riordan came from nowhere in the polls to win the primary, his brain trust switched focus slightly. Jews and Latinos, they believed, would decide the general election. Those voters got lots of attention. And blacks got a little, insiders say, partly to prevent charges of racism.
Bill Wardlaw characteristically declined to discuss any of these details. Apparently, he would rather miss out on being portrayed as a brilliant tactician than risk complicating the mayor’s life.
“He is not somebody who lives for the number of times he gets quoted in major newspapers, and that’s refreshing in politics,” says veteran political consultant Darry Sragow. “He’s after the power. He’s not after the accouterments.”
Kim, who enjoys the glad-handing part of political life, says she admires her husband for staying behind the scenes. He even dresses to disappear, in plain suits, white button-down shirts, traditional ties and black wingtips.
“He doesn’t need the face time or the clutch time (with the candidate or office-holder),” she says. “He doesn’t need it for his own ego.”
Bill met Kim, his second wife, in 1978, when he was recruiting for O’Melveny. They both recall that the interview strayed into an argument over the relative merits of UCLA and Notre Dame basketball, and specifically about the play of Kelly Tripucka, the Irish’s All-American shooter. Kim was a UCLA fan and Tripucka-hater. Bill thought Notre Dame could do no wrong.
If Bill is off the charts about Notre Dame, blame his mom, who used to pray for its football team.
“My mother mixed up my religion with love of a football team,” he says, adding wryly: “It’s a fanaticism that . . . I’m desperately trying to pass on to my son.”
The CD soundtrack from “Rudy,” the movie about a puny Notre Dame walk-on, is on the seat of his car.
“We’ve seen it about a thousand times,” he says.
The Wardlaws live in a $2-million English Tudor-style house in a park-like section of Pasadena. Built in 1928 to replicate a Scottish hunting lodge, it has dark beamed ceilings, huge fireplaces and a living-room fresco of galloping horses on a hunt.
Kim, who is overseeing its restoration, frets that the house is too masculine. But Bill loves the rooms with the stone floors.
The Wardlaws’ friends say they have an egalitarian marriage. “I think they think of themselves as equal,” Riordan says.
Bill clearly takes pride in Kim’s political accomplishments, relishing how this pol or that thinks she’s tough. But he also sees her in a socialite’s role. He encouraged her to join the Blue Ribbon of the Music Center, a prestigious women’s support group.
In coming years, he says, he wants to spend more time on family and less on politics. “I’m coming to the end of my time in active politics. I can count the times I’m going to be actively involved in a campaign on a few fingers.”
But Kim is coming into her own.
“At the beginning, she was (regarded as) Bill’s wife,” he says. “She ain’t ‘Bill’s wife’ anymore. She is Kim Wardlaw, a significant player in her own right.”
Bill and Kim Wardlaw
Natives?: Yes; he was raised in Colton, she grew up in the Bay Area.
Family: Married for 10 years. A sibling for 5-year-old Billy is due in June.
Bill, on rooting for Notre Dame: “My mother mixed up religion with love of a football team. It’s a fanaticism that . . . I’m desperately trying to pass on to my son.”
Kim, on staying in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House: “Bill slept. I was so struck by the sense of history, I stayed awake all night.”
Bill, on Kim: “At the beginning she was regarded as Bill’s wife. She ain’t ‘Bill’s wife’ anymore.”
Kim, on Bill: “He doesn’t need the face time, the clutch time (with the candidate). He doesn’t need it for his own ego.”