'State of City' Talk by Mayor Defies Custom


Flinging aside tradition, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan turned his State of the City speech into a giant pep rally Thursday, outlining no new proposals but capturing the enthusiasm of his Eastside high school audience with an address laced with pop music lyrics and sports slogans.

His unconventional approach--long on boosterism and short on details--seemed less successful with members of the City Council. Only three of them attended the upbeat pitch to 350 carefully selected students at Woodrow Wilson High. In the buzz around City Hall after the speech, the mayor--an entrepreneurial multimillionaire elected as a take-charge outsider--got kudos for taking his message beyond the traditional halls of power to the city's future voters. But he also drew a few brickbats from insiders concerned that he had not given political and community leaders anything new to consider.

And in that sense, the speech may have said as much about the state of politics in L.A. as the state of the city in general.

The idea for the road trip into the domain of the MTV generation was Riordan's, according to his press office. The mayor, 64, spent part of Tuesday on the El Sereno campus, listening to student concerns before he and aides wrote the final version of his speech, in which he said he found that many of his priorities meshed with issues the young people had talked most about--jobs, crime and strong neighborhoods.

For instance, he said his recent proposals to overhaul the city's permit application process would help bring new employers to town, and he likened the problems in getting a building permit to the hassles of obtaining a driver's license.

In talking about improving the enjoyability of life in the city, Riordan drew applause when quoting a song of Grammy winner Sheryl Crowe: "All we want to do is have some fun . . . I'm not the only one." And he borrowed the Nike athletic shoes slogan, urging students who want to make changes in their communities to "adopt a 'Just Do It' attitude."

Sounding like he was writing slogans for the marketing campaign the city is about to launch, Riordan told the students that "Los Angeles is too great for small dreams" and exhorted them to "discover and enjoy Los Angeles" as he urged them to do their part to help make the city cleaner, safer and more enjoyable.

The speech, preceded by fanfare that included the marching band, drill team and an ROTC color guard, posed quite a contrast to the annual "state of the city" ceremonies of years gone by. Tradition has it that these are formal, somewhat solemn affairs, delivered in the ornate Council Chambers to city officials, spouses and invited guests.

Like other mayors before him, Riordan used last year's address--his first since his election in June, 1993--to flesh out the themes he had sketched during his campaign by expanding his ideas for enlarging the police force, streamlining bureaucracy and turning over some city functions to private contractors.

Last year's speech, delivered in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, was far more somber: Riordan spoke of his budget and of "tough choices, painful choices, choices that will impact our daily lives."

This year, Riordan, who donated time and money to public and Catholic schools for several years before running for office, had a far more upbeat message to impart.

"Los Angeles is a place for new ideas, where dreams are respected and where people from all over the world come to discover what's new and what's next," Riordan said. *

He also preached activism, urging students to register to vote, to get involved in community service and to "let your voice be heard" by calling or writing Congress to save a federally funded summer jobs program.

Riordan wanted to speak directly to students, said Noelia Rodriguez, the mayor's press deputy.

"We wanted to get his message across to a group that doesn't usually have access to him," Rodriguez said, adding that the mayor himself suggested the idea about a month ago. "We have specific (proposals) throughout the year; that wasn't the purpose (of Thursday's speech)."

Councilman Mike Hernandez, whose daughter graduated from Wilson last year, applauded the mayor's "inclusiveness" but said he left the campus Thursday "wondering what we're going to do about the city budget."

Hernandez, Council members Jackie Goldberg and Richard Alatorre, City Atty. James K. Hahn and City Controller Rick Tuttle were the only elected officials on hand.

Others, such as Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., said they were surprised that Riordan had not surrounded the speech with greater solemnity.

When he learned the speech was short on details, Svorinich was disappointed. "You know I'm very supportive of the mayor," he said. "I never want him to be in a position where people say, 'Where's the meat?' I cringe when they say it isn't there."

Svorinich said the mayor's invitation to the event had been so low-key that he had questioned whether this "was the biggie speech or some state of the (Eastside) community address." The lawmaker was in San Pedro on Thursday morning at ceremonies commemorating the 25th anniversary of Harbor Occupational College.

"Usually on Thursdays, like most of my colleagues, I'm in my district," Svorinich said.

Even Council President John Ferraro skipped the festivities, saying the two days notice the mayor gave was insufficient to rearrange his schedule. Even though Ferraro was a no-show, he said after reading the mayor's remarks Thursday afternoon that he thought Riordan's novel approach was shrewd.

"It's commendable that he went before a group of young people," Ferraro said, noting that President Clinton made appearances before MTV audiences during his campaign in 1992. "A lot of those young people will be of voting age when the mayor runs for reelection."

The council president--City Hall's second most powerful elected official--had no quarrel with Riordan's simple reiteration of his administration goals.

"It's smart to keep repeating your plans," he said. "If you keep it up, people believe you're serious about them."

Councilman Richard Alarcon said he would give the "mayor the highest marks" for being sensitive to the need to engage the imagination and interest of young people in civic affairs. "I know the speech was not overly specific," Alarcon continued, "but it did hammer away at the positive things we need to do for the city."

William Wardlaw, a friend and political strategist of the mayor, suggested that the idea of giving the speech in one of the city's minority communities had a symbolic value.

"The symbolic nature of what was done is to say, 'No matter where you live in the city, we all share the same goals,' " Wardlaw said.

For the most part, the kids loved it.

"I thought it was great," enthused Ringo Gil, 17. "He's trying to make it much safer for us."

"He made a lot of good points," said Connie Torres, also 17.

But Darren Lopez, 18, said he was a little disappointed that the speech contained "no new ideas."

Several students seemed to like the chance to show off their school--the 91% Latino campus has embarked on reforms and academic innovations and has turned around its once low attendance rate. Riordan showed he had done his homework by talking about the school's programs and progress. He hung around for half an hour after the speech, talking to students and teachers and at one point climbed up on the stage to put on a school jacket bestowed by student leaders.

As the band struck up the fight song, Riordan started dancing with student body President Christina Espinoza.

"This is an experience those students will never forget," English teacher Monica Studer said. "They will take this experience with them for the rest of their lives."

Times staff writer Ted Rohrlich contributed to this story.

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