Riordan Faces Challenge of Bringing Unity to the City


With his resounding victory Tuesday, Mayor Richard Riordan has clearly demonstrated his mastery of Los Angeles’ electoral politics.

But to succeed as a second-term lame duck, he now must demonstrate a similar command of governing a city that is still grappling with Rodney G. King’s plaintive question: “Can we all just get along?”

Los Angeles remains as divided as ever--politically, economically, racially and in its institutions of government. Whether Riordan will be able to transcend these divisions and offer unifying leadership is anyone’s guess.


Who would have predicted, for example, that the ultimate cold warrior, Ronald Reagan, would use his no-political-risk second term as president to reach accommodation with the “Evil Empire?”

But many people who have worked with Riordan believe that he is no Reagan.

They suggest that he will prove short on the talking skills necessary to mollify an alienated City Council and give more than a dollop of hope to an increasingly disengaged and largely impoverished populace. Talking and doing often seem mutually exclusive activities to the multimillionaire lawyer and venture capitalist. Riordan derides talkers and describes himself as “a doer.”

But to rise above the bickering that bogged him and the city down during much of his first term, Riordan probably will have to walk more often down both paths.

City Councilman Mike Feuer, who has generally been neutral in Riordan’s contentious relationship with the council, credits the mayor with beginning important civic dialogues on topics such as public safety, business development and education. But he is not very optimistic that Riordan has the flexibility to launch similar, touchier discussions about the issues of race and class that are at the heart of the city’s great divides.

He cites Riordan’s record thus far of silence on controversial initiatives that put the poor at greater risk, even when he could have taken morally compelling stands at little or no political cost. Riordan could have opposed Proposition 187, for instance, without alienating his primary base of white supporters by pointing out that, if fully implemented, the measure to bar illegal immigrants from public services would probably lead to a public health disaster. Instead, he kept silent.

Mayoral silence leads to more divisive voices filling a vacuum, the councilman added. “It’s like a law of physics.”


On Wednesday, Riordan again avoided engagement. He dodged questions about the implications of his lack of African American support. In Tuesday’s race, he drew support from 72% of white voters, 60% of Latino voters, but only 19% of black voters. Asked about this, he said only: “I’m proud of the support I got from Latinos, from all over Los Angeles. But I’m mayor for the whole city, for every inch of this city. . . . People of this city all have the same needs: quality jobs, a safer environment, power in communities, a good education. I’m going to work every second of my time for those goals.”

His chief of staff, Robin Kramer, said that Riordan does not get enough credit as “an audacious bridge-builder. . . . The fact that he reached out to Helen Bernstein, the revolutionary head of a powerful teachers union, and put her at the same table as one of the leaders of the business community, and grew from that table [the LEARN] school reform movement is an enduring example of the way he approaches public problems.”

She said the mayor will stress public safety, education and access to jobs--issues that matter “to all Angelenos, across race, ZIP code and gender.”

“If the plea is for more symbolism, the mayor is more skilled as a doer,” she acknowledged. “There is no doubt about that.”

Riordan’s relations with the City Council have long been fractious--marked by what the internally fractious council sees as imperious mayoral interference in council district affairs.

“I think relations are strained to the extent that it is a disservice to the citizens of Los Angeles and I think the mayor bears responsibility for that in large measure,” said City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has clashed with Riordan but sometimes worked with him.


“He failed to recognize that we are essentially the governing body for the city . . . 15 autonomous decision-makers that expect to be respected . . . rather than persons who are told what to do by anyone other than those who elect us. He just didn’t get that.”

Ridley-Thomas said he has no clear sense that the mayor will use his second term to provide the kind of “reasonable leadership” it would take to garner council cooperation.

But Kramer noted that a good working relationship is a two-way street. On Wednesday, Riordan took a small step toward healing relations. His aides notified reporters that, by day’s end, the mayor had visited 10 council members and handed each of them a branch from an olive tree wrapped in a red bag with a jar of olives.

“The reaction was really good. It was really positive,” an aide said.

Cal State Fullerton political scientist Raphael Sonenshein said the mayor and council have experienced a clash of professional styles: Riordan’s business style that prizes efficiency versus the council’s public lifestyle that puts a premium on being responsive to constituents.

When the styles merge, big things--such as the passage of Proposition BB--can be achieved, Sonenshein said. The campaign for the $2.4-billion school repair bond measure was a traditional, council-style get-out-the-vote effort. But it succeeded in part because of Riordan’s business-style endorsement--offered only after he insisted that a management advisory group oversee expenditures for repairs.

Blending styles is not the answer to all the city’s problems, however. Politics tends to concern itself with people who are part of the system. And many of the issues of daily life that create social divisions in Los Angeles, such as class antagonisms and unemployment and low-wage jobs and racial and ethnic differences, involve people who are not part of the system, either because they are alienated or are not U.S. citizens.


“That’s a feature of the new Los Angeles and presents one of its great invisible challenges,” Sonenshein said.

Despite its modest economic recovery in the last few years, Los Angeles remains essentially the same “two cities” that former Mayor Tom Bradley described in 1989: “one amazingly prosperous, the other increasingly poor in substance and in hope.”

Paul Ong, who heads UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning, has studied this “widening divide” and found that an influx of unskilled immigrants explains only part of the trend, which also appears to be tied to factors such as the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and persistent labor market discrimination against nonwhite workers.

After taking into account differences in education and work experience, Ong came up with an astonishing figure in a study published last year. In Los Angeles, he said, “being African American lowers earnings by 31%.” Latinos fared somewhat better, he found, earning 13% less than similarly situated whites. Asians earned 11% less.

Ong said that he expects that the government’s efforts to force welfare recipients to get jobs over the next couple of years will increase competition for low-paying jobs and depress wages more than enough to offset any gains made in the recent recovery.

As young blacks and recent Latino immigrants compete for work, economic and political tensions may simmer.


Latinos outnumber blacks in the city by 3 to 1. But historically, blacks have been far more politically active. On Tuesday for the first time, that appeared to change, as Latinos came to the polls in greater numbers than blacks.

Riordan, who has assiduously courted the Latino vote since 1993, has had difficulty in the past connecting to an African American constituency. The Times reported that while campaigning for reelection, he personally asked 12 of the city’s 15 council members for their endorsements. He omitted the three African American members without seeming to have a hint of how that would play.