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Riordan’s New Chief of Staff a Surprise Choice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a move that shocked City Hall insiders and even his own top staff, Mayor Richard Riordan announced Tuesday that he has tapped Lesa Slaughter to run his administration as his new chief of staff.

Slaughter, a relative newcomer to city government, has headed Riordan’s business team but has only worked in local government since 1995. Like many top Riordan appointees, she came from the mayor’s old law firm, Riordan & McKinzie, and her promotion leapfrogs her over his four deputy mayors, one of whom had been considered the front-runner for the job being vacated by resigning Chief of Staff Robin Kramer.

In an afternoon briefing, Riordan said that he had offered the position to Slaughter on Sunday, and that after sleeping on the idea, she had accepted Monday. Riordan said that while he had considered others for the spot, Slaughter was the only person to whom he had offered it.

“She’s a great implementer,” the mayor said, as Slaughter looked on. “She sets goals and she gets them.”

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Asked about her goals, Slaughter recited the familiar list of Riordan initiatives--improving education and public safety, making Los Angeles more welcoming to business, strengthening neighborhoods. “I’m focused on making sure that the mayor’s goals are met,” she said.

With her appointment, Slaughter, a personable and well-liked member of Riordan’s team who enjoys both internal support and the backing of some council members, embarks on a difficult undertaking. It will fall to her to hold the Riordan administration together despite growing problems with a number of important projects and a relationship with the City Council that is lukewarm on a good day and, most of the time, borders on mutual contempt.

Soon after the afternoon announcement, Slaughter and Riordan headed to the office of City Council President John Ferraro.

“I hope she understands that there’s the mayor’s office and the council offices and we have to work together to get things accomplished,” Ferraro said. “I just hope there’s a good relationship. We can’t keep fighting with each other. I think we have something to offer and I think they have something to offer.”

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An influential council aide, however, said Slaughter’s appointment can mean only one thing: “Maybe this is the beginning of the lame-duck period. Maybe he [Riordan] is just going to focus on economic development issues from here on out . . . and maybe she can put together the heavy-weight coalitions of unions and big business to fight the fight here.”

Riordan’s business team generally is well-liked by other city officials, and has worked well with even those council offices that do not always get along with the mayor’s staff. In Hollywood, for instance, occasional disagreements between Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and Riordan have not derailed the working relationship between her staff and his, as Goldberg has spearheaded a variety of rebuilding projects.

According to the mayor, when Slaughter took a leave last year, Goldberg urged him to reappoint her to the business team upon her return.

Tuesday, Goldberg described Slaughter as “personable and bright” and said she looks forward to continuing a good relationship with her.

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But Goldberg cautioned that the chief of staff “carries out orders” from the mayor.

“I think to the extent she can, she’ll be fine . . . very good, actually,” Goldberg said. “We look forward to working with her.”

The problems confronting Riordan’s office are likely to become more difficult in the coming months, as the race to succeed the mayor begins to heat up and Riordan begins to lose influence. Some council members--including Laura Chick, Joel Wachs and Mark Ridley-Thomas--are considered potential mayoral candidates, as is Riordan confidant Steven Soboroff. If they throw their hats in the ring, the political stakes of council debates will escalate rapidly.

All that would be hard enough for a mayor who had a firm grip on his administration. But some critics have begun to question Riordan’s attention to the details of the job, and that makes it all the more difficult for his chief of staff to command the respect of City Hall veterans.

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Although criticized by some for not producing greater results as Riordan’s chief of staff, Kramer did impress most City Hall insiders with her articulate grasp of city government. In part, that was because Kramer has spent most of her adult life in and around local politics in Southern California.

Although she has worked in politics--one of her first congratulatory calls came from Councilman Mike Feuer, whose campaign she worked in--Slaughter lacks Kramer’s experience. Just 33 years old, she will become one of the youngest ever to serve as chief of staff.

In fact, though she was a clerk with Riordan’s old law firm and had been offered a job there, Slaughter has never held a full-time associate’s job at the firm. The reason: She has yet to graduate from law school.

Kramer said she did not believe that her departure or Slaughter’s background would be a problem for the administration to absorb.

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Kramer credited her successor with “generalist skills, political savvy,” and a sense of humor, among other things, and said that she will stay on through the transition and be available afterward.

“I’m not dying,” she said. “My phone works. I consider myself a part of the Riordan administration family. Once you’re part of a family, you’re part of a family forever.”

Kramer announced her intention to resign last week, saying she wanted to spend more time with her children.

Complicating Slaughter’s job further is the dissonance in the staff she will oversee. With little direct input from Riordan himself, rivalries within the staff have taken hold and now pit some top aides against one another.

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Her youth and elevation over the deputy mayors also creates potential hard feelings, but a few of those Riordan aides who will report to her emphasized their determination to support her. Riordan echoed those sentiments, describing his deputy mayors and Press Secretary Noelia Rodriguez as “a highly capable senior staff with a demonstrated record of accomplishment and leadership.”

Slaughter’s choice was unexpected by most members of the Riordan team, and some reacted with surprise Tuesday. Many had expected the job to go to Deputy Mayor Kelly Martin, or barring that, for Riordan to look outside his current staff.

Nevertheless, Slaughter received warm applause when the mayor told his staff of his choice at Tuesday’s meeting. Officially, Slaughter will become chief of staff next week. Kramer will stay on for a few weeks to supervise the transition and help brief Slaughter on her new duties.

For his part, Riordan seemed to delight in having reached for an unexpected choice. After the press briefing announcing Slaughter’s appointment, he asked reporters what they thought and then marched Slaughter into his office to finish off a game of chess.

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He beat her. “She’s usually better than this,” Riordan said.

Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this article.


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