Riordan Leaves a Better L.A., but His Legacy Is Mixed
Mayor Richard Riordan leaves Los Angeles better than he found it--safer, more prosperous, more optimistic about its future. It is a city of trimmed trees and repaved roads, better libraries with more books and longer hours.
Crime is down from the alarming peaks of the early 1990s, when Los Angeles voters turned their backs on a generation of Democratic rule at City Hall and put the Republican Riordan in the mayor’s office. Since then, the city, once a newsweekly magazine metaphor for the collapse of civilization, has pushed through several skyline-defining projects, hosted a Democratic National Convention and enjoyed the benefits of a re-energized sense of civic leadership.
But Riordan departs the mayor’s office with a legacy that is less definitive. For every supporter who cites Los Angeles’ rise from riots and recession, there is a doubter who questions Riordan’s role in that recovery. There are those who see him as more lucky than good--as a sort of mayoral Mister Magoo, who wandered across the political stage and walked off ledges, only to land on the passing girder that carried him to safety.
He was, in many respects and by many accounts, a better leader than a mayor. He was a chief executive who succeeded principally when he worked outside the government--reforming the City Charter, for instance, or attacking the status quo for city schoolchildren--but one who often failed at the nuts and bolts of running City Hall.
The same Riordan who boasted of his background as a businessman and manager lost control of the Los Angeles Police Department to federal authorities and allowed talk of municipal secession to spread.
Linda Griego, a businesswoman and former deputy mayor who ran against Riordan in 1993, sums up his administration in sentiments widely echoed within Los Angeles’ political community: “Externally, he did really great. You gotta give him credit. Internally, there were some missed opportunities.”
A Republican in the mold of Dwight Eisenhower, whom he admires, Riordan governed without much thought to ideology or philosophical doctrine. “The enemy of progress,” Riordan often said, “is perfection.” His focus on results helped Riordan forge alliances across party lines, including a friendship with President Clinton that cleared the way for Los Angeles to receive ample federal help at critical moments.
At the same time, Riordan’s lack of an organizing set of principles make his a difficult legacy for James K. Hahn to inherit and extend. There was Riordan, but there was never Riordanism. As a result, Riordan’s best moments as a leader are difficult to define in conventional political terms--and may be difficult for Hahn to replicate.
For Riordan, meanwhile, the record of the past eight years is something else: It is the platform upon which he contemplates a run for governor.
Whichever way he turns, Riordan’s run as mayor is now complete. For many people, two events crystallize those years.
To his supporters, the Riordan era is most vividly captured by the city’s triumphant recovery from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Riordan was omnipresent in that crisis, cracking the whip on his police chief, parking attendants and power agency workers, goading them to work harder, to fix one thing after another, even ordering up food from his own restaurant for city leaders responding to the crisis.
Exhausted by the pace, Riordan refused to leave his post; midway through the second day, he slipped away to a small room attached to the emergency center for a catnap, and was back within the hour.
It was Riordan as problem solver--devoted and talented, determined and relentless, but asking no more of his employees than he was willing to give himself.
The city rebounded quickly and decisively. The Santa Monica Freeway was back up and running 66 days after sections of it collapsed in the earthquake. More than five years after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area, freeways in that region were still being rebuilt.
For his critics, however, the Riordan years are exemplified by the Rampart police scandal, where they see the mayor’s inattention to police abuse as a subtle but palpable contributor to the LAPD’s most notorious recent failure. Riordan came to office determined to build up the size of the police force but less interested in the calls of those who demanded reform. When confronted with a seminal moment in the unraveling of that crisis, Riordan misplayed his hand.
That, to many of those who watched him as mayor, was Riordan at his worst: proud, politically tone deaf, loyal to a police chief who believed in his autonomy and failed to see the LAPD through the eyes of its formidable critics. Today, a federal judge, not the city of Los Angeles, has the last word on Los Angeles policing.
The Rampart Scandal
On March 1, 2000, Riordan convened a critical gathering in the history of his administration, a news conference to present the LAPD’s self-examination of the Rampart police scandal, or what it titled the “Rampart Area Corruption Incident.”
The mayor that morning was determined to minimize the seriousness of the scandal and to praise the department’s efforts to uncover it. The press was not buying it, and pressure was building on the mayor from elsewhere as well. Indeed, even as Riordan spoke, five members of the City Council were locked outside his briefing room, pounding on the door, trying to get in. Security guards threatened to have them arrested.
Pressed to describe the LAPD’s report, Riordan called it nothing less than the most probing self-examination by any public agency in “the history of mankind.”
Even some of his admirers winced at that. The problem with such sweeping judgments, they acknowledged, was that they subverted the role of Riordan’s own Police Commission, which was supposed to have the job of studying the report and determining whether it did the job. Now Riordan, who named those commissioners, already had proclaimed it essentially perfect.
Confronted with the suggestion that he had boxed in his commission, Riordan tried to patch up matters and succeeded only in making things worse. There was no danger of him actually prejudging the report, he said, because he hadn’t finished reading it.
Riordan took great offense at the story on that exchange in the next day’s paper--indeed, he’s often been fiercely critical of The Times’ coverage of his administration. In this case, he saw the story as a “gotcha,” intended solely to embarrass him. What he never seemed to grasp was the central charge of his detractors: that he had badly damaged the principal of civilian oversight of the LAPD, not by failing to read the report before praising it, but by accepting as an article of faith that it must be good because the LAPD’s top brass told him so.
If that moment marked his nadir, it was the end of a path that some critics believe Riordan laid for himself.
In his first term, Riordan’s efforts on behalf of the Police Department were often hindered by Police Chief Willie L. Williams, whom Riordan and many others saw as ineffective. Riordan compensated by micro-managing the Police Department and by working through a forceful series of police commissioners: Gary Greenebaum, Enrique Hernandez Jr. and Raymond Fisher, now a federal appeals court judge. They pushed Williams as hard as they could, achieving some change despite him and eventually dumping him from the job.
In at least one respect, however, the commissioners’ agenda and Riordan’s were different. While Riordan was focused on building up the LAPD, Greenebaum and Fisher in particular were animated by a desire to address the panoply of problems exposed by the Christopher Commission in the wake of the Rodney King beating. Riordan nominally supported those efforts, but in fact paid little attention to them. Bracketed by an ineffective chief and an inattentive mayor, police reform sputtered, dawdled and often fell by the wayside.
“Dick Riordan ran on the platform of more police and a safer city,” recalled Greenebaum, a police reform advocate who was Riordan’s first commission president. “When it came time to be mayor, he put me on the commission because he knew of my views on police reform, so I think it mattered to him.”
Still, Greenebaum conceded: “It’s very difficult for a mayor to make change in the Police Department stick. . . . He could have been more vocal in at least attempting to change it.”
Rafael Sonenshein, a historian who was the chief staff member for one of the City Charter reform commissions and who is generally upbeat about Riordan’s contribution to Los Angeles, is blunt on the topic of the mayor’s job in addressing problems at the LAPD. Riordan, he said, showed “complete disregard for police reform.”
In 1997, Bernard C. Parks, Riordan’s choice for chief, replaced Williams, seemingly delivering at last the manager the mayor had long sought for the LAPD. When the Rampart scandal came to light in late 1999, Riordan elected to back his chief to the hilt, while privately and sometimes publicly complaining about his own commission. He later went so far as to fire Gerald Chaleff, his commission president.
Fed up with the lack of progress toward reform of the Police Department--and befuddled by a mayor who seemed to barely pay lip service to civilian oversight of the agency--the U.S. Department of Justice moved in. Riordan fought and fought, but in the end succumbed to federal oversight of the department where he had staked his political career.
As he leaves office, Riordan leaves this legacy in the field of criminal justice: Crime is far lower than when he took over, but it’s on the rise. Morale at the LAPD, terrible in 1993, is generally considered terrible today. One chief floundered in the wake of the riots, another is embattled today. Attrition was taking a toll then, and is so again today.
But there is this crucial difference: The department’s oversight, once the job of the mayor and commission, now has two new partners--the attorney general of the United States and a U.S. district judge.
Police Department troubles provided some of Riordan’s most difficult days as mayor, and they diminish his legacy in the area that brought him to power. While mayor, however, Riordan has helped to redefine the office itself.
The City Charter that governed Los Angeles when Riordan came to office was a relic of the Progressive Era. In an effort to deter corruption, it severely limited the mayor’s powers as a chief executive by fragmenting authority among the mayor, council and commissions. The mayor, for instance, could not fire the head of any department without council approval.
Riordan chafed at those limits and launched a reform effort. The council, trying to defend its turf, responded with a push of its own. Both backed charter reform commissions, and both commissions went to work. In the end, the two panels compromised on a document that cut away at Riordan’s vision but implemented part of it.
Riordan then made a historic decision to accept the compromise as better than nothing. By contrast, Mayor Sam Yorty decades earlier had backed charter reform up to a point but then ditched it when it did not go his way, stymieing charter reform for more than a quarter-century.
The campaign to win approval of the charter was not a foregone conclusion. Nine council members came out against the final document, while Riordan arrayed a broad coalition of supporters--including Hahn, the city’s newspapers and some of Riordan’s wealthy and influential backers.
Riordan prevailed handily, though not universally, as voters approved the new charter.
In that campaign and others, African Americans as a group did not ever fully embrace Riordan’s leadership. A majority of black voters supported Riordan’s opponents in 1993 and 1997. In 1999, the new City Charter failed to garner a majority of votes in only three of 15 council districts--the three where African Americans make up the largest share of the electorate.
The charter already has begun to transform the operations of Los Angeles government. It is altering the way contracts are handed out, and it has launched a web of neighborhood councils that supporters hope will revolutionize community participation in coming years.
And though previously the mayor could remove a general manager only if a majority of the council would back the move, now he can fire those officials. They retain the right to appeal to the council, but they must initiate any appeal, and it requires 10 of the 15 council members to approve the reinstatement.
Riordan did not always make friends in the course of charter reform. He bruised some opponents and disappointed some supporters. But he, more than any other single person, is responsible for rewriting the rules of Los Angeles government.
“Charter reform would not have happened without him,” said USC professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who headed the elected Charter Reform Commission and frequently disagreed with Riordan in that post. “I think he deserves all the credit for it.”
Role in Education
Charter reform created new powers for the mayor and new possibilities for Los Angeles civic life. But Riordan’s place as a leader of Los Angeles oddly is most defined by an area in which he had no formal power at all: education.
Thirty years ago, Tom Bradley barely uttered a word as Los Angeles fought its way through a wrenching period of school desegregation.
The race to succeed Riordan featured James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa aggressively campaigning to be considered the candidate who would do the most for Los Angeles schoolchildren.
The intervening force was Riordan.
Starting in his second term, Riordan increasingly spoke out about the failure of local schools and then to act upon his outrage. Habitually cautious in his public rhetoric, Riordan worked himself into a lather over the bureaucrats and school board members he blamed for “failing children.”
The mayor demanded “a revolution” to right the wrongs being foisted on the largely poor and Latino student body of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and he proposed starting by chopping off the head--the incumbent school board members he cast as the enemies of school reform.
In 1999, Riordan picked three challengers and one incumbent to take on the school board status quo. All four won, establishing Riordan as a central political actor in the region’s school system.
He fared far less well in the 2001 elections, and the ultimate success of the new school board majority remains unclear. But Riordan raised the bar for Los Angeles mayors on schools.
It is, Riordan recently reflected, “the thing I am most proud of having done in my life.”
It also is the result of Riordan’s other notable--though less obvious--contribution to the city he has governed for nearly a decade.
Under Riordan, the benefits of a Los Angeles civic leadership, once derided or viewed with suspicion, have been rediscovered and put to use. In typically Riordan fashion, that achievement was composed of many small moments. It was born at a few key gatherings and cultivated through constant phone calls--often from the cell phone in his trademark red SUV as he shuttled from event to event around Los Angeles.
Riordan cajoled executives such as Ron Burkle and Jerry Perenchio to give to one project or another. He elicited the advice and help of people like former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and relied heavily for much of his tenure on the regular counsel of lawyer Bill Wardlaw, whose influence on Riordan, particularly in the first term, was profound. Together, those men and a few others became a sort of shadow government, helping to define public priorities and to complete jobs where the government seemed incapable.
That group, for instance, was instrumental in raising money for the charter campaign and the school board races in 1999, in both cases advancing huge city debates and burnishing Riordan’s personal legacy as well.
Its most visible monument, however, is rising just a few blocks from the stage where Riordan twice took his oath of office and where Hahn will take his on Monday.
When Riordan came to office in 1993, the long-desired Disney Hall in Downtown Los Angeles seemed doomed. One of the city’s alternative papers had declared it dead, and many local officials believed Frank Gehry’s arresting design would never be built in Los Angeles. It was a source of bitter disappointment that the world heralded Gehry’s Bilbao museum while Los Angeles’ project remained nothing more than a gigantically expensive parking lot in the heart of downtown.
Although the debacle was largely the county’s fault, not the city’s, Riordan turned to his friend, billionaire Eli Broad, and asked him to take it over. Broad did, and today, the money is raised, the scaffolding has risen between Bunker Hill and the Music Center, and the first strips of the building’s skin are being laid across its bones.
“It was a great catalyst,” Broad said recently. “It showed people that things can get done.”
Indeed, Broad and others believe that the project’s most important contribution to Los Angeles was not the building itself. It was the evidence it provided of the potential for civic leadership. Success breeds success, Broad notes, and the charter reform and education campaigns of the late 1990s owe their success in part to the Disney Hall experience.
The members of that leadership class survive the Riordan administration, of course, but whether it will prove as effective without Riordan at the center stands as an early question for the Hahn team. Christopher endorsed Hahn, and Wardlaw served as chairman of his campaign, so their allegiance appears solid. But Broad and Burkle enthusiastically backed Villaraigosa, raising questions about their commitment to the city’s new mayor.
Riordan says he is confident that those leaders, now accustomed to a place at the center of Los Angeles life, will come together again for Hahn.
“People are eager to do what the mayor wants them to do,” Riordan said. “He just needs to have the confidence to ask.”
Riordan the mayor and Riordan the leader both exit center stage today. With them leaves Riordan the character.
It is that Riordan who greeted hunger strikers while eating a hamburger, who went on a bike trip through France’s wine regions while the city’s transit workers went on strike.
But it is also that Riordan, ever haunted by the deaths of two of his own children, who comforted the families of police officers killed protecting Los Angeles. Those meetings often were in private, held not for the benefit of the press or Riordan’s image but for the families themselves.
It is that Riordan who visited scores of schools, each time giving children his full attention while principals and teachers and reporters waited their turn.
Through his eight years, Riordan has proved unfailingly unpredictable--hiring as his chief of staff at one point a young woman who still was studying for the bar exam, then having to drop her from the job a few months later amid a growing sense that his administration was adrift.
He plays chess with skill and patience, pads around the office in his socks, laughs at his own jokes and yet is capable of volcanic anger. Over the course of a single conversation, he can be brusque, impish, solicitous and absent-minded, and though none of those are formally his legacy, they help explain why even those who fought with Riordan feel nostalgic about his imminent departure.
With less than a month to go before leaving office, Riordan considered the question of what he’d liked best about being mayor. “Tweaking the L.A. Times,” he said without a pause.
But Riordan’s legacy is one of more than temper, quirks and miscues. It is also of accomplishment and recovery, of broadening Los Angeles’ idea of a mayor from that of an administrator into that of a leader.
Over the years, Riordan’s critics consistently have been concentrated at and around City Hall. Council members, lobbyists and lawyers who make their living around the government almost to a person dismiss his importance and effectiveness. That is true across ethnic and ideological lines; people who work in the government and have little else in common can often find unity in their distaste for Richard Riordan.
As one moves further away from that center, however, the mayor’s support grows palpably stronger. Those who like and admire him are a mixture of executives, historians, academics and working people. They are mostly white but often Latino and occasionally black. If Riordan’s critics are the government, his admirers are those for whom that government is an abstraction or even an inconvenience.
Completing his final lap as mayor last week, Riordan exited as he had arrived.
On Thursday, council members past and present, along with aides, lobbyists and political consultants, gathered to dedicate the newly refurbished council chambers at City Hall. There were proclamations and speeches. Old acquaintances caught up on memories, recalled grand moments in the historic room. Hahn was there. So were his successor as city attorney and other top officials of the city.
Dick Riordan, meanwhile, was at a radio station in Hollywood, taking calls from listeners, talking about running for governor, muffing lines and looking to the future.