What's Riordan Done for L.A.?

Harold Meyerson is outgoing executive editor of L.A. Weekly and incoming executive editor of the American Prospect

The city, by any number of measures, is back. Employment is up from the trough of the early '90s. Business flight has largely abated; new industries are locating here. Crime rates have fallen and a new, more vibrant downtown seems to be rising.

It's a tribute to Richard Riordan, whose eight-year term as mayor ends this weekend, that all of the above can be said of Los Angeles. Then again, it can also be said of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Boston, San Diego, Atlanta, Oakland, Columbus and Pittsburgh. No city is an island entire of itself, and if credit is to go to any public official for America's urban renaissance of the past half-dozen years, Bill Clinton is clearly standing at the head of the line.

Assessing Riordan's role in L.A.'s comeback is a trickier business--not least because the extent of L.A.'s recovery looks very different depending on your vantage point, for Los Angeles is still preeminently a two-tier city. When aerospace up and left in the first half of the '90s, it took with it a large chunk of L.A.'s middle class. The economy has come roaring back since then, but the middle class really hasn't. L.A. today remains America's capital of low-wage work.

Riordan took office at a historic nadir in L.A. history, with the city hemorrhaging jobs and still reeling from the riots of 1992. His pledge to "turn L.A. around" really had two components: He'd rebuild a police force that would make Angelenos feel safer and an economic climate that would make business feel more welcome.

Riordan was always the candidate of law and order rather than police reform. With the help of Clinton, who designated federal funds for hiring more local cops, he beefed up the LAPD, and crime rates started to fall. Then again, they fell in virtually every city in the land, and they fell on the watch of a chief--Willie Williams--whom Riordan harshly criticized and eventually replaced. Meanwhile, neither Riordan nor his police commissioners did anything to implement the key recommendations of the 1992 Christopher Commission. His commissioners impeded the efforts of the department's first civilian inspector general to monitor officer misconduct, while his own appointee as chief, Bernard Parks, fiercely resisted efforts to establish greater civilian control of the department.

It was in this climate--more enforcement, and damn the accountability--that the Rampart scandal erupted. Riordan wasn't responsible for the scandal, but more than anyone else, he was responsible for the climate--and, by extension, for the massive liability the city now confronts. Rampart, the attendant decline in the size and the morale of the force and the consent decree with the federal government all attest to glaring failures of local governance--and in particular, to Riordan's failure to grasp what was required to police a city like Los Angeles.

And what of the economy? Certainly L.A. has come a long way from the early '90s, when factory closings and the relocation of corporate headquarters seemed almost weekly occurrences. Not that Riordan really staunched those relocations; it's just that L.A. has run out of major enterprises, excepting Disney, that are still based here. But a new economy of smaller businesses has risen on the ashes of old, large-scale industrial Los Angeles, and Riordan certainly changed the atmospherics, if not all the codes and ordinances, to make this a more business-friendly city.

While the L.A. economy may be booming, however, it's far from healthy. The Census Bureau has yet to provide its economic breakdown of the 2000 census, but estimates of the increase in poor people in L.A. County over the past decade range from 500,000 to 840,000. We are the nation's capital of medical uninsurance (something over which the mayor has no authority whatever) and of residential overcrowding (something over which the mayor does have considerable authority had he simply chosen to exercise it).

A few weeks ago, the Census Bureau released a report on household overcrowding--and lo and behold, 23 of the 25 most overcrowded American cities were in California, most of them the working-class, heavily immigrant suburbs of L.A. (Santa Ana, El Monte and East Los Angeles headed the list, while L.A. proper--which includes such distinctly uncrowded neighborhoods as Brentwood and Bel Air--ranked 31st.) Yet, until his final year in office, Riordan denied that the absence of affordable housing was really a problem. While other cities established affordable-housing trust funds for nonprofit developers, L.A. established one only last year, at the behest of then-Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, Riordan's sometime nemesis. And while New York's trust fund exceeds a quarter-billion dollars, L.A. has currently set aside a princely $10 million for the purpose.

It was Goldberg who also authored the city's pioneering living-wage ordinance in 1997, which the council enacted over Riordan's veto. Nor was the creation of living-wage jobs ever a priority for the mayor's economic development team. Riordan himself has always espoused an idiosyncratic mix of free-market economic theory and tepid social Catholicism. Thus, even as he was opposing the extension of the living-wage ordinance to cover security screeners at LAX, he was phoning airline CEOs to urge them to voluntarily boost workers' wages. Historians are sure to note that Riordan was one of those rare public officials who was a good deal more comfortable working behind the scenes than before the cameras. It's not simply that Riordan may be the most inarticulate public speaker since Moses. (Actually, his clumsiness at the podium is so total as to be disarming: No one who sounds like such a doofus can really be the slick, sinister financial deal maker of populist demonology.) His whole modus operandi is to get things done out of channels, far from the public eye.

For a time, in fact, Riordan seemed to be modeling himself not on any of his predecessor mayors, but on Asa Call, the mid-20th century insurance magnate who chaired the Committee of 25, a group of downtown business leaders who really ran the city, anointing candidates for office and telling them what to do once there. In 1999, Riordan corralled such mega-rich Angelenos as developer Eli Broad and grocery magnate Ron Burkle to fund, along with him, a successful campaign to replace incumbent school board members with candidates of his own choosing, and he turned to this group again for such efforts as funding the new Disney Concert Hall and last year's Democratic National Convention.

But over time, Riordan's committee has proved a good deal more heterogeneous and diffuse than Call's cadre of hard-line Republicans--witness the fact that many of Riordan's guys backed Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor while Riordan was stumping for Steve Soboroff. And, of course, Riordan himself backed Villaraigosa after his guy was out of the race.

It should have come as no surprise that Riordan was most comfortable working outside public scrutiny. L.A.'s business mayor had not been a CEO, with whatever mastery of organizational process that suggests, but a successful leveraged-buyout operator--someone who worked outside channels and frequently in secrecy.

In his eight years as mayor, Riordan remained in but not of City Hall. He singularly failed to cultivate allies on the City Council or, particularly after he lost the services of attorney Bill Wardlaw as his consigliere, to identify up-and-coming politicos he could bind to his cause. He was never much for the give-and-take of politics, for the nuances and niceties of the democratic process. Indeed, his greatest success--rallying the city and speeding the rebuilding process after the 1994 Northridge quake--was the one instance when he was fully able to exercise emergency powers and did not have to worry about building mass support for his actions.

For his travails with the council, Riordan did exact some post-facto revenge. The charter change he steered to enactment in 1999 will enable his successor to manage city departments free from the co-management and chronic kibitzing of council members. This de jure expansion of mayoral power in the charter was complemented by his de facto expansion of mayoral power over the L.A. school district. In a city where power is bewilderingly diffuse, and inertia is the most common consequence, both these expansions of mayoral power--and accountability--are clearly welcome.

No major American city has changed as much as Los Angeles over the past eight years, but, finally, Riordan has not played a central role in that transformation. The rise of the city's Latino-labor alliance, which has turned the city (and with it, the state) into a Democratic bastion, occurred despite Riordan's opposition to many of its defining causes. Riordan's persistent promotion of trade helped speed L.A.'s emergence as a profoundly multicultural metropolis, though the mayor seemed a creature from another planet when plunked down among the city's 20-somethings, for whom a casual multiculturalism is increasingly a normal and normative life.

As term limits are giving Riordan the hook, we should give the guy one cheer for the city's renewed vibrance along with a couple of loud hisses for its profound, pervasive inequality and for the city's continuing reluctance to address it.

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