If outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan were a Democrat, he would be hailed as one of the city's greatest political leaders ever. Under his tenure, Los Angeles rebounded spectacularly from a social and economic collapse that, just a few years ago, seemed all but irreversible. By helping to rebuild the city's vitality, Riordan made possible the resurgence of the same prosperity-dependent, post-material liberalism that now tends to discount his remarkable accomplishments.
It is difficult to overstate the turnaround that has occurred since Riordan took office in June 1993, just a year after the riots. To be sure, the city's economic and social leap forward was consistent with urban growth and lower crime trends that were occurring nationwide. Some of what happened on his watch might very well have taken place no matter who was mayor.
In 1993, however, it was far from clear that Los Angeles would ever join in the party. The city sharply lagged behind the rest of the state, let alone the country. It was, by any measure, a world-class disaster zone.
Total crime had skyrocketed to a record 350,000 incidents per year, including a ghastly 90,000 serious violent crimes--murders, rapes, robberies and assaults. Federal defense cutbacks, shamelessly targeting Southern California, were in the process of stripping some 460,000 jobs from the regional economy, a staggering 11% of total employment.
Lulled into a false sense of well-being by years of unconscious growth, Los Angeles leadership had largely evaporated. Public budget shortfalls had reached crisis proportions and once-popular Mayor Tom Bradley's job approval rating had fallen to a mere 30%. Westside liberals, buffered by wealth and distance, disdained the suffering around them. The radical left celebrated what they viewed as proof of capitalism's failure all around them. Hollywood filled theaters everywhere with disgracefully exploitative films about gun-crazed Los Angeles aerospace engineers and gang mayhem.
It was no wonder that the city's once-confident businesses closed shop or fled to happier, more heavily subsidized locales. Those that remained mounted a strikingly self-destructive campaign against state and local regulations, perversely enhancing perceptions that greater Los Angeles had the worst business climate on Earth at a time when attracting new investment was the region's single greatest priority. Academics and politicians, almost totally divorced from economic reality, indulged pipe-dream fantasies like defense conversion or electric cars, none of which would prove to have any appreciable role in the city's eventual recovery.
To most observers, even those who should have known better, Los Angeles had no conceivable upside. Top business forecasters predicted decades of double-digit unemployment and virtually permanent recession. A whopping 83% of city residents told Times pollsters that things were going "badly," by far the most negative sentiment ever recorded. Headlines declared the end of Los Angeles' "Golden Age." Almost no one dared suggest the city was, or could become, anything but a polluted, unmanageable multi-ethnic dystopia.
Riordan, a multimillionaire with a rare and deep commitment to Los Angeles, was one of the few who dared to see the possibilities. He ran for and won the mayor's job at a time when it was arguably the least desirable office in the country.
After his election, he focused on safety and growth, reining in the worst of the city's detractors and pushing hard for, if not always achieving, a beefed-up police force. As the city's larger firms vanished, Riordan reached out a welcome hand to the far more vibrant small and medium sized employers, particularly in the oft-ignored and much-maligned San Fernando Valley, that increasingly comprised the city's economic core.
His style was often stumbling, and almost never electrifying. But by tempering (if not actually reducing) L.A.'s chronically anti-business bureaucracy, encouraging overlooked industries, and taking an unambiguous stand against crime, he positioned the city for its stunning recovery.
Crime in Los Angeles precipitously fell over the ensuing years, consistent with similar declines in most other urban areas. Despite a recent uptick, the city's crime rates are still 50% lower than when Riordan first took office. The regional economic collapse bottomed out mid-decade, and the Los Angeles region has recovered nearly all its employment losses, a net gain of over 450,000 jobs. Unemployment was halved to less than 6%, a big reason why poverty rates fell to the lowest levels in years. Over $500 million of new tax revenue, including an additional $200 million from business, sales and construction-related levies, flooded into city coffers.
From near-pathological, the tenor and tone of public sentiment dramatically improved. Five years after the riots, more than 50% of the city's residents opined that things were going "well," a 400% increase from previous polls. By 2000, the city's level of positive sentiment was comparable with polling results from 1970 and 1980, supposedly the city's "Golden Age." Riordan's job approval rating rose to about 57%, and only retreated during the last few months of his lame-duck year.
It is wrong to discount these enormous accomplishments. Some would cite Riordan's struggles with the chronically dysfunctional Los Angeles city council or his CEO-like, results-oriented lack of charisma as evidence of failure. Others fret that he never fully embraced the now fashionable anti-growth or public-sector-oriented liberalism that has come to dominate local politics.
The irony, of course, is that it was Riordan's successful revitalization of Los Angeles' basic economic and social functions that allowed for the reemergence of the city's post-material progressives in the first place. Traffic, second-hand smoke, sprawl and income inequality are the politics of prosperity. They become priority concerns only when jobs are plentiful, property values rise, poverty abates and the streets are safe.
By helping to foster such fundamental conditions during his eight years as mayor, Riordan liberated Los Angeles' liberal instincts. In that sense, he should be celebrated by the city's progressive factions. Yet, the price of his success is precisely the erosion of support for the moderate, growth-oriented urbanism he championed so well.
There are signs, however, that Riordan may leave a deeper, more profound legacy. It's also possible he injected an enduring sense of practicality into city government that will shape political debate long after he leaves office.
In the recent election, for example, candidates who most strongly marched to the elite left's drumbeat of greenish anti-capitalism, symbolic ethnic empowerment and the like were almost all defeated. Those who leavened their liberalism with at least a passing respect for economics and public safety--politicians, that is, who were more like Riordan--won big and sometimes surprising victories.
Los Angeles is almost certain to remain a liberal bastion. Liberal agendas are best advanced when city residents are secure and tax revenues grow. Now if Los Angeles can marry a commitment to sustain a functional economy and a relatively cohesive, safe civic society with its newly invigorated progressive agenda, it may strike what many cities have found is a difficult, elusive balance. Such a result could well prove to be Riordan's most subtle and valuable long-term contribution to his city.