Riordan Takes a Back Seat as State Education Secretary
Eager to close California’s gaping budget hole last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his closest advisors quietly cut a deal to save $2 billion in education spending.
But one person was notably missing from the behind-the-scenes negotiations: Richard Riordan, the newly appointed secretary for education.
Riordan’s absence, some Sacramento leaders say, has become a metaphor for his first year on the job.
The man who carved a legacy for himself as a popular and contentious mayor of Los Angeles has yet to emerge as a significant player in Sacramento, according to lawmakers and educators.
Many in education who want to reach Schwarzenegger say they often turn first to others in the administration, particularly the governor’s closest aide, Bonnie Reiss.
“Riordan is not viewed as a power,” said former state Sen. Dede Alpert, a leading force in education before she had to leave office this month because of term limits. “You don’t have the sense that if you’re talking to him, you’re talking to the governor.”
Part of the problem, legislators and others say, lies in the perception of the 74-year-old Riordan as an absent-minded bumbler and a loose cannon in an administration that demands discipline.
Riordan added to that image last summer at a Santa Barbara event when he told a little girl that her name -- Isis -- meant “stupid, dirty girl.” He apologized later, and said he was only teasing.
When he speaks, Riordan sometimes sounds more like a would-be governor than an education secretary. He talks about issues that on the surface have nothing to do with public education -- venting, for example, about affordable housing, the nursing shortage and the widening gulf between rich and poor in California.
Riordan says the solution to most of the problems lies in better public schools. And he is pursuing a long-held agenda for fixing schools by giving local campuses more power, but the proposals have yet to win Schwarzenegger’s public backing.
Riordan said those who judge his performance underestimate him and misunderstand the nature of his job.
Like his predecessors, Riordan has no inherent authority other than serving as the governor’s voice on education. He is the governor’s chief education advisor and was one of Schwarzenegger’s first Cabinet appointments.
Riordan is dwarfed by the larger-than-life presence of Schwarzenegger, who consumes the media spotlight and personally negotiates deals on education and other matters.
Meanwhile, Riordan is limited by Sacramento’s education bureaucracy, just as his predecessors were. Policies are set by the governor’s office, the California Board of Education and the elected superintendent of public instruction, who oversees a 1,400-employee Department of Education.
“I have zero power,” said Riordan, who has a staff of 16. “I am an advisor.
“My job is not to make myself look like the czar of education,” he said. “I could be out there making myself look important, making five speeches a day. But I try to [work] as much as I can behind the scenes.”
Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman said the governor has confidence in Riordan and considers him a “trusted advisor.” His job, she said, is secure.
“The secretary is a prominent voice in education policy. He is a key player,” Margita Thompson said. “But the governor does have other people who weigh in. That’s not to negate the importance of the secretary’s influence. The governor likes to reach out to many people.”
Riordan and his staff receive little fanfare for their work. Last year, his office analyzed more than 300 bills for the governor. The secretary and his aides also were instrumental in developing legislation to create an early warning system for school districts headed toward financial trouble.
But Riordan also spent much of his first year attempting to advance his own school reform agenda -- without much success.
Holding meetings at his Brentwood estate with school district superintendents, school board members and others, Riordan has sought a plan to reduce Sacramento’s control of public schools. He wants principals and their staffs to have more authority over school finances, among other things.
So far, the ideas haven’t gone anywhere, largely because Schwarzenegger has been more focused on other priorities.
Riordan is devoting energy to a job he doesn’t need. He could have retired to a golf course after two mayoral terms and a failed gubernatorial bid in the 2002 election.
Calling himself “a rescuer,” however, he said he feels a moral obligation to schools. “I think God has put me on this Earth to help poor children,” said Riordan, a practicing Catholic.
He forgoes a salary as education secretary. (He accepted only $1 a year as mayor.) And he pays out of his own pocket for most of his flights between Los Angeles and Sacramento and for a room at the Hyatt Hotel across the street from the Capitol, where he stays during the week.
He said he works well with Schwarzenegger’s other advisors in the Capitol. “Ninety-nine percent of the time we work as a team,” he said.
But Riordan has taken a back seat to the governor and his top aides on some of the state’s most pressing education issues.
For example, Schwarzenegger cut a budget deal with the California Teachers Assn. and other groups to save $2 billion in education spending. Reiss and other top aides were involved in the talks.
“Riordan was never in the meetings or the negotiations,” said John Hein, then the CTA’s government relations director and a key player in the talks.
Riordan said he was not at the meetings because the budget was “not in my bailiwick.”
Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman, Thompson, declined to comment on Riordan’s role in the negotiations but said he was involved in the overall development of the education budget. “He was an active participant,” Thompson said.
But Riordan also was overshadowed by other administration officials when it came to settling a major civil rights lawsuit alleging that the state had denied poor and minority children an adequate education.
Riordan initially contacted the plaintiffs’ attorneys -- the American Civil Liberties Union -- and expressed an interest in settling the case, ACLU officials said. But Reiss, Legal Affairs Secretary Peter Siggins and other Schwarzenegger advisors took the lead in negotiating the deal, according to those involved in the talks.
Riordan said he attended settlement talks, and his staff helped draft legislation to codify the agreement, which requires more money and oversight at schools in low-income communities.
Riordan’s ascendance to education secretary has allowed him to advance his long-held passion for education.
A former venture capitalist and a longtime philanthropist, he has donated nearly $27 million over two decades through his nonprofit Riordan Foundation to equip public schools with computers and books.
He converted his interest in education into a political agenda as Los Angeles mayor, backing four reform-minded candidates for the Board of Education.
He succeeded, though he had no formal power over the public school system. The election led to the hiring of a new schools superintendent and rising test scores.
“It was the finest, most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said of the triumph.
Those familiar with Riordan in his public and private lives say he has changed little since he served as mayor of Los Angeles, from 1993 to 2001.
He was known as a shoot-from-the-hip chief executive with a short attention span and a penchant for speaking before thinking about the consequences. He governed with a relentless can-do style summed up in one of his favorite maxims: “In a bureaucracy, it is much easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”
Riordan once pledged on the spot to clean up a South Los Angeles park within two weeks after a resident complained about drug dealers, shootings and other problems. Riordan whipsawed city bureaucrats into action, and then expanded the concept to other city parks.
But Riordan also could be politically tone deaf. He once greeted hunger strikers while eating a hamburger. On another occasion, he bicycled through France’s wine regions while Los Angeles’ transit workers walked picket lines.
“Dick at times was sharp and focused, and other times I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about or where he was going,” recalled Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), who served on the Los Angeles City Council while Riordan was mayor and who often clashed with him. “I don’t think that has changed. That was true then. It is true now.”
But the recent Santa Barbara incident -- in which he called the girl “stupid” -- stunned many of Riordan’s Sacramento colleagues, cost him credibility and fueled a rumor that he was displaying symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. He angrily dismissed the rumor as “mean and not true. My mind is sharper than it ever was,” he said.
Those closest to him agree.
Riordan reads voraciously (keeping shelves of books in a two-story library in his Brentwood home) and works out every day -- lifting weights, riding his bike or playing basketball, often against opponents half his age.
Aside from his job as education secretary, he is a partner in a Los Angeles investment firm and owns two restaurants: the Original Pantry Cafe downtown and Gladstone’s on Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu.
And Riordan is still closely linked to some of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful people, including fellow philanthropist Eli Broad.
“From my point of view, he’s never been better,” said his wife, Nancy Daly Riordan. “He’s exciting and dynamic.”
Riordan enjoys close ties to Schwarzenegger, a fellow Republican; their wives, powerful figures in Democratic political circles, also are friends.
The couples live in the same Brentwood neighborhood, attend the same church and own homes in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Although Riordan’s influence in Sacramento remains unclear, he enjoys star treatment when he travels to schools around the state. School district superintendents treat him as a celebrity and hang on his words.
And he still commands the attention of his favorite audience: children.
On a recent day, Riordan was focused and relaxed as he spoke to about 50 journalism students from Santiago High School in Corona, near Riverside.
“The job of secretary is very interesting,” he said. “I get to interact with the Terminator regularly and learn to talk with an Austrian accent.”
Toward the end of the session, a student asked how he was qualified to be the education secretary.
“That assumes I am qualified,” Riordan quipped.
After a pause, he said: “I feel a duty to do my God-given best to help children. I’ll let other people judge whether I’m qualified.”