What Makes a Strong Mayor

When Time magazine wrote a long piece on American mayors in 1997, it got Richard Riordan’s name wrong, calling him “Robert.” That gaffe became shorthand for the weakness of Los Angeles mayors. After all, no national magazine would mess up the name of Richard Daley, the father or the son -- not to mention Rudy Giuliani.

L.A.'s lack of mayoral muscle is usually laid to a nonpartisan system that splits power with the “15 mini-mayors” of the City Council and hands off education to an independent school district. Chicago’s mayor rules in a top-down system that gives so much patronage and visibility to the mayor that only the fabulously incompetent are term-limited by anything but death. New York’s mayor has to deal with elected borough officials, a huge City Council and term limits, but as in Chicago he now holds sway over the school system. San Francisco’s mayor doesn’t have unusual power, but benefits from the fact that city and county lines are the same.

What do all these facts add up to?

Mostly a bunch of excuses.

As in most cities, the mayoralty of Los Angeles is what the mayor makes of it. Tom Bradley swept into office in 1973 with promises to clean up the appearance of corruption and pay-to-play in city commissions left by predecessor Sam Yorty, and largely he succeeded. He swept out the old appointees and opened city government to women, minorities and liberals. Inclusive rather than old-boy exclusive, he made strong coalitions with the environment-minded Westsiders and downtown developers alike, putting his stamp on the city in his first administration. He grandly brought the Olympics to the city.


Riordan pushed through a new City Charter that granted the mayor powers far beyond what Bradley had, both in controlling city commissions and in dealing with the City Council. The new charter also finally gave the mayor direct power over the chief of police.

Riordan himself barely enjoyed those greater powers, which took effect in his last year. Even so, Riordan picked a fight with the dysfunctional school district -- over which he had no direct control -- with some success. He led the difficult drive to get Disney Hall built, putting philanthropist-developer Eli Broad at its helm. He willingly appointed people smarter than himself.

The mayor of Los Angeles has roughly the same budgetary and legislative powers as other big-city mayors, though over less political turf. The schools are the biggest hole in the mayoral portfolio. We support any realistic effort to fill that hole, so mayors can be accountable for the issue that most voters put near the top of their list of concerns.

Bradley in the end got too cozy with developers.

Riordan had an authoritarian manner and a loose work ethic, among other things.

But both had an expansive belief about what a mayor should be.

The next mayor should learn from them, and act as though he has broad shoulders and big ideas, not a fence around him.