Richard Riordan, unleashed

Richard Riordan spent eight years as mayor of Los Angeles, but he didn’t start his civic engagement with L.A. when he was sworn in, and he didn’t end it after he was termed out. Since then, he’s become part tribal elder, part fun uncle, but just now the City Council isn’t sending any love his way. It’s pretty irked by Riordan’s warnings that the city may have to resort to bankruptcy to save itself.

Riordan’s post-mayoral resume includes a short stint as California Secretary of Education -- a still-public life in the public eye. Personally and through his foundation, the attorney/investor/venture capitalist has given away what he figures is tens of millions of dollars to L.A. causes. I’ve known Riordan since he first ran for mayor. We get along, even though he’s a Paul Johnson-history kind of guy and I’m a Howard Zinn kind of gal. At 80, he bikes, skis, walks his goldendoodle, Billy, and exhausts the rest of us.

You’ve suggested bankruptcy as an option for L.A.; it’s a word most people associate with failure and misery.

Bankruptcy is not a bad word. Bankruptcy means that you can go into court, restructure so you can continue to function. Insolvency is a bad word. Insolvency is when you don’t have the money to pay ordinary creditors, so right now L.A. is headed quickly into insolvency. Within the next three years, the payments on pensions are going to go up from $1 billion to $3.5 billion, and we’re having trouble paying [even] that $1 billion. I tell the mayor and the council, if we continue the same pension programs, the same healthcare programs, we will absolutely go into bankruptcy because [it’s] the only way we will be able to survive.

What about reform? Is it too late?

You cannot fool around with the pensions of people who already have pensions. What we can do with new employees is change from a defined benefit pension to a 401(k) program. Also, we have hundreds of millions of dollars that we’re giving to employees, retirees even, on healthcare where they really don’t need it. It’s not necessary to do bankruptcy if they’re willing to change [to] programs we can live with over the next 10, 20 years. For current employees, you could increase the retirement age to 65.

Police and fire are a huge part of this, and as mayor you increased their benefits.

Oh yeah, [but] I can say with accuracy that all our pensions were fully funded and now they’re like 50% funded. During those last years [of my administration], we were getting 12%, 13% on our investments, and we weren’t as generous as Hahn or Villaraigosa [on benefits]. No question I played some of the same games they played, but the circumstances were less harmful. Eighty percent of our non-pension budget [now] goes to police and fire. Certainly we want to add police or at least keep the number where it’s at, but we don’t have the resources.

What would the LAPD look like?

There’d have to be a fairly significant decrease in the number of police officers. We can try to make the Police Department and the Fire Department run more efficiently. For example, eliminate the 12-hour day [and the resulting three-day workweek]. Go back to the eight-hour day. You’d add the equivalent of 400 officers. The same way with the Fire Department. New building codes [mean] we have fewer fires. We don’t need as many firefighters. And if you notice, almost every time a paramedic is called, a fire truck goes. It’s just the union trying to prove that you need more firefighters.

The problem is that the unions control the city. You see why our schools are so incompetent; it’s because of the unions’ control of the schools.

Are you making a distinction between unions that got the 40-hour workweek and unions today?

Oh, I think it’s a major, major difference. There was a time when the big corporations mistreated their employees, had them working too long, underpaid, and now the unions control everything. The question is, how do you get a balance?

Some people would say, hey, he’s rich, why does he care about public education?

I think every child who comes into this world has a God-given right to quality healthcare and quality education, the tools to compete successfully in life. And I think if God put me on Earth for anything, it’s to give these tools to every poor child in the city. As mayor, every day when I drove to work, I thought, what can I do for poor children today? Many of the things may seem very conservative. Trying to undercut the unions sounds very conservative, but it’s not -- it’s liberal, with a small “l.”

City charter reform gave your successors more power. Was that a good idea?

If the mayor were in total control of the schools and the budget and everything in the city, you would know who to blame. You can’t have accountability unless you have the authority to do things. It doesn’t mean every mayor is going to be as good as I’d like, but at least the mayors would know that they’re being judged and the people would know how to judge them. Sacramento is worse than Los Angeles, because the governor has very little power. Even though technically I wasn’t a strong mayor, I acted like one. I empowered other people.

As mayor you put in people at the Department of Water and Power who were managers but not utility managers. How did that work out?

I’m not going to sit here and say I did everything perfectly (my dog thinks I did!). At least there was a lot of transparency when we ran the DWP. The times were very good; the DWP was making a lot of money; the city did not have major, major problems. The union’s power was still too great , but we had people who kept the interest of the city at heart rather than the unions.

What’s worked best in charter reform?

[Taking] away the contracting power from the City Council. It’s huge as far as running the city. The council still has a veto right, but they can’t substitute themselves for the mayor. It keeps things more honest and more efficient. And probably the most important thing is the hiring and firing of department heads. I’ve got to give Villaraigosa credit, he’s done a good job picking heads of departments, with the exception of the DWP until Austin Beutner, which is a great appointment.

If you were starting out today, would you still be a Republican?

I have trouble with the ultra-right on the Republicans and the ultra-left on the Democrats. As long as the unions control the Democratic Party, I can’t be a Democrat. Maybe I’d be a party of one.

We always hear that L.A. lacks a cohesive city spirit. True?

Maybe I’m too optimistic, but when I was mayor, we felt very much together. They say we’re a bunch of suburbs in search of a city; and it’s not all bad to have [people] proud of the district they live in, but they also [should] feel proud of the city. The Valley feels cheated by the city constantly, and I think a lot of it is because they have shown very poor leadership. I’m being really brutal, and the Valley got me elected, but for some reason they haven’t come up with the Eli Broads and people like that in the Valley. The Valley, it’s an enigma to me.

Why can’t we get a pro football team?

Nothing we could say could sell them. The owners of the teams are the most arrogant, egotistical people in the world, and they do things for their own, [as they did] when they gave the expansion team to Houston rather than L.A. Now they realize they made mistakes. They need L.A.; we’re the second-biggest television market in the country. So it’ll happen.

Now, you’re a big jokester …


… are you sorry for some of the jokes you’ve cracked?

Of course I am! I’ve learned to count to three before I tell a joke. Usually something’s funny, click, click, and you forget you’ve just insulted every Italian in the city!

You and I started a book group more than 15 years ago. I know you love Marcel Proust and Evelyn Waugh, but what I don’t know is, is there one book that most influenced your life?

Probably “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene. It showed that a weak, sinful person can still get to heaven. I think that had an influence on a lot of my thinking about God and religion. I went through other iterations; right now I believe that God is the most perfect, simple creature; that there is no hell but that the people who do things wrong, who go against the natural law, their hell is on this Earth. When we die, our simple ego becomes part of this perfect simple God. If you read the great thinkers -- Thomas Aquinas, Mortimer Adler and others -- they think this way too.

You’re a Catholic. What do you think of what’s been going on in your church?

You just can’t run something as large as [the church] without power at the local level. It’s a management system. The church has to give more power to the local parishes and the local archbishop, and particularly to the lay people. You look at the pedophilia that went on -- I’ve got to believe that if the lay people in the parish had the power to recommend removal of a priest, [the offenders] would have been gotten rid of very quickly. And you need women in the church.

In the priesthood?

Yes, because we are a different society today than we were 300, 400 years ago.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews is online at