The Statewide Dick 

Who'd benefit from a Riordan race for governor?

Wednesday, Feb 11 1998
Here's a question for you: How could Richard Riordan neglect Los Angeles even more than he already does? The answer: become governor.

For that matter, could anything do more to revive the Northern California secession movement? Or at least leave the state - and, with it, our city - teetering on that brink? But by last weekend, the possibility of Dick Riordan having to bumble through a term or two in yet another vital elective office no longer seemed impossible. At least not in our region's leading newspaper. The Riordan candidacy was being seriously mulled, the L.A. Times reported in its gentlest front-page way: Corporate California wanted Riordan. The same day that this analysis appeared on Page 1, the Times' most widely advertised columnist also weighed in on the subject: "Will Riordan Be Able To Resist Political Sweet Talk?" Bill Boyarsky ruminated. (On Wednesday morning, just before the Weekly went to press, Riordan announced that he would not seek the governorship.)

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Mentioned nowhere in all this generous coverage were any mayoral accomplishments upon which Riordan might build such a campaign. Understandably. I can't recall any Riordan activities during the past five years that haven't demonstrated his shortcomings as a political leader and his distaste for the politics of elected office. Yes, he did have that one terrific moment, cleaning up the city after the '94 earthquake. But California voters shouldn't have to count on the Big One wrecking the state to get the best out of their governor.

Day in and day out, Dick Riordan has been the most process-evasive (not to mention media-shy) elected official I've ever seen. He's also the only officeholder who sounds like he knows less about his job now than he did when he was first elected. Since when did these particular traits become assets in the eyes of the voting public? The Times ignored the issue of the mayor's qualifications but speculated as to Riordan's reasons for running: because his friends and staff thought it'd be a good idea. Further, he might run because Dianne Feinstein wasn't running. I seem to have missed the part, however, that said he'd run because he was a great mayor and would be an equally good governor.

The following Friday, I read a dispatch by the same celebrated Times columnist, who now seemed to be, as one seasoned City Hall observer put it, "adopting the posture of a political adviser." According to Boyarsky, the word that woke the mayor to the possibility of running - at least in their conversation - was education. It seemed that Riordan wanted to do all the wonderful things for the state's educational system that he'd already done for the city's. Whatever they might be.

Now is that a fair thing to say? In a way, no. After all, the mayor, as a private benefactor, has long been endowing schools with his personal LEARN (the acronym whose meaning nearly everyone seems to have forgotten) program.

But in another way, it is fair to say that as mayor, Dick Riordan has so far done nothing for Los Angeles education but shoot off his mouth. Granted, the state provides the governor with greater powers over public instruction than our mayor has. So it may be unfair to criticize Riordan's educational noise-to-action ratio. But then the much-maligned 1925 city charter provides Dick Riordan with powers over such matters as city auditing and the contract process that the mayor not only fails to exercise, but actually has complained in public of not having. It follows that just because he's got the legal power to do something doesn't guarantee that Dick Riordan will do it.

Above all, it is astonishing to read our mayor being quoted by Boyarsky as saying, "What it really comes down to is governance and leadership." This is true. But since the aftermath of the '94 quake, these are exactly the qualities with which, it appears, Dick Riordan has been flamboyantly undersupplied.

This is not a local secret. It's a fact that has been acknowledged reluctantly by a national press initially eager to embrace the multimillionaire as a tough-talking, center-right-leaning urban savior. Since then, he's fallen off the charts. In 1996, Riordan was not on Newsweek's A-list of notable U.S. mayors. He also missed Time's chart. Now even the perfervid Wall Street Journal editorialists have eased Dick from their troika of oft-cited, can-do conservative burgermeisters that still includes New York's driven Rudy Giuliani and Indianapolis' glib Stephen Goldsmith.

That's because, as an elected leader, Riordan's become a do-nothing embarrassment. The only reason he (or his friends, or the Times) could even think of his running for the statehouse is because he has huge personal wealth. I lost a side bet five years ago to someone who foresaw what a well-deployed splinter of a nine-figure fortune would do to the Los Angeles mayor's race that year.

One political analyst suggested Saturday this entire proposal was a practical joke that Riordan and his staff were playing on the manifestly gullible Times. I like that. But if Riordan had actually declared his candidacy, we might have had to resign ourselves to some "Tough Enough To Turn California Around" commercials this fall. Only this time, a laugh track would have been appropriate.

The Big JostleWhatever its other effects, a Riordan gubernatorial bid would have created some weird vibes at City Hall. No L.A. mayor's ever made it to the statehouse, but it's not the first time for those mayoral-succession vibes.

For Los Angeles city government does have a vice mayor of sorts, who'd move into the Mayor's Office, albeit only for a few months, if the sitting mayor had to relocate to Sacramento. That vice mayor is the City Council president. And this is not the first time the succession sweepstakes shook City Hall.

The early and mid-1980s saw a preposterous council-chamber border war for that half-symbolic post of council president. First, Joel Wachs snuck the position out from under John Ferraro, then Pat Russell took it from Wachs until Ruth Galanter won Russell's council seat. Whereupon the presidency reverted to Ferraro, who has held it ever since.

This presidential competition was the result of then-Mayor Tom Bradley's runs for governor in 1982 and 1986. Had he won, the City Council president would have replaced him as mayor until after the following year's city elections. The thinking at that time held that the November-to-April incumbent would be the odds-on winner in any mayor's race.

Now, 12 years after Bradley lost his last chance to be governor, the same mayor's-race mania touched City Hall again last week. If Riordan had become governor, the mayor's race would have been moved up from 2001 to spring of next year.

Not that anyone is going to sneak the president's chair out from under Big John Ferraro this time: If Riordan had won, Ferraro, who's shown no interest in being mayor since Bradley defeated his 1985 challenge, would have finally held that job, though only for four months. Meanwhile, the wannabe mayoral candidates on and off the council, who'd assumed they'd had until the Year of the Monolith to prepare their mayoral offensives, would quickly have had to raise enough money to be out there campaigning hard by this time next year.

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