Hope and Fear 

A week in the mayor’s race, with just two more to go

Wednesday, May 23 2001

The last days of the Richard Riordan mayoralty have borne a striking resemblance to the first scene of King Lear. Old Lear, you will recall, is stepping down and handing the kingdom over to his daughters -- with the biggest piece going to the one who loves him most. Which is pretty much the game that the term-limited Riordan played for the last month, soliciting expressions of devotion, if not to him at least to his good works, from both Jim Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa. It wasn‘t apparent up to now, but clearly, Lear is a prophetic warning about the negative consequences of term limits.

Fortunately for Villaraigosa, Riordan has come up with a list of good works that the former speaker can embrace without contravening everything he’s stood for. On Wednesday of last week, when the mayor endorsed Villaraigosa, the project he was pushing was spiffing up parks at the rate of one spiff every two weeks, and Villaraigosa was happy to sign on.

Even so, the scene at the endorsement ceremony outside City Hall seemed a bit surreal -- as much of this rapidly changing city seems these days. On 12 hours‘ notice, the Villaraigosa campaign had assembled nearly 500 supporters -- stalwarts of labor battles, living-wage campaigns and sundry environmental crusades, almost all of which Riordan had routinely opposed -- to cheer lustily for their guy and dutifully for his new number-one supporter. When Riordan finished his glowing introduction of his anointed successor, Villaraigosa bounded to the mike and boomed out, “Thank you, Mayor Riordan, for your many contributions to the future of Los Angeles.” The crowd applauded, though not demonstratively enough to satisfy Villaraigosa. “Louder!” he shouted, and they cheered louder.

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Then it was on to the bus -- one for the mayor, the former speaker and the media, with three additional buses for Villaraigosa’s legions -- for a tour of the town. Somewhere on the westbound Ventura Freeway, I asked the mayor if Villaraigosa‘s opposition to the Police Protective League’s demand for a 3-12 shift (three work shifts of 12 hours each per week), which likely cost him the PPL‘s backing, had influenced his endorsement decision. “It was a factor,” Riordan replied, “though not the deciding factor.” Two days before, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, in his own endorsement of Villaraigosa, had also noted that he shared Villaraigosa’s unwillingness to go to 3-12 shifts.

The PPL‘s endorsement would have meant a lot to Villaraigosa, who needs to burnish his tough-on-crime credentials with conservative voters. But his reluctance to kowtow to the PPL -- which was only made apparent by his failure to get its support -- actually worked for him in three ways. It enabled him to outflank Hahn when it came to putting cops on the streets -- something that the 3-12 shift hindered, Villaraigosa argued. It showed him standing up to a union and saying no. (Indeed, when former L.A. Times city editor Bill Boyarsky asked him in this Tuesday’s debate if he could stand up to a normally supportive interest group, Villaraigosa alluded instantly to the PPL controversy.) And by sounding tough and saying no to union buddies, Villaraigosa helped his cause with Riordan. Was ever such lemonade made from such a lemon?

As to the other factors in Riordan‘s endorsement, we can only surmise that the personal intermingled with the political. At the level of candidate-comparison, Villaraigosa certainly comes across as more the leader than Hahn, but surely that was just one of many reasons. During Riordan’s first term, Hahn had angered the mayor by blowing the whistle on Deputy Mayor Mike Keeley, for whom Riordan felt great affection, who‘d gone around Hahn’s back in an attempt to settle a lawsuit against the city. Riordan was compelled to let Keeley go, and was outraged and disconsolate.

In the run-up to his endorsement decision, Riordan was lobbied by close friends and associates. Bill Wardlaw, long his consigliere until they had a parting of the ways over the merits of Steve Soboroff (which Wardlaw didn‘t see), made the case for Hahn. Riordan’s business buddies, whom he‘d relied on to fund his special projects and school-board candidates -- the billionaires boys’ club of Eli Broad, Ron Burkle, Haim Saban and Jerry Perenchio -- argued for the former speaker. With his decision to back Villaraigosa, no one can say that Riordan is a traitor to his class.

As the Dick-and-Tony Express moved from downtown to Northridge to South-Central and back to midcity, the depth of Villaraigosa‘s backing once again became clear. Besides the crowd downtown and the 100-plus supporters who rode along in the buses, scores of Villaraigosa supporters turned out at each of the stops, despite the short notice and the fact that these were midday, midweek events. Hahn could not have mustered a similar display of loyalists had Riordan endorsed him. Outside of a core of supporters within the African-American community, his base lacks all intensity.

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