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Riordan blows a gasket — or two — on campaign bus

Wednesday, Feb 6 2002
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Photo by Ted Soqui

Dick Riordan is not in Kansas anymore. The last scheduled leg of his episodic “Tough Enough” bus tour of California, a two-day swing through Northern California and the Central Valley, was supposed to be a cakewalk through friendly territory. Replete with a photo-op stop at the factory where Ronald Reagan’s favorite jellybeans are made, the former Los Angeles mayor and his advisers intended another amiably serene caravansary emphasizing the mismanagement of incumbent Democratic Governor Gray Davis.

Instead it turned into a campaign crucible for the still-fledgling Republican front-runner. He stumbled over Davis’ attacks on his position on abortion rights and erupted in screaming anger at a Los Angeles Times reporter in full view of other journalists sitting 20 feet away on his campaign bus.

At a quickly thrown together “Women for Riordan” event in a San Francisco high-rise, designed to counter a Davis TV attack ad pointing out that the pro-choice Riordan had actually given money to anti-abortion groups, Riordan’s voice quavered as he attempted to explain the contradiction. “Yes, I did give the money,” he said. “But that was put before the voters of Los Angeles in 1993, and they believed that I was and am pro-choice.” Asked if perhaps his views had evolved, which could explain why he would support the anti-choice cause in 1991 and the pro-choice cause in 1993, Riordan didn’t give a direct answer. “I’ve given over $30 million to charities around the country,” he noted. “I can’t remember everything I did.”

Back on the bus, Riordan was asked a pre-mayoral local cable interview in which he said that abortion was murder. Does he believe that the right of a woman to choose is a higher value? “I don’t want to get into that,” he says with a grimace.

Riordan asked whether the Davis attack ad seemed effective. He said he hasn’t seen it. Why not? “I don’t want to ruin my life.”

It wasn’t the first time Riordan had difficulty with probing questions. On the tour’s second day, as the bus rolled away from the Hyatt Regency at Capitol Park in Sacramento, Riordan blew his top at Times reporter Carla Hall. One of two Timesies on the tour, Hall is spending six weeks working on a Riordan profile. She had asked him, apparently not for the first time, about the untimely death of his daughter, who died as a result of complications from an eating disorder. That’s a personal matter, not a political one, and its particulars aren’t pertinent here. But his very public response is. In full view of several journalists, one of them a former senior Democratic Party adviser, he started yelling.

“I don’t want to talk to you ever again,” he shouted at the dumbfounded reporter. “Just get out of here now! Do you understand?” As the bus was then moving at some 65 mph, Hall was unable to comply. As Riordan made his way up the aisle back to his seat in the front of the bus, the pain in his eyes was evident. But there are better ways for a would-be governor to tell a reporter to buzz off, especially in a public setting.

Still, the man’s ebullience came through again and again, even as his luxury cruise on the bus formerly leased by Dennis Rodman — complete with plush black leather furnishings, black marble flooring and, naturally, mirrored ceilings — turned into a shakier than expected shakedown cruise.

“I hate the L.A. Weekly!” he exclaimed. “Though you have some great writers. But at least the Weekly gets inside some issues. The Times doesn’t even cover Los Angeles!”

His seeming, albeit rather playfully expressed resentment towards the Times, which he acknowledges gave him very favorable coverage as mayor is one thing. But his public incident with Hall, the likes of which I have never seen in more than two decades of working in and writing about politics, showed Riordan cracking under pressure, however invasive and irrelevant Hall’s questions might have been. But, as several of his friends note, Riordan is encountering a level of political competition and scrutiny that he never experienced in L.A. politics.

Riordan resents Davis’ unprecedented early attacks on him. Indeed, Riordan and his top aides on the bus appeared unsure of what Davis was up to when they learned that the Davis attack ad on abortion had just been joined by attack ads on Riordan’s record on L.A. crime and his role in the purported gouging of the state by the L.A. Department of Water and Power in its power sales during the height of the energy crisis last year. “Is he trying to defeat me in the Republican primary?” wondered Riordan.

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