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A Hasty Exit

Flying high above central California in his labor-chartered Gulfstream jet on the morning after the California primary, Governor Gray Davis talked of his vanquished foe, former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan.

Davis, the Democrat, had dispatched Riordan, once the leading Republican, with a devastating multimillion-dollar barrage of attack ads.

“As you know,” he said, “I never thought starting out that I would beat Riordan in the primary, that was not the goal. I simply decided I was not going to sit back while he went around ignoring his own party and defining the battlefield for the fall by attacking me.” Shaking his head in amazement, Davis continued, “I determined to define him so as to win in November, but Riordan is the architect of his own defeat in the primary. It took a remarkable chain of events for him to lose yesterday, something a good campaign could have avoided at any number of points.

”If he had given Republican voters something to grasp on to -- his role in the campaigns against [former state Supreme Court Chief Justice and staunch death-penalty foe] Rose Bird and for state and city term limits -- if he’d responded with specific, real answers on abortion instead of that generic ‘He’s attacking me‘ spot, he could be running against me now as the Republican candidate.“

Was Riordan at all ready? ”What do you think?“ Davis replied.

Dick Riordan, on his last full day of campaigning outside of Los Angeles, a beautiful Saturday afternoon on the final weekend before the primary in the pleasant little town of Seaside, just north of Monterey, finally acknowledged that he was unprepared for the campaign he had so jauntily launched last summer.

”I was around eight years [as L.A. mayor]. Things don’t get me down. Yes, I could have done things differently,“ he told the Weekly. ”But I never expected the ferocity of the Davis attacks against me, and never imagined the money that would be spent against me.“

Told of this, Davis consigliere Garry South snorted in disbelief. ”Riordan is unbelievable. Did he think we were kidding around? We warned him publicly for months that there would be no free ride in this campaign like he got in L.A., that if he persisted in running around the state calling Gray a disgrace to California -- criticizing things he obviously doesn‘t understand while offering no plan of his own -- that there would be a terrible consequence to him.“

Riordan’s supporters might consider just how they came to believe that he could make the run. A mere day‘s worth of conversation in January made his lack of readiness glaringly obvious.

There were major cultural elements underlying the myth of a formidable Riordan candidacy. Embraced by a wealthy elite of L.A. opinion leaders who related to him as a rich person, enjoyed his amiability, overlooked his gaffes and warmed to the style of Nancy Daly Riordan, a liberal Democrat who was long married to a Hollywood studio head, Riordan was cosseted by a press corps that allowed him to disappear for 44 days of prostate-cancer treatments without reporting his absence. This would-be avatar of a New Republicanism, accustomed to his Westside comfort zone and believing that high-name recognition equaled real support, learned the wrong lessons about how to strike for executive power in a vast and multidimensional state. Politics is played with a much harder edge than he was used to in L.A.

The real Richard Riordan could and should have won the Republican primary. But he ran as if he believed his own Westside myth.

A wealthy conservative Riordan friend points out another fatal flaw in the would-be governor: ”Dick is a good guy who wants to do good. But he is a really rich guy who doesn’t respect the key players in the political process -- politicians, most consultants and aides, and journalists -- because they‘re not rich. He doesn’t understand that truly talented people can be principally motivated by things other than money.“

So Riordan, as every current and former aide who would talk agrees, insisted on a campaign structure in which everyone outside his own household was a helper rather than a decision maker, regardless of whether or not their political expertise was superior to his own. And he equated Mike Woo, the youthful city councilman he defeated for mayor in 1993 by overwhelming him with personal fortune, with Gray Davis, perhaps the most experienced and ruthlessly effective politician in the West. In many interviews with me on the campaign trail, Riordan insisted that he had already defeated what would be the Davis campaign in that 1993 race.

”Riordan fatally underestimated Gray for one fundamental reason,“ said Garry South. ”He is rich and Gray is not.“

As Davis, a consummately shrewd and disciplined tactical politician, realized that Riordan could not simultaneously spar with him and shore up the Republican base he had foolishly taken for granted, he and his team poured on the heat, shattering the Riordan candidacy in a heap of contradictions on abortion, the death penalty, and energy.

Nevertheless, Riordan is ultimately responsible for his own campaign. He hired the people he wanted, like top PR executive Ron Hartwig -- the political novice he installed as his campaign manager, a ”friend from the California Club,“ as one Republican put it -- and fired those whom he didn‘t want, blissfully sallying forth against the Davis buzz saw with a crew of handlers who knew remarkably little about their champion.

The last Republican slaughtered by the Davis team, then--Attorney General Dan Lungren, issued a fateful line in 1998 that serves well as his political epitaph: ”Californians are even more conservative than they know.“

Riordan matched that when in late January, explaining why he hadn’t watched the first Davis attack ad against him, he told the Weekly: ”I don‘t want to ruin my life.“ It was a telling comment, indicative of someone unwilling to leave his personal comfort zone and make the warrior commitment needed to contest for the top offices in the land.

Some Riordan friends say that lack of commitment makes him a good person, better than those who take big-time politics more seriously as the blood sport it is. Which may or may not be true. But what is certainly true is that Riordan wasted his time and the time of those who invested their hopes with him, an ignoble end to a late-blooming political career.


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