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Hot on the Trail

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.

Davis himself is quite clear about his purpose. A few days before launching the first of his three anti-Riordan ads, the resolute governor told the Weekly: “This guy is floating above it all. That’s going to change. Did you see the debate last night [January 23]? All three candidates are vague. Riordan’s opponents aren’t making a dent.”

“Gray Davis is a very desperate man,” charged Riordan. “He doesn’t want to talk about the future of this state. He just wants to distract the voters from his record.” But for all Riordan’s hints that he prefers to focus on a vision of California’s future, his vision at this point seems more about having a vision than presenting one.

He feels strongly about investing in early-childhood programs. “We have to do it. We have no choice.” He wants better management, but not “micromanagement” from the Governor’s Office, a Davis practice that he insists is demoralizing in government. When pressed, he articulates his preferred managerial approach: Determine what is necessary, find the right people to carry out your objectives, allocate the necessary resources, and keep costs down.

Government, he said, “should be pro-growth, because a rising tide lifts all boats.” And, saying regulations should be dramatically streamlined, he constantly decries the “anti-business politics of Sacramento,” a characterization that might come as a surprise to the corporate interests flooding the Davis campaign coffers.

But the campaign has no tent-pole major policy speeches scheduled. And for all of Riordan’s talk of replicating his Los Angeles leadership technique of bringing in creative, successful outsiders to jump-start fresh thinking and programs — as he did with school projects — he has created only one campaign-policy task force. And that group, on economic policy, consists only of its two co-chairs, former Secretary of State George Shultz and former chief George Bush the Elder economic adviser Michael Boskin, both now at Riordan’s favored intellectual watering hole, Stanford’s Hoover Institution. No other task-force members have been named.

To his credit, Riordan seems open to opposing viewpoints and new information. Told that the timing of events simply doesn’t support his view that electricity prices finally went down last year due to the workings of a benign market, he acknowledges the correct sequence of events and allows as how the market alone won’t explain the sudden price drops. ä

And to be fair, as campaign manager Ron Hartwig points out, with the gubernatorial primary occurring in March for the first time ever, this is going to be a very long campaign. “We can’t do everything at once,” he said, pointing out that the campaign must lay out a sequenced message. Yet the core vision still seems a bit vague, Riordan’s message more dependent on emphasizing Davis’ problems and Riordan’s record than anything else.

Riordan may be whistling past the graveyard with his oft-repeated insistence that he has already faced and triumphed over the campaign that Davis will wage against him. He says repeatedly that he defeated the Davis campaign team and message when he came from behind in 1993 to defeat then-Councilman Mike Woo for L.A.’s mayoralty.

But the reality is very different. Davis chief political adviser Garry South, the noted attack dog, was only Woo’s press secretary. L.A. voters did buy Riordan’s insistence that he is pro-choice, despite his record of contributing to anti-abortion groups, but he was running against a candidate whom he could and did overwhelm with spending. He can’t do that with Davis, who has raised close to $40 million, nearly six times what Riordan has raised. And Davis, unlike Woo, is not a very youthful-looking city councilman; he is the governor of California, a man with nearly three decades of experience in hardball, big-time politics. Riordan may just be the latest in a string of pols to underestimate the gray guv.

Riordan’s own team has emerged from a state of flux. Even though his TV ads feature a slogan crafted by renegade Democratic consultant Clint Reilly, a longtime Riordan confidant who masterminded his mayoral election, Reilly is apparently on the outs now, as of mid-December relegated to organizing Democrats and Independents for Riordan. He is said to have lost a power struggle with veteran GOP media consultant Don Sipple, one of the few Riordan hands with high-level campaign experience. Indeed, campaign manager Hartwig, a longtime Riordan friend who ran corporate PR giant Hill & Knowlton’s West Coast operations, concedes that he has never worked in a political campaign before. And Riordan is in a financial Catch-22. While his fund-raising has gone well — Hartwig said they will have raised some $10 million by the March 5 primary, virtually none of it from the candidate — Davis has far more cash on hand. Riordan aides worry that if the super-rich former mayor starts writing big checks to his campaign early on, other donors may shy away, thinking their money unnecessary. Which allows Davis the luxury of beginning to define his likely opponent, especially among Democrats and independents who have strayed off the reservation since the energy debacle.

Riordan cuts an intriguing figure on the campaign trail, energetic at 71, dashing about in 36-degree weather at an open-air swap meet in tiny Galt sans overcoat, greeting somewhat bemused but very friendly folks in a dark Italian suit and patterned red, white and blue tie. Asked if he’d like to buy an Oakland Raiders blanket, he quipped, “Sure, I’ll burn it,” referring to his displeasure at the Raiders for abandoning L.A. The suit, by the way, is not the expected Armani, Zegna or Brioni. “Here,” he says, holding open his jacket to show the label while at a posh event to view President Bush’s State of the Union address with up-and-coming Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, a former TV star. “It’s Troussardi. I hadn’t heard of it, but I got it for $600 when I was in Italy. And I got a Boss suit on sale for just $300 the other day,” he said gleefully.

charming as Riordan is, he needs to work on his storyline. Too many continuity problems and the movie won’t work. Riordan says he was never interested in politics until he was involved in politics. Which, needless to say, begs the question. He says he was never seriously involved in a big political operation before heading the successful 1986 campaign to oust state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird. But he was actually a major behind-the-scenes player in the administration of then–Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, serving as chairman of the city Recreation and Parks Commission. And he was the single largest financial supporter of Tom Bradley’s near-miss 1982 gubernatorial campaign against Republican George Deukmejian.

If Riordan is decidedly unclear on how he came to be involved in politics, perhaps he can shed some light by saying which Republican and Democratic politicians he first contributed to. He recalls the first Democrat (Tom Bradley) but said he can’t remember the first Republican. Met with a look of surprise, Riordan counters with a quip: “Okay, it was Spiro Agnew!” (Richard Nixon’s vice president, who resigned in disgrace over allegations of political corruption.)

Under repeated questioning, Riordan said he doesn’t know his net worth. Admittedly, it’s a rather metaphysical concept, yet he claims not to have a ballpark figure, either.

He does know his favorite author, though, iconoclastic British writer and fellow Catholic Graham Greene, a very unusual choice for a Republican politician, given Greene’s socialist sympathies. But perhaps not so surprising: “I believe a saint can have many imperfections.” The oeuvre of Greene, a tortured Catholic intellectual, is filled with decidedly imperfect characters still striving to do the right thing.

Perhaps this is how Riordan sees himself, something that helps him remain at least somewhat unfazed by gaffes that cause professionals to alternately wince and shake their hands in glee. But as he learned last week, his shakedown cruise is ending far sooner than he thought. And big-time politics in California can be decidedly unforgiving of beginners.


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