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The Sputtering Riordan Machine

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Los Angeles knew it was dealing with a different kind of mayor when word leaked out about the tow-away signs. It seemed that Richard Riordan wanted to scrap a no-parking zone near City Hall but had run headlong into public-works bureaucrats and their administrative process requiring public hearings and triplicate forms. Riordan, reasoning that he had just been elected mayor, instead solved the problem by going out one night and taking down the signs. No more tow-away zone. “Easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” he was said to have remarked when called on his short-circuiting maneuver.

It turned out it was a Riordan deputy, and not the new mayor himself, who took down the signs — without, by the way, his boss’s permission. But Riordan applauded the approach to city problem solving, and more important, so did weary L.A. residents. In 1993, after the collapse of the economy, the killing of Latasha Harlins, the beating of Rodney King, the looting, the rioting, the burning, Los Angeles was desperate for a change of course. The city rejected Councilman Mike Woo, who presented himself as the natural successor to Tom Bradley’s liberal multiculturalism, and went with Riordan, a rich white venture capitalist impatient with government process and protocol.

Riordan cheerfully doomed his relationship with the City Hall establishment by backing a measure to impose term limits on local elected officials. Voters loved it. The new mayor then famously dismissed city bureaucrats as “brain dead,” vowed to eliminate the Board of Public Works, moved to contract out garbage collection and snubbed City Council members who had grown accustomed to being treated as potentates.

“I think Dick Riordan did about as much as humanly possible to fix the city, given the tools he had to work with,” said Studio City attorney and former Fire Commission President David Fleming. “The political waters were poisoned for him on his way into office, and he paid a price for it.”

He came into his own with the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The disaster officially suspended bureaucratic procedure and allowed Riordan to do what he did best: get on the phone, pull strings, call in favors, assign duties, demand results. Los Angeles under Riordan stunned disaster experts with how quickly its freeways were fixed, its people housed. Repair of historic City Hall took longer, and it didn’t reopen until the day Riordan left office, seven years later. That seemed just fine with the mayor. He did his best work outside the official structure of government.

But it would be misleading to view Riordan’s successes and failures as those of a political outsider. Although he was the first Los Angeles mayor in nearly a century who had never before picked up a government paycheck (and in office he insisted on taking only a dollar a year), Riordan was a consummate insider in the halls of Los Angeles power.

His rise parallels the rise of Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s. A native New Yorker with a philosophy degree from Princeton, a law degree from the University of Michigan and an inheritance in need of investment opportunities, Riordan moved to Los Angeles to become an attorney at the city’s venerable O’Melveny & Myers. Before the words high tech became part of pop culture, he formed his own firm, Riordan & McKinzie, to represent venture-capital firms investing in startup tech companies. He pumped his own money into firms like Convergent Technologies Inc. and others whose leaders had outlandish notions that computers would someday become business tools. He bought a couple of blocks of downtown Los Angeles when the idea of its rebirth as a financial center seemed like a joke. He made a mint. He gave much of it away as fast as he could, usually to programs for teaching skills and leadership to inner-city students.

He jumped into politics, guided by his leveraged-buyout partner, William Wardlaw. Sometimes he seemed a conservative, like when he launched a campaign to oust California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird and donated $15,000 of his own money to the cause. Sometimes he seemed a liberal, like when he loaned $300,000 to Tom Bradley’s gubernatorial campaign. A Republican, he made key connections — through Wardlaw — to Democrats such as San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.

His firm was hired by Los Angeles County, and Riordan became a local-government insider, negotiating higher leases at Marina del Rey and rail-use agreements for the county transportation commission. Bradley put him on the Coliseum Commission, and he negotiated the transfer of the stadium to private management, and tried to keep the Raiders from fleeing. He became a city parks commissioner. He joined with City Council President John Ferraro in brokering the departure of Police Chief Daryl Gates and the settlement of a massive lawsuit over a city attempt to block development of Warner Ridge.

 

So Riordan was no stranger to City Hall when he let Wardlaw and others talk him into running for mayor. He would go on shaping Los Angeles one way or another. The difference here is that for the first time the business and civic establishment cut out the middleman. It was as if the Committee of 25 (the city’s legendary shadow government of business leaders) tired of pulling the mayor’s strings and simply decided to become mayor itself.

In office, Riordan was criticized for having a short attention span, but it was really the attention span of a venture capitalist. He would brainstorm a program, carefully select a leader to see it through, then move on to the next idea. It worked with his Business Team, and with most other programs that remained confined to his own office or were sent outside of City Hall entirely. He went to the voters, with his own money, to get authorization for a charter-reform commission to remake city government. He went to the voters, with his own money, to throw out half the school board — which didn’t even come under his auspices as mayor.

Initiatives that required him to work within the city bureaucracy rarely went as well. He was frustrated, for example, by a simple effort to eliminate the Social Services Department, whose sole purpose was to regulate bingo. Bigger efforts, like renovating City Hall, getting more police officers on the street, revamping Los Angeles International Airport, fell short. He was exasperated most by a government structure that, in his view, spread authority and accountability so thin that no single person could ever be held to answer for a program’s success or failure.

With charter reform, Riordan envisioned a city structured much like those of the mayors he admired and envied, the New York of Rudy Giuliani, the Chicago of Richard Daley. The top bureaucrat, the city administrative officer, would be eliminated. The city attorney would be appointed by the mayor and report directly to him. The department chiefs would become his Cabinet. Instead, he got neighborhood councils, and he got the title of the city administrative officer changed. But as soon as Riordan was gone, the City Council changed it back.

 

So what lasting change did Riordan bring to Los Angeles? There are more parks, libraries and police officers, but those could be credited to an improving economy. He focused attention on the school board and made sure that the Walt Disney Concert Hall was built, but he could have done that — probably would have done that — without being mayor.

Greig Smith, the top staffer for Councilman Hal Bernson during Riordan’s tenure and now a councilman, said Riordan re-created the city bureaucracy. Although it’s still a work in progress, Smith said, “He made it much more constituent service–oriented.”

Raphael Sonenshein, the Cal State Fullerton political-science professor who headed an appointed charter-reform panel that was meant to counter Riordan’s elected one, said Riordan “knit together downtown business people one more time, gave downtown one more stab” at civic string pulling before an era, still in formation, of decentralized decision making.

Mayor Riordan may be remembered most for his seeming detachment from the issues facing his city, like when he greeted hunger strikers at City Hall while gnawing on a hamburger, or cycled across France during a crippling transit strike here. Or when he pronounced the Police Department’s self-review of its handling of the Rampart corruption case as the most searing analysis by any agency of itself “in the history of mankind.”

But voters loved Riordan for his cheerfulness and his cheerleading, and they loved the fact that he was willing to criticize city government. They seemed to love the fact that he didn’t need the job, wouldn’t take the salary, didn’t care if no one in City Hall would talk to him. He established, or re-established, the legacy of the wealthy outsider as the savior of a bumbling government.

As much as voters loved him, most lifers in City Hall were relieved to see him go. But Julie Butcher, general manager of the union that represents the garbage workers and most of the other employees whose jobs Riordan threatened, said she was tempted to send him flowers on his way out with a card thanking him for being the best organizer the union ever had.

“Many of the improvements you see at City Hall today,” Butcher said, “like departments working together, employee work standards, incentives, are all due to him. They were defensive measures, done in spite of him, to fend off his [privatization] efforts. Or maybe it’s what he intended to happen all along. In which case he’s a lot smarter than anyone realized.”

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