Richard Riordan already sounded a lot like the incoming state education secretary more than two weeks before Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger made it official. Speaking before an adoring audience in Highland Park last month, Riordan talked of a “God-given right to a quality education,” adding that “In Sacramento, we will work hard to make that happen.”

The occasion, one week after the recall election, was the formal christening of the Richard Riordan Primary Center. The event could have logically marked the former L.A. mayor’s honored exit from the education and political scene. After all, he’s in his 70s, recently survived a bout with cancer, got drubbed in last year’s Republican primary for governor and then saw voters toss two endorsed favorites from the L.A. school board. Besides, he likes biking in France, has a short attention span, doesn’t really take to working full-time, and doesn’t follow orders well.

So the phrase “He’s back” really should apply to Riordan, not Schwarzenegger, who never was “there” in politics in the first place.

As mayor of Los Angeles, Riordan had no official role or any jurisdiction over city schools. Though he donated millions of his own fortune to schools, he chafed at his inability in the Mayor’s Office to follow the lead of other big-city mayors in taking control. Yet he still put education at the top of his agenda and at the top of local newscasts with his hit-and-miss interventions in school-board races and school construction. Now, at last, Riordan has a top, official leadership job in education, though his influence will depend on making his agenda into Schwarzenegger’s.

The news can’t be any too reassuring for teachers unions. Outgoing Governor Davis enjoyed teachers-union support, and he, in turn, poured state dollars into education, much of which went into higher salaries for teachers. Schwarzenegger, in contrast, prevailed over union opposition. And Riordan, for his part, once led the charge to sack an L.A. school-board member on Election Day after she voted for a teachers’ salary raise that he considered one percentage point too high.

More recently, Riordan characterized the union’s successful campaign to defeat L.A. school-board president Caprice Young as “evil.” Young now heads a remade and newly energized statewide charter-schools organization. Riordan and Schwarzenegger both have expressed favor toward charter schools, so expect more resources and fewer restrictions. But Riordan also champions school accountability through test scores — not a strong suit of all charter schools. This accountability paradigm is directly in line with that of the Davis administration. Based on his experience, Riordan ought to prove both a devoted advocate and demanding taskmaster for ailing urban schools.

Riordan’s new job is an oddity in itself, an ad-hoc creation of Republican Governor Pete Wilson, who wanted his own education adviser, in part because the elected state schools superintendent — Democrat Bill Honig — had the temerity to believe that he was actually in charge of schools and education reform. The original position under Wilson was so part-time that the first education secretary, Maureen DiMarco, initially retained her simultaneous job as a school-board member in Orange County. The staffing, budget and scope of work have since expanded. After all, Gray Davis, too, wanted a direct surrogate on education issues, even if the elected schools chief still presides over the California Department of Education.

Schwarzenegger could have kept his pledge to run a leaner, cheaper government by entirely eliminating the post of education secretary — unless it’s the Department of Education bureaucracy that he really has in mind to trim. A few things seem certain: Riordan is likely to be the highest-profile education secretary ever, and without a doubt its most impatient. And he’s no one’s surrogate.

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