Attorney Richard Riordan sits at the wheel of his Eddie Bauer–edition Ford Explorer, lost on a narrow street of wood-frame houses somewhere in East Los Angeles. He’s just made an illegal U-turn and his Ford is sitting cockeyed at a corner, too far into the crosswalk to trip the red light. Riordan fusses and checks the time. He’s nearly late for a meeting with the director of a Boys & Girls Club. “Gotta run it,” he murmurs, the grown-up Catholic schoolboy telling the Big Guy that he’s about to commit a minor sin. And off we go, through the red light and down Kern Avenue.
That was the lead of the Weekly’s 1992 cover story on the mayoral aspirations of Richard Riordan. Today nearing 79, the hazel-eyed, deeply wrinkled restaurateur, philanthropist and multimillionaire looks older, the happy victim of thousands of hours spent on a bicycle under the blistering L.A. sun. Despite absurd rumors five years ago that he was in poor mental health — he blames the ugly smear on a particularly vicious Gray Davis operative — Riordan is as smart and incorrigible as ever.
The graduate class he teaches on leadership and ethics at UCLA is crammed with students (“twice as many as last year”), and his circle of friends is beyond intriguing. Last Christmas, Riordan invited the Somali-Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali to his storied Sun Valley getaway, and he and Clint Eastwood threw an ice-skating party. At one point, Riordan noticed a familiar face being turned away by security guards — Bruce Springsteen, who “wasn’t on the list.” Riordan asked the Springsteen family to join the skating shindig, and now the rocker is “a friend.”
Owner of The Pantry, Riordan’s Tavern and Gladstone’s 4 Fish, Riordan is a casual guy, pouring coffee for guests at his Brentwood mansion, padding around in bare feet, and tapping his vast repository of dirty jokes. He’s known, and even beloved, for his tangled, soon-to-be infamous utterances. Responding to a Weekly query about hanging out with radical Islam critic Hirsi Ali, for instance, by saying, “She’s a friend who’s a girl, not my girlfriend — not somebody I have sex with. I had sex with my actual girlfriend, though.” (His actual girlfriend is a Los Angeles Times journalist more than two decades his junior.)
Yet this utterly fit civic pillar, who bikes 40 to 70 miles a day — “El Segundo and back, no big deal” — is no party animal. Unlike the disengaged Antonio Villaraigosa, Riordan’s passion is using policy to fix complex things. Mayor from 1993 to 2001, he won popularity as a Republican in a Democratic city, beating Tom Hayden in a landslide in 1997. Today he can’t walk down a street without people yelling “Hi, Mayor!” Even his calendar, overseen by aide Jeanette Chavez, feels mayoral; he’s on Sheriff Lee Baca’s Homeland Security Advisory Council and talks to people like Los Angeles Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein, Oaktree Capital billionaire Howard Marks, former California Speaker Fabian Nuñez and union leaders. What about? “You know, how is this or that thing working?”
Driven by his Catholic beliefs, Riordan’s enduring dream is to give the tool for escaping poverty — an education — directly to the poor. He spent years shaking up LAUSD but sees greater hope in the charter movement, to which he recently gave $2 million; he also served as chairman of the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools — 11 inner-city high schools whose “average scores are 60 percent better than the public schools the kids came from, but the cost is 60 percent less.”
Yet he turned down a request from his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve on the influential U.C. Board of Regents, because he no longer wants to be constrained by bureaucracies. “The nicest thing anyone ever said about me came from [the late] Councilwoman Rita Walters, who truly hated me for being rich and white,” he says. “She said ‘Riordan doesn’t give a damn about process.’ That’s right, Rita. Let’s get it done.”