Dick Riordan did the right thing by California last week – counter to the urgings of rich business friends and certain ranking egos at the Los Angeles Times, he declined to run for governor.

You could follow his reasoning. Competing against Jane Harman and Al Checchi, Republican Riordan wouldn't get campaign money from Democrats. Running against Dan Lungren, he wouldn't get much from Republicans. Using his own millions, he'd be outspent – particularly by those two wealthier Democrats. One thing Dick Riordan understands is numbers. This time, they were against him.

This may have been the mayor's sagest determination since he decided, under health department pressure, to sanitize his Original Pantry restaurant last Thanksgiving.

But Riordan didn't want us to dwell on his decision to stick around, especially after the Times so ballyhooed his last-minute second thoughts.

So, just as our president tries to distract us from his mounting personal problems via his belligerence against Iraq, Dick

Riordan launched his own pre-emptive strike almost at the very moment he decided to renounce Sacramento. The target was his personal Saddam Hussein: the local school board.

In a meandering Times interview on the day he announced his decision not to run, Riordan termed all seven school-board members dolts: “They don't have the mental equipment, the experience equipment, to run [the district] right.”

Speaking for a Times follow-up days later, Riordan flack Noelia Rodriguez maintained that the mayor had not, in fact, asserted what he'd actually said. “There was no intent to portray anybody as not being intelligent,” Rodriguez asseverated.

I suppose if you read Riordan precisely, he hadn't exactly said the seven board members were too stupid to run a car wash. Just that they were too dumb to do what the people of Los Angeles had elected them to do. (By implication, of course, Riordan was insulting our voting citizenry as well. Well, hey, we know who they elected mayor.)

As it happened, Dick Riordan's indiscretion came at a delicate time in his relationship with the LAUSD. Superintendent Ruben Zacarias is now angling for rule changes that would favor local school control instead of central board oversight.

The mayor strongly favors these reforms. But unfortunately, they need approval from that same school-board sevensome Riordan characterized as morons. While Riordan-leaning members wore forced “Ha-ha, what a kidder!” grins, Barbara Boudreaux and Vicki Castro, at least, were reported to be seriously overheating. This situation by no means guarantees the board's acquiescence to surrendering some of its power.

The fundamental problem is that Riordan wants to run our schools. As governor, he could have had substantial influence, but under the state constitution, as mayor, he can't do that – let alone order the school board around. And as he demonstrated last week, his diplomatic capacities to persuade are in short supply.

Just one more self-inflicted shot in the mayor's foot, you might say. There are so many of them crowded in there already that Riordan practically clanks when he walks.

There's a way out of this mess, though. Now that he's out of the governor's race, Riordan can enter next year's LAUSD school-board contest.

Not that there aren't petty obstacles to this candidacy: For one thing, he'd have to resign as mayor, since both the city election codes and the 1990 ethics law unimaginatively forbid anyone holding two offices at once. And in order to run next year, he'd have to move to a district with a board seat up for election in 1999 – say, Barbara Boudreaux's. The mayor could thus easily swap his abode in media-infested Brentwood for a ridge-top Studio City view home.

These are minor matters when we consider what's at stake: the consummation of Riordan's blazing desire for a hands-on role in public education. On the school board, he wouldn't just have a bully pulpit. He'd have a real vote. And a chance to go down in history with similarly vocal, equally effective past school-board members. Flakes like Richard Ferraro, for instance.

The rest of us would get to put a real incumbent in the Mayor's Office: someone actually interested in running the city instead of the schools. Talk about win-win situations.

In as Few Words as Possible
The Daily News reported last week that members of Valley VOTE want the state to give them three more months to gather enough signatures to trigger a study of San Fernando Valley secession.

Upon which you ask yourself, if there aren't enough people rushing to sign the petition within the original three-month period allowed by law, just how many oppressed San Fernando Valley residents really do cower under the jackboot of downtown tyranny. Enough, I suppose, to staff Jeff Brain's Valley VOTE and the Daily News' own editorial page. But not enough to make Valley secession happen.

Local Government Incarnate
This column has supported the neighborhood-council aspect of charter reform. But I'd no idea what an inspiration local-government participation could really be until I took part in Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' 8th District Empowerment Congress. The South-Central assembly has been around for six years. Its members are elected to two-year terms. It addresses local problems ranging from blight to jobs to the youth situation.

And it works. Its come-one, come-all January 31 meeting at USC's Davidson Conference Center was standing room only 20 minutes before it kicked off. The councilman's people said more than 600 attended. I'd have guessed higher. There were five panel discussions on local and citywide issues (I was on the charter-reform committee). Accustomed as I am to the dismissive way the City Council shrugs off public comment and criticism, I was encouraged to see how, in this context, a sympathetic moderator (ours was Charter Commissioner Marguerite Archie-Hudson) could draw out members of the public until their views were clear, comprehended and appreciated.

The 8th District congress is touted as the model for charter-empowered neighborhood councils all over the city. It ought to be.

Toward a Dapper Downtown?
After years of seemingly delegating the responsibility, the center-city stakeholders are planning to fight the decline of downtown Los Angeles. They say they're going to clean it up and keep it that way.

The last attempt, the CRA's Broadway Improvement District, foundered two years ago. Kicked off with bright hopes early this decade as “Miracle on Broadway,” that BID bid collapsed because it never had more than a hairsbreadth-majority support from the Broadway merchants who paid all the assessments for street cleanup and improvements. Their landlords and near-neighbors got the BID benefits for free.

The current effort, spearheaded by the Central City Association, downtown real estate titans Maguire Partners and the Times' business side, removes that inequity by assessing landlords instead of tenants. The targeted region is also several times larger: roughly, from Main Street east to Hill Street with a jog (to include the Music Center) to the Harbor Freeway, and from First Street south to Olympic. According to Maguire partner Tim Walker, the new approach has already netted a 65 percent participation among property owners, many of whom are overseas.

Walker said the major emphasis of the $3.2-million-a-year program will be to keep the area clean and safe with a street staff of nearly 30. A colorfully attired cleanup crew, started this week. Next week comes a low-key security force. After that, Walker promised some serious downtown marketing.

“Downtown is incredibly safer than most people think it is,” Walker said. He concedes, however, that the upcoming Big Three projects – the cathedral, Disney Hall and the new Staples Arena – can't help the region unless people feel comfortable going and staying there. And that's what the new BID is all about.

Long Shrift for Laura
In discussing the McKinley Building debacle last month, I omitted mention of one noteworthy player: Councilwoman Laura Chick. Though the doomed historic structure isn't in her district, she filed a motion to shield it with a landmark designation last September.

So she should be numbered among the righteous minority on this issue.

Also, had I read her motion, introduced in late September, I would have known the 1927 building was designed by the historic Los Angeles firm of Morgan, Walls & Clements. And I wouldn't have had to look all over the place for the spelling of the word Churrigueresque.

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