Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

It was a telling moment for Richard Riordan, and it happened a year ago, well before his disastrous bid for governor ended this week. Riordan faced student leaders at the Marlton Charter School, touting his legacy as L.A.’s “education mayor.” Riordan used a translator to communicate in sign language with a delegation of the school’s deaf students.

“We’re going to get you some help,” Riordan declared enthusiastically, so that students would have “Braille computers.” The puzzled translator dutifully signed the mayor’s words. A wave of confusion washed over the eager, youthful faces, one by one. After a pause, one girl looked ready to sign back that she was deaf, not blind.

An aide hurried to Riordan and whispered words that made his eyebrows jump. “Oh, I guess you don’t need computers like that,” he gamely continued, “but we’re going to get you help for your school.”

This classic Riordan moment went unreported because the story at hand, about Riordan’s efforts to reshape the school board, didn’t need the cheap guffaw. This week, though, the anecdote has broader resonance, in the aftermath of Riordan’s remarkable shellacking, a loss by nearly 18 percentage points to businessman Bill Simon in the Republican primary. Riordan carried only L.A. County and Imperial County. Just weeks before, pollsters had recorded a 30-point lead for Riordan.

Simon’s star rose for many reasons, but that innocent, meaningless blunder at the school for the deaf embodies what made Riordan both honorable and politically vulnerable. On the upside, Riordan has been a politician with genuine passions. His determination to improve L.A.’s public schools is the real thing. And even though critics questioned his tactics and goals, Riordan successfully installed a new school-board majority. He’s also a dedicated philanthropist, having donated millions.

His inevitable gaffes on the stump, however, allowed pundits to dun him as not ready for prime time. Here’s Riordan, yelling at an L.A. Times reporter to get off his campaign bus, when the bus is traveling at highway speed. (The reporter had persisted in asking him about the death of one of his children.) And there’s Riordan trading jabs with Republican former Governor George Deukmejian — practically a saint to party stalwarts. (Deukmejian never forgave Riordan for supporting L.A. Democrat Tom Bradley for governor.)

Simon: Forgot to thank Gray

The image of the bumbling Riordan gained traction statewide as it never had in L.A. during two terms as mayor. “The voters in L.A. became used to the malapropisms and the stumbles, and they found it to be charming as opposed to disconcerting,” said Democratic campaign consultant Bill Carrick, who crossed party lines to manage Riordan’s 1997 re-election. “The foundation of it was that people thought he was doing a good job.”

In this campaign, the biggest flounder was Riordan’s campaign itself, in which he ignored and even insulted the Republican right wing by correctly observing that the party had “screwed up” in California, by becoming too dogmatically extreme.

Riordan and his handlers thus forgot the formula that, in 1993, got him through a crowded mayoral field. “Nine years ago, Riordan ran to the right in the primary,” said Democratic campaign consultant Parke Skelton. “He understood he needed to consolidate Republican votes to win.” Riordan invoked Reagan, got endorsements from Pete Wilson and Jack Kemp, and courted the religious right — a highly energized group of voters whose impact can far outweigh its numbers in a small-turnout election. Said Skelton: “I don’t know why he felt he could do something different in a statewide Republican primary.”

Some Riordan watchers suggest that Riordan has lost his intellectual edge at 71. But an appearance last week on Warren Olney’s Which Way, L.A. radio program was vintage shoot-from-the-hip Riordan. He called former Governor Deukmejian an “extremist,” and reserved the same term for those who make opposition to abortion rights a Republican litmus test. He added that Democratic Governor Gray Davis “has spent over $10 million trying to make me look like I’m a liar and a cheat, way too conservative for the state. And Bill Simon has spent $5 million trying to make me look like I’m too liberal. I feel like a piñata . . . I was trying to be Dick Riordan. I didn’t want to pull to the right. I didn’t want to pull to the left. I just wanted to be Dick Riordan, a problem solver.”

Simon was ultimately helped by his ä outsider status, his direct appeal to conservatives, and his family fortune. Simon especially benefited from timing; Election Day coordinated neatly with his spike in the polls, before his newness wore off and before Riordan could figure out an effective counterattack.

On election night, Riordan and Simon cornered different ballrooms of the Westin Hotel at LAX, but it quickly became clear that Simon would claim the Grand Ballroom, where the winner was to be feted. At 10:45, Riordan told a loyal throng that the Republican Party must expand its direction, bring back women and be more inclusive of minorities. He also pledged to support Simon, just days after calling him a “sanctimonious hypocrite.”

Riordan had departed by the time a beaming Bill Simon emerged; Simon couldn’t have looked more white and male if he’d tried. “My fellow Republicans,” he declaimed. “The George W. Bush party is alive and well in California . . . Our party comes out of this strong campaign ready to do battle.”

So Republican voters chose the image of the perfect conservative, with his scripted polish, over the reality of an experienced pragmatist with an erratically articulated good intent. Of the three Republican contenders, Secretary of State Bill Jones lacked money, and Riordan lacked the necessary element of cold calculation. Simon had enough of both, although for sheer cunning, he’s a snowflake next to the blizzard of Gray Davis, who has defined winning politics as cautious, poll-driven centrism. Riordan would have been a long shot to beat Davis in November, but Riordan, at least, is a centrist by conviction, not calculation, and Davis, for one, had no stomach for exposing swing voters to that contrast.

On Election Day, at the Pantry restaurant downtown, a table full of Democrats slapped on Riordan stickers after shaking hands with the ex-mayor. Ana Gilpin of Torrance said she found Gray Davis to be “stiff, sort of fake” compared to Riordan.

A Democratic voter, interviewed outside her Whittier polling place, expressed similar sentiments: “I don’t admire Davis like I used to,” she commented, “and I don’t like how he campaigned against Riordan. I consider Riordan to be an enlightened Republican . . . Jones and Simon are too Neanderthal for me.”

On Tuesday, however, Riordan’s fate was decided by Republicans such as 79-year-old Don Stack, a retired marketing manager who lives in La Habra Heights. “I got tired of Riordan,” he said. “I don’t like the way Riordan comes across. He is so wishy-washy on so many items, I don’t trust him anymore. He is not a very good Republican.”

That’s fine by Gray Davis, who’d rather face a good conservative Republican than a bad one with heart.

Christine Pelisek contributed to this story.

LA Weekly