Riordan: 'Goofy' or a Mr. Fixit?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

He owns 40,000 books, quotes Martin Buber and Samuel Goldwyn, and hangs out regularly with comedians such as Jonathan Winters and Tim Conway.

He is an avid bicyclist, is happiest when surrounded by kids, and eats peanut-butter sandwiches with lettuce and tomato, followed by a pint of chocolate ice cream - out of the container.

He has a chapel and a trampoline in his backyard.

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His name is Richard Riordan and he will, by all accounts, be the leading Republican contender for governor in the special election recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Mr. Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, is expected to formally announce his candidacy now that Arnold Schwarzenegger seems unlikely to run. (The actor is to announce his decision Wednesday night when he appears on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno.)

Fans of Riordan say he is so passionate about politics that he becomes nearly giddy over phrases such as "public duty." But 73-year-old Riordan will have to convince voters that he still has the drive, vision, and tough hide to tackle one of the toughest public offices in the land.

California is, after all, notorious for taxing even the most resilient leaders - former governors Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, and Pete Wilson all suffered dramatic popularity drops while in office. Another question is whether Riordan can win in a state that distrusts the city of Los Angeles in many ways.

If Riordan enters the race, he won't have much time to campaign. The election is scheduled for October 7, though Governor Davis was expected to ask the California Supreme Court to delay the vote to March 2004.

It was a decade ago that Riordan ran for Los Angeles mayor with no political experience with the slogan, "tough enough to turn L.A. around." By most accounts, he held the reins during one of the city's toughest decades - riots, earthquakes, and police scandals - and left it in better shape than when he came in. (Riordan's critics credit the greatest economic expansion in US history.)

Then he ran for governor under the similar slogan, "tough enough to turn California around." A moderate in the GOP, Riordan was the hands-down poll favorite to beat Gray Davis in the 2002 gubernatorial election. Overconfident, unorganized, or both, he was knocked out of the Republican primary against William Simon after Democrat Davis - in a calculated but controversial move - spent $10 million dollars on ads portraying Riordan as too liberal for the Republican primary electorate.

Now, a second chance

He would like to get back at Davis for that; polls show he is well positioned to do so. Although a Republican in a state where the GOP have seemed an endangered species of late (governor, legislature, and all top-level government offices are Democratic), his nonideological, nuts-and-bolts approach to public office won over many Democrats in L.A. It helps that he favors abortion rights and is pro-gun control. During his terms as mayor, he also bridged the gap between the GOP and Latino voters and women who had considered the party too closed and strident.

But detractors say his avuncular persona is gregarious and overconfident to the point of being "goofy" - a word that political opponents used to label him after several verbal gaffes in a 2002 campaign for governor. (He labeled the state outside L.A. as "strange" and answered campaign questions with, "I'll tell you after I'm elected.") And on occasion he can be bellicose, unbending, and unpredictable.

But even his enemies concede that he can be, in the words of his wife, "Smart, generous, joyful."

A varied, colorful life

Born in Flushing, N.Y., in 1930, Riordan came from a comfortable family life. As a teen, he worked at a 7-UP bottling plant. Later, he moved on to study philosophy at Princeton. He had a stint as an Army lieutenant in Korea, returned to the US to study law at University of Michigan, and then amassed a personal fortune in the range of $100 million - starting with a $100,000 family inheritance - as a venture capitalist. Although he is often called a businessman, he has never really run a business. Rather, it's Riordan's investments that have paid off. He was one of the earliest investors in the first company to produce the birth-control pill (Syntex) and later amassed stock in a company that pioneered computer workstations (Convergent Technologies).

A lifelong Catholic, Riordan raised five children with his first wife of 25 years, then got an annulment before marrying his second wife, Nancy Daly. His life has also had its share of sadness: one daughter died as a teenager. And a 21-year-old son died in a diving accident.

The multimillionaire has used much of his wealth for philanthropy through the Riordan Foundation, which has donated millions to children's causes.

Some of his money has also been donated to political campaigns. Even Democrats have received large contributions, which helped increase his popularity across party lines in two mayoral elections. Statewide polls show wide acceptance by Democrats statewide as well. That support will have to be nurtured and sustained by trumpeting his record in L.A., which is generally positive but not without controversy.

He angered City Council members from the beginning by trying to usurp their power. He presided over an exodus of Fortune 500 company headquarters - forced partly by global trends - but is generally considered to have reversed the city's negative image for business. He also campaigned for, and was successful in, a rewrite of the city charter, giving the mayor more power over key appointments and managers.

He is also considered to have given a bravura performance in the aftermath of the most damaging earthquake in US history - the $64 billion Northridge tremblor - getting city services, highways, and aid monies all moving far more quickly than government counterparts did in northern California, after a large earthquake there in 1989.

But, although he aided in rebuilding the city after the quake, the mayor was criticized for not spending enough time revitalizing neighborhoods. More than $200 million in federal antipoverty funds available to Los Angeles went unspent during his tenure.

Police relations

Much of what Riordan was able to accomplish, however, remains fuzzy. Although crime dropped for six of the eight years he was in office, crime rates began to rise near the end of his tenure despite leveling off nationwide. Police departures exceeded recruitment in a department with dwindling morale, and critics say Riordan did not do enough to strengthen civilian oversight despite LA.'s decade in the world spotlight as the poster child for police corruption. Notoriously, Riordan resisted federal efforts to force controls on the police.

Despite his storied charm, he proved that he could also be deceptive. When a proposal came up requiring city contractors to pay wages above the state minimum, Riordan said businesses which did not paying a so-called "living wage" were immoral. Then he later vetoed the measure, saying it would be bad for business.

In the years since leaving office, Riordan has maintained a public presence through activism for civic and social causes. With his backing, he proclaimed the birth of a new weekly magazine as an alternative to the Los Angeles Times. A prototype edition was produced but the paper is still in development.

Now that the political plum of governor's office is being dangled in front of him again, Riordan says that his love of civic duty is once again beckoning. Analysts say his strength will be running as a practical manager who can get the state back on solid financial footing - possibly as just a "caretaker" governor, completing Davis's term only until the next election in 2006.

To those who believe he can't get things done, he loves to point out a political caricature that hung at the back of his eighth-floor mayor's office here. Entitled "Tunnel Vision," the caricature pictures Riordan as a mayoral candidate in ghoulish grays with distorted facial features - as if to say he would impose maniacal or narrow ideas on Los Angeles.

"My opponents loved to belittle me with this during the last election," he says with a cackle. "They lost. I won."

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