Whites, Middle Class Help Put Republican In an Urban Hot Seat


MAYOR-ELECT Richard Riordan inherits the nation's second-largest city at a time when it is rife with both crisis and opportunity.

The city has enjoyed 20 years of steady ascension to world-class metropolis under five-term Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley. But floods of immigration, a decade of federal neglect, stifling recession, and soaring crime have remade the cityscape Mr. Riordan, a Republican, will face from City Hall.

"It's a terrible time for any politician anywhere to assume such a major, visible post," says Joe Cerrell, 42-year resident and local political consultant. "Add to that making friends after one of the mudslingingest campaigns of all time, and you have a very daunting challenge."

Tuesday's election, in which Riordan won by a margin of 8 percent (54 to 46 percent) against a liberal Democrat, City Councilman Michael Woo, reflected a low voter turnout by Blacks and Hispanics, who might have helped Mr. Woo squeak to victory. It also showed the ability of Riordan to mobilize white support on the West Side and in the sprawling San Fernando Valley.

"The white middle class has felt more and more left out of the political equation in Los Angeles in recent years," notes Alan Heslop, a political demographer at Claremont McKenna College. "This shows both their concerns about getting back in the ball game, and Riordan's ability to take advantage of that."

The issues that won the election, say most pundits, were crime and the economy.

"Riordan had an easier time positioning himself as the outsider who could come in and send the right messages to criminals and to business," says Susan Estrich, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

Others say the Riordan win showed an inability by Woo to adequately address issues of poverty, racism, and business accountability to the community in the wake of the 1992 riots.

"Woo spent his campaigning harping about Riordan's millions and drinking problem but didn't face the central problems facing this city," says Erik Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a nonprofit, grass-roots think tank.

In choosing Riordan, Los Angeles voters went for a 63-year-old lawyer/businessman with a $100 million fortune. A land developer and investment banker, Riordan is one of the largest political contributors in California. He has made more than $2 million in gifts and loans to initiative campaigns and candidates of both parties since 1980.

"This signals the end of the Bradley-era Jewish/Black coalition and a neo-regurgitation of the white, Valley, and business coalition that ruled before Bradley," says H. Erik Schockman, director of the Center for Multi-Ethnic and Trans-National Studies.

Riordan sold himself as an outsider "tough enough to turn L.A. around." His two most vocal campaign pledges were regulatory reform that will make the city more business friendly, and adding 3,000 more police on the streets in his first four years. He has advocated privatizing several city operations to raise the needed revenue, such as a 30-year management lease of L.A. International Airport.

Political observers here say Riordan will face a row of hurdles both long and high.

In descending importance, those hurdles are: (1) attracting jobs and new businesses; (2) fighting crime with dwindling city revenue amid the area's growing ethnic diversity; (3) building a governing coalition inclusive of constituencies alienated in the divisive election; and (4) building trust.

Press, public, and pundits are divided on how - and if - Riordan can clear those hurdles.

"Riordan is starting at Square 1 in figuring out the answers to all these," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. Against him are a powerful, 15-member City Council under a city charter with weak mayoral powers and the specter of a $300-million deficit in the current city budget, she says. Though Riordan was commissioner of Parks and Recreation and the city coliseum under Bradley, "being mayor is unlike anything he has ever done," she says.

Heslop counters: "This is a man who will surprise people in his ability to reach out across ethnic and class lines. He will bring a businessman's instinct for making things run better and giving greater efficiency to government."

L.A.'s sprawling collective of cultures - as diverse as Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Venice Beach, and Watts - now wobbles at a crossroads, these same observers say. They wonder if Los Angeles will become an increasingly vibrant industrial capital of the Pacific Rim, a smog-choked, divisive metropolis - or something in between?

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