The Collapse of Riordan

Riordan had a chance to ride a wide margin to victory in the primary. But he stumbled and bumbled on the campaign trail, searching for the courage of his political convictions. They weren’t there.

Photo By Larry Dalton

When Richard J. Riordan finally climbed onto the stage at the Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel at close to 11 p.m. Tuesday, the television commentators—who get the first crack to put such events into perspective—were working overtime.

Riordan, who led by as much as 30 points in the 2002 gubernatorial race only a month ago, was 20 points down to political neophyte Bill Simon and conceding the race. But even with such a dramatic swing—50 points!—the pundits couldn’t find the words to describe the utter collapse of a campaign of this magnitude.

That was because it had never happened before in California.

Richard Riordan—with all his money, his name recognition, his endorsements, and the tacit support of the president of the United States—wilted against a man who not only had never run for public office, but who also hadn’t even bothered to vote for much of the last two decades.

The conventional wisdom was that it was all Governor Gray Davis’ doing. Davis poisoned the well of the GOP primary, the theory went, by dumping $10 million into ads that slammed Riordan. It was partly true. But the other half of the story was that Riordan lost it months ago by looking past his challengers and the GOP voters. In the end, the candidate who prided himself on his business acumen couldn’t close the deal.

As the 71-year-old Riordan stood on the stage—listening to his political supporters chant his name for maybe the last time ever—there’s little doubt that he was thinking about all the little things he could have done differently.

On the morning of January 28, the Richard J. Riordan campaign bus seemed to be just about the safest, coziest place in California.

Inside, as the temperate sounds of soft jazz swirled in the background, the multimillionaire former mayor of Los Angeles held court amid journalists, some supporters and a few campaign staffers in extreme comfort—the rolling luxury cruiser came with billowy leather cushions and an expansive ceiling mirror. Riordan aides said previous renters of the vehicle included Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and basketball bad-boy Dennis Rodman.

And the candidate was in a relaxed, confident mood—polls at the time showed Riordan held a staggering 30-point lead over his challengers in the California GOP gubernatorial primary, businessman Bill Simon and California Secretary of State Bill Jones. In other polls, Riordan ran even against Governor Gray Davis in a prospective fall matchup.

But there were signs of trouble. Earlier that morning, Riordan’s campaign scrapped a press conference in downtown San Francisco that was to focus on what the candidate called Gray Davis’ fiscal mismanagement of the state. Instead, reporters were ushered to a woman-owned public relations firm, where Riordan would clarify his position on abortion in response to a barrage of Davis ads that highlighted donations Riordan made to anti-abortion groups before he was mayor. Surrounded by professional Republican women, Riordan said he was pro-choice.

“I strongly support the right of every women (sic) to make their own decisions with respect to their bodies, their careers, their families and every part of their lives,” he said.

That, however, wasn’t good enough for the reporters. When they pressed him on why he had given over $10,000 to right-to-life groups, Riordan ducked the question by saying that the voters of Los Angeles knew about the donations when he ran for mayor and they elected him twice. What was good enough for Los Angeles, Riordan implied, should be good enough for the rest of California. Upon further questioning, he repeated the same response three times.

Later on the bus the reporters dug back in. A San Francisco Chronicle reporter, citing another Davis ad that highlighted Riordan saying “abortion is murder” in 1991, asked the candidate if he still thought it was murder and whether Riordan’s beliefs had changed since then.

The happy warrior: The affable Riordan presented himself as the can-do candidate who could bring down Gray Davis. But he forgot to shore up the GOP base.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“I just don’t think it’s relevant to the issue—the issue is what Dick Riordan as a leader believes and what does he support,” Riordan said.

Another reporter asked: “You don’t believe abortion is murder now?”

“I’m just not going to get into that,” Riordan replied.

And so it went. At every stop for the next two days, from San Francisco to Fresno, reporters asked about the Davis ads and every time—with television cameras rolling and reporters’ pens furiously scribbling away—Riordan repeated the same thing. He favored a woman’s right to choose, he said.

No one knew it at the time, but Richard Riordan had walked into a trap, set by Gray Davis, who in an unusual move entered the GOP primary and spent nearly $10 million for ads. The question Davis asked in the ads—if Riordan is pro-choice then why did he donate to anti-abortion groups and call abortion murder?—could only help Riordan in the GOP primary, or so it would seem. The Republican base is, after all, still largely anti-abortion. But reporters asked the question ad nauseam and Riordan, who arguably based his campaign on the notion that he could succeed where other Republicans failed by supporting abortion rights, answered them the only way he could. He was forced to repeat, again and again, that he was pro-choice. The problem for Riordan was that GOP primary voters were listening. And they didn’t like what they heard.

In the subsequent month, Riordan would not change course—in fact, he would chide his fellow Republicans a little over a week later at the GOP state convention for alienating women voters. Which may have been true. But in showcasing his moderate views in the GOP primary, instead of appealing to the more conservative base of his party, Riordan essentially told many Republicans, “Tough luck, but I’m your only chance to beat Davis.” Alienated Republicans dumped him for the more conservative Bill Simon.

“Dick Riordan made the decision months ago to target money and resources toward the voters the Republicans have been losing,” said Dan Schnur, a longtime California GOP consultant who worked with Riordan early on. “In doing so he may have inadvertently sent a message to the base that their concerns were not his highest priority.”

In the end, Davis’ ads may have been the catalyst for Riordan’s February disaster, but the ineptitude of his campaign and a lack of a strong platform was his own fault. An overconfident, ill-prepared Riordan was caught on the defensive and Simon took advantage, leading to what many campaign watchers have called a historic, unprecedented downfall of a favored candidate. If Riordan were a prizefighter, you’d have to say he had a glass jaw. But who knew it would only take one punch to knock him out?

Richard Riordan bounded off his campaign bus with vigor at an In-N-Out Burger in Modesto. He walked through the parking lot like the fast-food joint was a hill and he was the army that was going to take it. While his aides handled the order, Riordan walked up and down the booths, introducing himself to the bemused diners. When he finished, he stood in the middle of the restaurant alone surveying the conquered with a self-satisfied smile.

An affable, if somewhat distant candidate, the 71-year-old Riordan had a Mr. Magooish quality about him on the campaign trail. He routinely made grammatical errors, called people by the wrong name or just forgot that he ever met someone. Riordan’s propensity for gaffes didn’t seem to get him down, but they kept his staff on their toes. When a photographer raised a camera to get a close-up shot of the candidate, Riordan put his thumbs to his ears and waved his hands. As fast as he could do that, Riordan’s campaign manager, Ron Hartwig, and his deputy communications director, Carolina Guevara, threw their hands in front of the camera.

“He’s not a disciplined candidate the way a Gray Davis is,” said Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. “At some level that might be a charming thing.”

It might be charming, but it wasn’t helping Riordan much on the campaign trail. At the Republican convention in San Jose on February 9, former Governor George Deukmejian—a Jones backer—said he would not support Riordan if he won the nomination. Riordan funded the campaign of former L.A. Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley, who ran against Deukmejian in the 1980s. When Riordan was asked about Deukmejian’s comments during a debate at the convention, Riordan said, “George has a bad memory. The only things he remembers are his grudges.” Reportedly, the comment drew audible gasps from the partisan GOP audience—attacking the “Duke” just wasn’t done. Later, Riordan told the press he regretted the remarks.

If Riordan were an undisciplined candidate with amazing ideas, the gaffes might go unnoticed. But if there was a characteristic that truly marked the Riordan campaign, it was its almost total lack of concrete proposals.

Riordan hardly showed voters that he had a firm grasp on California public policy. When asked what would be the first thing he’d do upon being elected governor, Riordan said he’d “cut a lot of these regulations that are stifling our business.” Well, which ones? “I’d hire the best and brightest to find the best ones.” In fact, helping business was the major theme to his campaign—Riordan repeatedly assailed what he called “the anti-business rhetoric coming out of Sacramento,” and Gray Davis as the main proponent of said rhetoric. Never mind that Davis has taken money from seemingly every corporation in California and that businesses got almost $6 billion in tax breaks last year, according to a recent study by the California Budget Project—in Dick Riordan’s world, Gray Davis is Fidel Castro.

Pressing the flesh, Riordan tours a printing factory in Sacramento. Only moments earlier on the campaign bus Riordan screamed at a reporter who asked about his daughter’s death.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It was as if Riordan felt he didn’t need to come up with specific proposals for California voters. To Riordan, his presence was enough—throughout the campaign he kept paraphrasing Hillel: “If not now, when? If not me, who?” But Riordan’s lack of preparedness on the issues seemed to indicate he wasn’t expecting much of a challenge.

“Riordan has been known to have an indifferent attention level,” said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University, Fullerton. “And his campaign didn’t seem to have much intensity or readiness to fight.”

That might have had something to do with who was running the campaign. Instead of a veteran Republican hand to guide him through the choppy primary waters, Riordan instead selected public relations executive Ron Hartwig. Hartwig, on leave from his job at PR firm Hill & Knowlton (he’s due back in November) had never run a campaign before, leading some GOP insiders to question whether he had the experience he needed to drive the campaign.

As mayor, the only campaign advisers Riordan had known were Democrats Bill Wardlaw and Bill Carrick. While Carrick begged out of the Republican primary, Wardlaw and Riordan had a falling out at the end of the mayor’s term over who would be Riordan’s handpicked successor. Sonenshein said their help would have been invaluable.

“Wardlaw and Carrick were Riordan’s fire in the belly,” Sonenshein said. “Their job was to tear anybody’s head off if anyone got in his way.”

Riordan could have used their counsel. As the campaign wore on, Riordan seemed to become more unhinged. At a Latino summit in Los Angeles, onlookers reportedly became startled at a press conference when Riordan angrily accused Governor Davis of trying to bypass Proposition 227, the successful 1998 ballot measure that eliminated bilingual education. Yelled Riordan: “In the name of God, in the name of our children … stop this!”

It wasn’t the first time he lost his temper in the campaign. Three weeks before on the campaign bus, Riordan blew up at Los Angeles Times reporter Carla Hall when Hall refused to rule out using in a story the details of Riordan’s daughter’s death from complications from an eating disorder in the early 1980s. When it became clear that Hall would not budge on the issue, Riordan screamed, “I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” and added, “Get out of here.” He was still staring angrily at Hall when his deputy communications director, Carolina Guevara, led him to the front of the bus.

Riordan’s impatience upon questioning was largely a product of his biography. Even though he was a twice-elected mayor of the politically fractious Los Angeles, Riordan was not used to people resisting him. A corporate lawyer and leveraged-buyout specialist who parlayed an inheritance into a fortune somewhere over $100 million, Riordan was accustomed to getting his own way, which, of course, doesn’t always happen in government and politics.

“Riordan wants government to be a business where he’s the CEO,” said Jackie Goldberg, former Democratic Los Angeles City Councilmember, who currently serves in the state Assembly. “So he expects everybody to do what he wants, and that’s not how it works.”

Richard Riordan ambled to the back of the bus to have a “for background,” old-fashioned bullshit session with reporters who accompanied him on his tour of Northern California. After he plopped himself down on the couch, he kicked off his loafers and tore into a bag of Cheez-Its.

The agreement was that nothing he said could be used for attribution, which was a shame—it was the only time where Riordan flashed a logical legal mind in combination with his disarming blue-blood charm. He wasn’t your conventional corporate-type, though—he wore a tie he’d wear for both days of the trip and he fumbled around with his Cheez-Its like a 5-year-old until they fell all over the floor. It was the kind of eccentricity that only the extremely wealthy can afford in the business world.

The son of a rich New York department store owner, Riordan moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s with $80,000 in inheritance, joined a law firm and parlayed his small fortune into a large one by playing the stock market and buying property. In the ’70s, Riordan took his wealth to another level by financing startups, including one—Convergent Technologies—that multiplied his investment by 300 times. He also started a leveraged-buyout firm that specialized in using junk bonds to buy businesses and then selling the companies later for profit. In the process of becoming wealthy, Riordan became a player in Los Angeles politics.

Initially, Riordan exercised his political power behind the scenes. He gave money to candidates in both the Republican and Democratic parties—including to Democrats Kathleen Brown, Maxine Waters and Dianne Feinstein. Riordan was also a big supporter of former Democratic L.A. Mayor Bradley, who in turn appointed Riordan to the L.A. Parks and Recreation Commission.

In 1993, Riordan ran for mayor and won, beating City Councilmember Michael Woo. During his two terms, Riordan is generally believed to have had a mixed record. His strength was being able to sell the city—as chief cheerleader, Riordan is said to have performed admirably. During the Northgate earthquake, which happened soon after he took office, Riordan also received high marks for being on top of the crisis.

Richard Riordan in an expansive moment. The candidate had little for GOP primary voters in the way of concrete proposals.

Photo By Jim Evans

But Riordan was criticized for his handling of the Rampart scandal, in which some L.A. police officers were accused of framing suspects and shooting innocent people. Riordan wanted the investigation handled by his handpicked police chief, Bernard Parks, while critics wanted the investigation handled outside of the department. Eventually, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division moved in because it didn’t trust the department to investigate on its own and made the city sign a consent degree to implement reforms.

Riordan’s two terms in office will be remembered more for the “missed opportunities,” Assemblymember Goldberg said. “We had pretty good times,” she said. “Riordan should have been able to transform distressed neighborhoods like South Central, East Los Angeles and Canoga Park.”

But Riordan’s attention, Goldberg said, was on his bid to privatize city-run institutions such as the Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles International Airport and the central L.A. Public Library. All three bids failed.

Perhaps Riordan’s most lasting legacy will be his move to change the city charter. Upon his election, Riordan complained loudly and often about the City Council—he wanted the mayor’s office to have more power. The council, Riordan often charged, was in the pockets of the labor unions and was an obstacle to his initiatives. The councilmembers countercharged that Riordan didn’t know how city government worked and was simply embarking on a power grab. The mayor and his wealthy backers financed the proposal and in the end, voters approved a scaled-down version of what Riordan wanted.

Riordan’s reign wasn’t supposed to be that acrimonious. When he was elected mayor, Riordan made much out of his ability to work with other people to achieve a common goal. At the time, Los Angeles was reeling from the Rodney King riots and the feeling was its leaders were too politicized. Riordan showcased himself as a kind of Ross Perot of Los Angeles—the above-the-fray candidate who didn’t care about politics. That same strategy in the 2002 Republican primary would be his undoing.

“Part of his appeal in Los Angeles was that he didn’t have political fire in his belly,” said Cal State Fullerton’s Sonenshein. “But that doesn’t work in California primaries.”

With one week left to go in the primary, the true believers of the Republican Party were out in force at McClellan Air Force Base. They gathered by the tarmac waiting for Bill Simon to show up with Rudy Giuliani, who was in California stumping for his old Justice Department friend.

The crowd, mostly white men and women, dressed casually and held Simon signs. Only a few of them wore suits. Ten or so little kids who wore Simon shirts ran around the parking lot while two teenage girls—one of whom donned a “Future Republican” sweatshirt—posed for a picture holding Simon signs. One woman—a Yolo County Republican volunteer—said she used to be a Democrat until science proved that a fetus is a human being. She became pro-life and switched parties.

As the private jet rumbled down the runway, a longhaired dude who manned the public address system cranked up the pulsating, guitar-driven “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins. The crowd rushed toward the stage where Simon and Giuliani spoke.

The mood was triumphant. Simon had just taken his first lead in the polls—the Field Institute in San Francisco reported that 37 percent of likely Republican voters were for Simon, 31 percent for Riordan and 9 percent for Bill Jones. And sure enough, when Simon got to the microphone, he exclaimed: “We’re ahead!”

Simon barely said anything else and turned the stage over to Giuliani, who praised Simon’s leadership abilities. After only being on stage for about 10 minutes, the pair exited as aides launched confetti bombs. At that, the longhaired dude cranked “The Best,” by Tina Turner.

That same day, Richard Riordan was also in Sacramento. Before the candidate showed up, the whispering among the reporters was that he was starting to look every one of his 71 years. When he arrived, Riordan gave a speech on public safety, talking up that he led the campaign to get former California Supreme Court Justice Rose Bird removed from the high court. During the question-and-answer period, reporters asked Riordan why, if he favored the death penalty as he said, did Riordan tell a Los Angeles newspaper in 1987 that he opposed it. Again, Riordan was on his heels. And again, the culprit was Gray Davis, who weeks before launched an ad that asked that very question.

A somewhat exasperated Riordan said, “I don’t remember saying that, but I might have,” and further pledged his support for the death penalty.

The event was strikingly different from Simon’s. A small crowd of onlookers gathered around, but they weren’t Riordan supporters—they were people walking to and from work. Most of the people there either worked in state government or were covering the event as part of the media. And the only people holding Riordan signs were leggy women in business suits—Riordan’s paid campaign workers. There were no rabid Republicans in sight.

Rudy Giuliani and Bill Simon celebrate Simon’s lead in the polls a week before the primary. Simon’s campaign captured the “true believers” of the Republican Party.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It was a tangible sign that Riordan had not attracted much vocal support from any active wing of the Republican Party, except for fellow politicians who flocked to Riordan’s side early in the expectation that he would cruise through the primary.

And there may have been good reason to think that. Early on, Riordan said he received tacit encouragement from the Bush White House to run for governor. But how quickly things change—a few days after polling showed Simon had overtaken Riordan, the Los Angeles Times reported that the White House began reaching out to Simon’s campaign.

The exclusion of the base of the party from what seemed to be Riordan’s inevitable victory ride happened early in the process. As far back as September, local GOP leaders in rural areas complained about the lack of attention they were getting from the man handpicked by President Bush. One, Steve Fowler, chairman of the San Joaquin County Republican Party in Stockton, told the Los Angeles Business Journal that during a two-week summer exploratory trip, Riordan ignored the activists. Said Fowler: “He came through to visit major donors, but not with the grassroots people … the Republican Party establishment up here got jilted and some folks up here, including me, are not pleased about it.”

Perhaps Riordan could have repaired the damage before Davis’ ads hit the market, but by late February it was too late. The contest was now simple: Which candidate was the most Republican?

The tragedy of the campaign for Richard Riordan is that it came to this. Like so many campaigns, the Republican primary was decided on non-issues instead of larger problems like homeland security, the energy crisis or health-care costs. On the battle to be the most Republican, there was no way Riordan could win.

The other candidates knew this and they used it as a blunt instrument on Riordan after Governor Davis opened the door. As the campaign wore down, Bill Simon featured an ad that pictured Riordan jogging with then President Clinton and said that Riordan called Clinton “the greatest leader in the free world"; Bill Jones countered with an ad that touted his “Republican values” and featured former Governor Deukmejian saying “Riordan is a man I couldn’t vote for” because Riordan had funded Democrats in the past.

Lincoln versus Douglas it was not.

On the day before the primary Richard Riordan came back to where it all unraveled for him over a month earlier, in Northern California. He hadn’t traveled north much since the first Davis attack ads hit the market—except for a few fund-raisers, the beleaguered former mayor campaigned around Los Angeles and points south.

After an early stop in Walnut Creek, Riordan was expected at Sacramento’s Virga’s Courtyard at 9:45 a.m. Waiting for him were among the most powerful Republicans in California, including Representative David Drier and Fresno Mayor Alan “Bubba” Autry, a former actor and GOP rising star. They joined on with Riordan—maybe at the request of the White House, but no one would say for sure.

Some of Riordan’s campaign team were already there as well, including manager Ron Hartwig, who was asked whether he was nervous. Hartwig replied: “I have faith in the people of California,” and let out a loud, overly enthusiastic laugh; he said it again and continued laughing.

Meanwhile, an outdoor smoker emitted huge plumes of smoke and a warm woodsy smell. Later, a reporter said it smelled like a pig roast “which might be symbolic for this campaign.” Again, there wasn’t a true believer in sight—it was a room full of suits.

Representative Doug Ose, who was tabbed to introduce Riordan, took the stage and bellowed, “It’s game day,” even though the candidate hadn’t arrived yet. Ose had to stretch the speech, but after a few minutes, Riordan and his wife, Nancy, arrived to lengthy applause.

When Riordan took the microphone, Congressman Drier stooped his shoulders in the back row. Several of Riordan’s backers looked genuinely pained. But Riordan focused squarely on Gray Davis.

“Gray Davis figured the only way he could get re-elected is by beating Dick Riordan in the primaries,” Riordan said. “He has hijacked the Republican primary and we can’t let him get away with that.”

After the speech, reporters asked what for many would be their final questions for candidate Riordan. One asked Riordan’s thoughts on his critics, who had blasted him for blowing a 30-point lead with one month to go by not being aggressive enough. Could he have appealed to traditional Republican voters more instead of the moderates, who traditionally stay home for the primary?

“Gray Davis, you have to say, he did a very good job of making me look like somebody I’m not—and by very good I mean very evil job—and that’s another reason we don’t want Gray Davis in Sacramento,” Riordan said.

But in the end, he could only blame himself. What Riordan didn’t get was that it was easy for Gray Davis to make Riordan look like someone he wasn’t because Riordan never really tried to establish a clear identity and connect with the GOP voters. He shook a few hands, he kissed a few babies, but his main strategy was to hide behind the suits and coast to victory.

After all the questions were answered that Monday, Riordan and his wife climbed into a white van and waved to the cameras. It might be the last time they’d be in Sacramento for a long time. And as hard as the previous two weeks had been, tomorrow would be even worse.