Richard Riordan: LA mayor during 90s scandals, natural disaster

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (L) speaks to reporters with LAPD Chief Bernard Parks 1999. Photo by FSP/MMR/JDP via Reuters Connect.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan died Wednesday at age 92. He was LA’s last Republican mayor, serving two terms from 1993 until 2001. He entered office following the LA uprisings that broke out after the acquittal of four LAPD officers who were charged with beating Rodney King. 

Riordan was praised for his leadership during turbulent times in Angeleno history, but his tenure was also defined by strife. He was in charge during the LAPD's notorious Rampart Division scandal, where dozens of cops were embroiled in a massive bribery and shakedown scheme. After an unsuccessful bid for California governor, Riordan served as secretary of education under former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The wealthy, former attorney and investment banker succeeded Democrat Tom Bradley, with the belief that he could do a better job than the usual politicians. At the same time, LA was breaking apart, as Raphe Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, tells KCRW. 

“It created an opening for somebody who could, in his mind, apply business methods to the city, which really didn't always work in his planning, but mostly to cut through bureaucracy and get things done.” 

As mayor, Riordan often clashed with the largely Democratic LA City Council, and didn’t always have the patience to ask for their support, Sonenshein says.

Part of that tension could be ascribed to his past as a successful businessman, says former LA City Councilman Mike Woo. 

“Running the machinery of government is different in nature than being the head of a company or running a corporation or managing investments. And I think that's where Dick Riordan had a hard time learning that part of the job. In other words, how to use the power of the mayor to be effective,” Woo says.  

The clash between both parties was also apparent when he worked to revise the city charter to boost the power of the Mayor’s office, Sonenshein says. At the time, two different charter commissions were established — Riordan’s and the City Council’s.  

“Eventually they came together, almost in spite of Riordan, and put together a unified charter. And then, Riordan, to his credit, swallowed his pride, didn't get all he wanted and basically completely funded the campaign for the new charter, and it passed.”

In the aftermath of the 1992 riots, Riordan made a heavy push to expand the LAPD. As KCRW’s Warren Olney describes, he raised the LAPD up to 10,000 officers. Angelenos supported the move.

“Large parts of the city went up in smoke and racial tension was a big problem. And there had been an economic recession as well. There was a high level of frustration and unhappiness. That was part of the underlying political atmosphere that led to him being elected. That helps you win an election,” Woo says.  

At the same time, however, Sonenshein says the former mayor was in favor of a voter-backed police reform. 

Riordan also led the city’s recovery after the 1994 Northridge earthquake — one of the costliest natural disasters in American history. Fifty-seven people died and nearly 10,000 were injured. 

Olney says Riordan quickly addressed the crisis, and joined staff inside of the underground operations center at LA City Hall. There, he found that it was undermanned and understaffed, which he quickly beefed up. Then, within months, he worked to get the 10 freeway repaired, which had split and collapsed due to the quake. 

“Then he was able to very quickly repair that breach in the Santa Monica freeway, by organizing the private companies that were contracted to do it in a way that they hadn't been organized before. So he applied, as he promised that he would, his free enterprise capitalist approach to government and accomplished something very quickly, which he was able to do by fixing the freeway.” 

California’s last chance at a Republican governor?

The last vestiges of moderate Republican power in California were found in former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Riordan, Sonenshein says. The two were also, arguably, the last opportunities for the party to win a statewide election. 

“[Former California Governor] Gray Davis figured that out, and very cleverly in his reelection campaign, interfered in the Republican primary to alert Republican voters in a way how moderate Richard Riordan was, so he wouldn't get the nomination because he would have been a real threat. And then, eventually, it was Schwarzenegger who carried that path [and] Riordan remained involved.” 

That involvement was as California’s secretary of education under Schwarzenegger. Sonenshein argues that it was education that was Riordan’s real love in life. 

“He really thought he could change City Hall politics. City Hall pushed back. He didn't really have a great strategy for getting past that. But he did really have a big impact on the school system and read all the time,” Sonenshein says. 

He adds, “He didn't sound like it when you talked to him, but oddly enough, … he was a little bit of an intellectual and loved to read about school reform. And that was his dream — to reform education.”

In 2005 however, Riordan resigned for making an inappropriate joke to a young girl. 

In the final years of his life, he focused on philanthropy and continued to be a behind-the-scenes fixture in the local political scene. 

“His foundation still played a very big role in LA's life. But in some ways, his mayoralty was a little bit of a throwback to a much earlier time in LA when the business community was the civic leader of the town. Sometimes maybe a little tone deaf to a changing community,” Sonenshein says. 

More: ‘Which Way, LA?: Riordan talks about his 2014 memoir “The Mayor: How I Turned Around Los Angeles After Riots, an Earthquake and the OJ Simpson Murder Trial.”