In summary

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan died Wednesday night at 92. CalMatters contributor Jim Newton reflects on a man he covered closely for years, and what his failed gubernatorial bid in 2001 revealed about California politics.

On the surface, it seemed a natural fit. 

It was 2001, and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan was coming off a successful tenure as the chief executive of California’s largest city. Gray Davis, the incumbent governor, was not wildly popular, and Riordan was the kind of candidate who could give Davis trouble in a general election.

And yet, Riordan failed to clear the primary. Davis went on to re-election. That Riordan’s bid for governor was an abject flop said something about Riordan and something about California. 

He died on Wednesday night surrounded by his family, friends and dogs. He was 92.

I knew Dick Riordan well. I covered the LAPD during a period when it was his primary focus (he was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1993 largely on the strength of his promise to build a safer city), and then I covered his administration during his second term. I traveled with him. I played chess with him. Not once during the eight years that we saw each other almost weekly did I hear him talk about California unless asked directly about a state issue. 

He loved Los Angeles and radiated enthusiasm for it. He’d built businesses and a life in the city. When he campaigned for re-election in 1997, he genuinely enjoyed making pit stops around the city and bumping into new people. The city brought out the best in Riordan.

But it was hard to imagine Riordan in Sacramento, much less on Imperial Valley farms or tromping around mining country. He was a big-city guy who enjoyed being a big-city mayor. 

When he announced his bid for governor in 2001, the event was held at El Pueblo in central Los Angeles. There, Riordan proclaimed that he was running because “I love California.” That was news to me.

As a candidate, Riordan struggled on the larger stage. Angelenos grew accustomed to his foibles – he famously carried a hamburger to a hunger strike, went on a bike trip in France during a transit strike, regularly tossed out clunky verbal gaffes – but California did not know quite what to make of him. 

I would get calls from reporters covering him during the governor’s race asking whether I thought senility might be setting in. I told them I didn’t think so – that he was unpredictable and prone to outrageous comments, but that neither of those were the product of age. He was goofy at age 60, not just at 71, when he announced for governor.

But the bigger fact, illuminated by Riordan’s struggle to break through as a statewide candidate, was the structure of California politics, which historically has not been friendly to centrists.

To get to Davis, Riordan had to win the Republican gubernatorial primary. In 2001, that first meant convincing Arnold Schwarzenegger, Riordan’s friend and neighbor, to sit out the race, and then overcoming the candidacies of Bill Jones, the secretary of state and California’s highest-ranking Republican, and Bill Simon, like Riordan a Los Angeles-based rich guy but one who’d never held public office, much less served as mayor of Los Angeles.

Riordan prevailed in the first mission, as Schwarzenegger agreed to sit out the 2002 campaign. That left the others, and the resulting primary fight attracted the attention of Davis and his shrewd campaign consultant, Garry South. They understood the race that was shaping up, that Riordan was the toughest candidate for them to beat, but also that he was vulnerable in the Republican primary. Riordan was pro-choice, moderate on gay rights and at odds with the party’s right wing. And he had given money to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a Democrat, when Bradley ran against Republican George Deukmejian for governor. 

All of that made Riordan suspect among conservatives, and conservatives held the balance of power in the nomination phase. 

For anyone who wasn’t aware of Riordan’s centrism, South made sure they found out. Davis was flush with money and facing no Democratic opposition, so he spent a bundle, some $9 million, running negative ads about Riordan during the primary campaign. Davis preferred to face Simon, and his novel intervention in the Republican race helped him to pick his desired opponent.

Riordan, the overwhelming favorite when he announced, saw his lead collapse in the spring of 2002. Riordan enjoyed a 40-point lead in late 2001, only to trail Simon by six points as Election Day approached. The rest is history. Davis got the challenger he wanted, and he went on to beat Simon easily in the general election. Riordan went home to Los Angeles.

I saw Riordan often in the years after that, less so more recently, as his health declined. I never heard him lament his loss in the governor’s race. He enjoyed being home in Brentwood. He remarried in 2017, and he seemed happy on the periphery of public life. 

Our last event together was at UCLA in February of that year. Riordan was joined that evening by two mayors who followed him in office: James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa. It was the only time that all three addressed the city’s challenges as part of the same program

In our conversation that night, Riordan showed his age a bit. He struggled for words on occasion and was confused about the city’s history on policing immigration, but he was gracious and complimentary of his successors. He groused a bit about unions, a favorite adversary, and acknowledged that if terms limits hadn’t prevented him from doing so, he probably would have run for a third term as mayor (there’s irony in that: Before running for mayor, Riordan had helped bankroll initiatives in support of term limits). 

He never mentioned his campaign for governor.

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Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics....