When Richard Riordan was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1993, it looked as if he would quickly take his place beside such innovative city chiefs as Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis and John Norquist of Milwaukee. A millionaire with impressive real-world business experience, Riordan won important early victories on regulatory and tax relief. In late July, however, the mayor announced that he would oppose the California Civil Rights Initiative, the controversial ballot measure that would end the state government's use of race and gender preferences. Proclaiming his personal opposition to quotas and set-asides, Riordan faulted CCRI for being "divisive" and aligned himself on the issue with his left-leaning City Council. This deeply disappointing move may well signal the end of the mayor's still incomplete effort to revive L.A.

Conventional wisdom sees Riordan's stand as a political masterstroke, likely to endear him to swing voters in next year's mayoral race. Indeed, it has won him plaudits from his critics and has even improved his standing among the timid corporate elites of the city, who dread nothing more than having to confront racial issues. Arnie Steinberg, Riordan's longtime pollster and now director of the CCRI campaign, concedes that L.A.'s moderate and conservative voters are unlikely to give their support to Riordan's major rivals for mayor—State Senator Tom Hayden and Councilman Nate Holden—both of whom are leftist stalwarts.

But if Riordan's re-election is likely, his position on CCRI points ahead to an unremarkable second term. Rather than attempt to lead public opinion against the City Council, as he has done before, the mayor now styles himself a consensus-builder. This change has already emboldened his political enemies—leaders of the anti-CCRI drive have demanded that the wealthy Riordan "put his money where his mouth is" and help finance their effort—and will no doubt make it more difficult for him to rally his political supporters behind further needed reforms, like cutting back the city's business and licensing fees and its more pointless inspection requirements.

Worse, Riordan's rejection of CCRI is likely to fuel the growing secessionist movement in the San Fernando Valley, the northern part of Los Angeles that is home to some 40 percent of the city's population and much of its Anglo and Latino middle class. Robert Scott, a Riordan appointee to the city planning commission and a leader of this movement, sees the mayor's position on CCRI as evidence of an indifference to the valley's deepest concerns. "The racial agenda has been allowed to dominate everything else in L.A.," he says, "and that's why many valley people want out."

Scott and others have been surprisingly effective already in their effort to push legislation through the state legislature in Sacramento that would enable the valley to go its separate way. Should they eventually succeed, future L.A. mayors will govern a city without a middle class, one starkly divided between the affluent liberals of the west side and the mostly poor, minority population of South Central and East L.A.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next