The death last week of former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan is a reminder of both how low the city’s political culture has sunk and how strong leaders can help turn around a seemingly hopeless situation.
Riordan, who died at 92, was no natural politician. The native of New Rochelle, New York, and Princeton graduate moved to Los Angeles in 1956. He was awkward, sometimes disheveled, and held onto conservative Catholic ideas in a city dominated, even by the time of his election in 1993, by secularists, liberals, unions, and ethnic nationalists.
Riordan won office in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots, which resulted in more than 50 people killed, more than 2,300 injured, thousands arrested, and property damage totaling about $1 billion. In leading the fractured city, Riordan proved remarkably successful, helping to reduce crime, slow economic decline, and push a series of improvements. “He was such a contrast to what we have today,” notes long-time political observer Jack Humphreyville. “Riordan got things done, while people like [former mayor, now ambassador to India] Eric Garcetti just talked a big game.”
In her statement marking Riordan’s passing, new mayor Karen Bass graciously highlighted his contributions, both in office and through his private philanthropy: renovating the city library, building Disney Hall and the Alameda Corridor (a critical trade route through the city), and spearheading the construction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Most critically, Riordan helped engineer a reduction in crime, an issue that today’s progressive leaders, like Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, continue to avoid addressing.
Riordan’s triumph makes a stark contrast with the failed mayoral campaign last year launched by billionaire Rick Caruso. Unlike Riordan, who never denied his Republican or Catholic affiliation, Caruso switched identities, after having been a GOP stalwart for decades, and declared himself a Democrat. True, L.A. in 2022 was not the wreck it was after 1992, but the city’s rising crime, disorder, weak economy, rampant corruption, and declining population should have been enough to get Caruso over the top—especially with an estimated $100 million in campaign spending—against a long-time progressive like Karen Bass.
Arnie Steinberg, pollster and strategist for Riordan’s 1993 triumph, suggests that Caruso never made the kind of intimate connection with Jewish, Latino, and Asian voters that Riordan cultivated. Caruso was more aloof, elegant to a fault, and surrounded by largely Democratic advisors, who managed his campaign funds with what seems alarming inefficiency. In contrast, Riordan appealed as a friendly Mr. Magoo, and his willingness to stick to positions, such as a personal disdain for abortion, that alienated some voters at least suggested genuineness. He also chose a political strategy, notes Steinberg, that focused first on mobilizing Republican and Independent voters. He generated support throughout the city’s still-vibrant business community and connected well with small-business owners, particularly those worried about crime and the city’s anti-business government culture.
To be fair to Caruso, however, the city has changed dramatically since Riordan’s time. The city Riordan ran in, notes Steinberg, was more family-oriented and boasted a more diverse economy. Republicans still mattered, counting for roughly one-quarter of registered voters. In the 1993 election, Steinberg estimates that Republicans constituted as much as one-third of the electorate. By 2022, Republicans were barely 16 percent of the electorate.
Riordan dealt with a left-leaning city council, but enough Republicans and middle-of-the-road Democrats sat on the council to back his initiatives. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Law, who worked with Riordan on charter school reform, noted that the mayor was an executive who could get things done. Riordan’s leadership skills were on full display in the city’s remarkable rebuilding after the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake. “He left the city a better place,” Chemerinsky told the Los Angeles Times. “And I say that as someone who disagreed with him, often.”
Of course, Riordan could not fix everything about Los Angeles, but the city’s trajectory remained positive under his stewardship. Today’s Los Angeles, where Republicans are essentially extinct and socialists are the rising political force, suffers from a declining population, high unemployment, and ongoing corporate flight, with the loss of over 80 headquarters just between 2018 and 2021. Over the past quarter-century, L.A. County has lost 500,000 manufacturing jobs. These positions generally paid better than current jobs, which are highly concentrated in social services and hospitality.
Once described as “the city that grew,” Los Angeles started losing population by 2018. Los Angeles County’s population is expected to shrink by close to a half million by 2060, according to California Department of Finance estimates. And once proudly an immigrant city, L.A. has actually lost foreign-born residents, who increasingly head instead to Miami, Dallas–Fort Worth, and Houston. Perhaps most ominously, the city’s under-25 population has dropped by a remarkable 750,000 people in the last 20 years.
Yet despite these realities, any pushback to the progressive tide would face opposition from the local media, particularly the Los Angeles Times, which, liberal even in Riordan’s time, has gone harder left. The paper has been in denial about the city’s demographic and economic stagnation, at least until recently. Some progressives are now so committed to California’s political model that they can barely acknowledge the distressing conditions so evident in much of the city.
Could Los Angeles see another Riordan? It currently seems unlikely, given Caruso’s recent thrashing. A new movement would have to find a different base than the Republican, Independent, and moderate-Democrat synthesis that worked for Riordan. The drive for reform would likely have to come predominantly from Latinos, already the majority of residents, as well as largely childless professionals, who may someday get fed up with congestion, crime, general disrepair, and massive corruption.
Los Angeles has ample cause to mourn Richard Riordan’s passing. To turn its fading fortunes around, the city needs someone to revive his practical approach and positive spirit.
Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images