Richard Joseph Riordan (born 1930), a multimillionaire businessman and civic leader seeking public office for the first time, was elected mayor of Los Angeles on June 8, 1993. He had promised to revitalize the riot-torn city and put 3,000 more police on the streets. He won praise even from political adversaries for decisive leadership following the devastating January 17, 1994, Northridge earthquake.
Richard (Dick) Riordan was born to a wealthy family in Flushing, New York, on May 1, 1930, the youngest of eight children. Raised in comfortable surroundings in New Rochelle, he became an accomplished lawyer, businessman, and philanthropist.
Riordan attended Santa Clara, then transferred to Princeton, where he majored in philosophy and received his A.B. degree in 1952. Undecided between business and law, he made what he calls a "mental flip of the coin" and enrolled in the University of Michigan law school, graduating first in his class in 1956. That same year he was the sole recruit of the prestigious Los Angeles law firm of O'Melveny and Myers, where he became an expert in stock market and tax law. He founded his own firm in 1975 and parlayed an $80,000 inheritance into a $100 million fortune through the use of leveraged buyouts and vigorous investments in high-tech firms. Riordan's most notable business success came in rescuing financially troubled large firms such as Mattel Toys through restructuring.
At Princeton Riordan had become interested in the teachings of Jacques Maritain, an influential Catholic philosopher. Maritain taught the importance of "universal truth" and service to others. Riordan became highly active in philanthropic and service activities. He gave $3 million a year to charities, focusing on those that benefit children, and donated "Read to Write" computer labs to thousands of schools throughout the country. In East Los Angeles, where the population is overwhelmingly Latino, he financed purchase of the Puente Learning Center and then donated $1.5 million and 27 computers to the center to help children and adults learn to read and write English.
Riordan's life was marked by personal tragedies, and his friend and campaign manager Bill Wardlaw said that Riordan's generosity reflected a measure of "Irish guilt or Catholic guilt" as well as deep commitment to service. Riordan lost a 5-year-old sister to a brain tumor, a 35-year-old sister to a fire, and a 41-year-old brother to a mudslide. His only son drowned while diving in the ocean. One of his four daughters died of bulimia. His first marriage of 23 years ended in annulment, and his second in separation.
Riordan was a political unknown when he sought the Los Angeles mayoralty. His experience consisted of service on the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Commission (of which he became president) and the Coliseum Commission, posts to which he had been appointed by Mayor Thomas Bradley. Six months before his election a poll showed Riordan with support of only 3 percent of the voters.
But Riordan ran for mayor at a time when California was disenchanted with politicians and Los Angeles was reeling from a long recession and the deadly April 1992 riots triggered by acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers charged in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, an African American. Mayor Bradley's popularity declined sharply after the riots, and he decided to retire after four terms. Riordan, proclaiming he was "tough enough to turn L.A. around" and spending heavily to boost his name recognition, emerged as a leading candidate to replace Bradley in the nonpartisan office of mayor.
Los Angeles is a culturally diverse city where Latinos and Asians form a majority of the population but only 12 percent of the electorate. Whites are two-thirds of the voters, and Riordan led all candidates in a multi-candidate April primary. His opponent in the June runoff was Councilman Michael Woo, a Democrat who tried to capitalize on the heavy Democratic majority among Los Angeles voters by making the race a partisan test. Woo depicted himself as the legitimate heir of the coalition of African Americans, Jews, and business interests that had elected Bradley 16 years earlier. Riordan, a Republican, was described as a conservative throwback to the era when a white oligarchy ruled the city. But Riordan's promise to put 3,000 new police on the streets in four years struck a responsive chord with voters. He won with 54 percent of the vote, receiving overwhelming support from whites, conservatives, and Republicans plus 40 percent of Democrats, 43 percent of Latinos, and 31 percent of Asians. Only African Americans gave Woo solid support.
The new mayor's initial performance was mixed. Riordan proved an awkward speaker who found the bureaucratic process difficult, was embarrassed by rapid turnover among top appointees, and acknowledged a high degree of frustration in dealing with the city council. But Riordan won a major victory in his fight to raise landing fees at Los Angeles International Airport and devote the proceeds to beefing up the city's thinly-spread and over-worked police force. He surprised partisans by developing a close working relationship with President Clinton.
Riordan's political epiphany occurred when the San Fernando Valley was devastated by the Northridge earthquake, which killed more than 50 people, left scores of thousands homeless, and devastated the region's transportation network by cutting three major freeways. Working closely with Police Chief Willie Williams, in contrast to the hostility between Bradley and Police Chief Daryl Gates that hampered coordination during the riots, Riordan took charge of an emergency response that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros called "the best-organized and best-executed … that we have seen." Even the mayor's opponents praised him for demonstrations of leadership that included frequent appearances at disaster sites and tireless efforts to cut red tape for quake victims. "I think people care about Los Angeles, and they're not going to give up on it," he said the day after the quake. "I believe in making decisions. It's easier to get forgiveness later than to get permission now."
Riordan's performance in this crisis put him in the fore-front of the nation's mayors and gave him national visibility in a city that many, including Riordan, saw as a national harbinger of the multicultural society that the nation will become in the 21st century.
Riordan continues to draw attention as mayor of Los Angeles. He resides in the L.A. area.
Further Reading on Richard Joseph Riordan
For additional information on Riordan see "And Now for Something Completely Different," the Los Angeles Times Magazine (July 11, 1993); "Riordan Shows a Steady Hand in Leading a Rattled City," column by Bill Boyarsky in the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 23, 1994); "Richard Riordan '52: Mayor of L.A.," Princeton Alumni Weekly (Dec. 8, 1993); and "Richard Riordan on the Job," Los Angeles Lawyer (Dec. 1993).