Richard Riordan, former Los Angeles mayor, has died at 92

Apr 20, 2023, 10:43 AM | Updated: 12:28 pm

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Richard Riordan, a wealthy Republican businessman who served two terms as Los Angeles mayor and steered the city through the Northridge earthquake and the recovery from the deadly 1992 riots, has died. He was 92.

“Mayor Richard Riordan loved Los Angeles, and devoted so much of himself to bettering our city,” Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement late Wednesday. “I extend my deepest condolences to all who loved and looked up to Mayor Riordan. May he rest in peace.”

A statement from Riordan’s family, dated Wednesday, announced the death of a “beloved husband, father, grandfather and uncle.” The statement said he died at his home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood “surrounded by his wife Elizabeth, family, friends and precious pet dogs.”

There was no immediate word on the cause of death.

Riordan, a moderate who made a fortune as an investment broker, has the distinction of being the last Republican mayor in what is now a solidly Democratic city.

As mayor, Riordan gained a national reputation as an affable municipal leader who was scornful of government bureaucracy. He was sometimes prone to verbal gaffes, but they seemed to endear him to many residents of a city often indifferent to the scrum of local politics.

He surprised even longtime colleagues when, already past 60, he abandoned his private sector success in 1993 to run for mayor as an outsider.

Riordan said he saw the need for leadership in a city still shaken by the 1992 riot that followed the acquittal of white officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a Black motorist.

He ran on a promise that he was “Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around.” He spent $6 million of his own money on the campaign, beating City Councilman Michael Woo in the nonpartisan election to replace retiring Mayor Tom Bradley.

“My fellow Angelenos, the time has come for all of you to take part in the healing of our great city,” Riordan said as he took the oath of office in 1993.

He soon faced another major challenge when the Jan. 17, 1994, Northridge earthquake struck the city, causing numerous deaths and extensive destruction.

“In the wake of the Northridge earthquake, Mayor Riordan set the standard for emergency action — he reassured us and delivered a response with an intensity that still pushes us all to be faster and stronger amidst crisis,” Bass said.

Riordan turned back a challenge by state Sen. Tom Hayden, the former student radical and ex-husband of Jane Fonda, to win a second term in 1997.

City Council President Paul Krekorian credited Riordan with reshaping downtown, leaving a lasting imprint in the city’s core.

“He drove the long-delayed completion of Disney Concert Hall, presided over the restoration of City Hall and rebuilt a library system that had been ravaged by budget cuts,” Krekorian said in a statement.

And at a time when the city of nearly 4 million is losing population and struggling with an out-of-control homeless crisis and rising crime rates, Krekorian said “in the Riordan years the city saw very real progress.”

The Los Angeles Police Department tweeted that Riordan was “a true leader and champion for the people.”

Riordan’s long career also included serving 17 months as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s education secretary.

He was credited with playing a leading role in changing the City Charter to strengthen the power of the mayor’s office, something he contended was necessary to create accountability in Los Angeles’ decentralized system of government. He also helped elect reformers to the school board, a body over which he had no direct control.

Test scores rose under the policies of the new Riordan-backed school board majority, and he called that his proudest achievement as mayor.

To residents of sprawling Los Angeles, though, it was Riordan’s charming, sometimes bumbling personality that was most memorable. He cracked corny jokes, flubbed lines to prepared speeches and kept important business people waiting while he palled around with schoolchildren.

He struck a humorous looking pose in his Spandex shorts when he led community bike rides across the city, and he could sometimes be found behind the counter of The Pantry, the historic greasy spoon restaurant in downtown that he owned. After buying the property for its real estate value, he said he became too attached to the restaurant to tear it down.

Sometimes his behavior struck the wrong note, like the time he greeted hunger strikers while eating a hamburger. Another time he drew criticism for bicycling through France while transit workers at home were striking.

Critics also accused him of failing to support a thorough investigation of one of Los Angeles’ worst police scandals, one that saw officers who patrolled the city’s poor, gang-ridden Rampart neighborhood beating, harassing, extorting, framing and even shooting innocent people.

He was also faulted for poor relations with the City Council, where his scorn for bureaucracy was not well received.

Riordan himself loved to tell the story of how his administration had circumvented bureaucracy to help downtown business owners who had complained that “No Parking” signs were cutting sales. A mayoral aide went out and simply tore the signs down.

“Needless to say, I promoted him,” Riordan said. “And we came up with an axiom: that in government, it is much easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.”

His unconventional approach translated less well in state politics. He failed to win over the GOP faithful when he ran for governor in 2002, losing to conservative businessman Bill Simon in his party’s primary election.

Republican faithful seized on Riordan’s history of donating money to Democrats and the Democratic activism of his then-wife, Nancy Daly Riordan.

After his loss, Riordan announced plans to start a daily newspaper to challenge the Los Angeles Times, with which he had feuded as mayor, but nothing came of it.

He considered running as a candidate in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election until Schwarzenegger, his friend and fellow centrist Republican, got into the race.

After Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and Schwarzenegger elected to replace him, one of the new governor’s first acts was to name Riordan his education secretary.

Riordan’s 17-month tenure was bumpy at best. Although he claimed credit for pushing charter schools and emphasizing accountability, education advocates said he never seemed to play an influential role in the Schwarzenegger administration.

Indeed, Riordan garnered the most headlines as education secretary during a press availability when he teased a 6-year-old girl that her name, Isis, really meant “stupid dirty girl” after she told him it stood for “Egyptian princess.” He quickly apologized, but he resisted calls to resign.

When he did leave office several months later, he joined the Los Angeles office of the international law firm Bingham McCutchen.

A New York native, Riordan served with the Army in Korea and moved to Southern California in 1956 to work for a law firm. He made a fortune once estimated at $100 million in venture capital and leveraged buyouts.

He became a prominent figure in Los Angeles’ civic life, supporting downtown redevelopment projects and establishing a philanthropic foundation to advance childhood literacy and leadership.

A voracious reader, Riordan boasted an impressive library in his Brentwood home, and Los Angeles’ historic downtown Central Library was renamed in his honor in 2001.

Nancy Daly Riordan was his third wife. She died in 2009. Riordan married Elizabeth Gregory in 2017.

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Richard Riordan, former Los Angeles mayor, has died at 92