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On The Move With : Richard Riordan : Quiet Clout, Big Money and Questions of Obligation

PROFILES in POWER: This is the first in a series of visits with Southern California's new power elite--the people shaping the region's future--that will give a behind-the-scenes look at how public policy is set and how private power is exercised.

August 21, 1988|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein is a contributing editor of this magazine.

RICHARD J. RIORDAN has the beginnings of a pained look on his face. It's a little hard to tell, because Riordan affects such a pleasant poker face through even the most difficult situations. But irritation is pinching him like a tight collar: There's a hint of exasperation in his eyes and a weary slump to his shoulders.

This is all perfectly forgivable. For more than an hour this afternoon, Riordan has been sitting in the conference room of his downtown law office, behind a wilting sandwich and a Pepsi turning flat in its can. He has been fencing with a battalion of pertinacious lawyers and executives from MCA Inc. and Spectacor Management, the companies that have been negotiating jointly since last fall for the right--the word is used advisedly--to run the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Sports Arena, the troubled former home of the Rams, the Lakers and perhaps the Raiders.

Riordan is vice president of the Coliseum Commission and part of a small subcommittee appointed to reach an agreement with MCA and Spectacor. The hope is that professional managers can operate the complex more efficiently than the politicians have, keep the teams around longer, and (though this is mostly unspoken) someday maybe even mend relations with the Raiders.

Riordan called this meeting because the negotiations are stalled. The two sides have made some progress this afternoon, but it's been inch by bloody inch. Periodically, the substantive negotiations have halted while one side or the other verbally strafed the room. It took them almost an hour to agree on which issues they disagreed about. Now, as Riordan looks blearily across the table, it ominously appears as though MCA's chief negotiator, Irving Azoff--who may well have studied at the Ed Koch school of subtlety--is drifting into a speech.

Riordan doesn't need this. His name is on the door of this law firm in downtown's California Plaza; he has a busy venture-capital operation and a thriving investment-banking concern; he owns the Seventh Street Bistro and the Original Pantry Cafe, dollops of real estate and blocks of stock in a portfolio that's bigger than those of some mutual funds.

As a deal-maker and money-mover, he's world class. After a decade of venture-capital deals, leveraged buyouts, takeovers and mergers, Riordan's cup is overflowing: He's worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. But he's never found enough nourishment there. He feels as much obligated as liberated by his wealth.

And so at 58, Riordan has become one of the most powerful unknown figures in Los Angeles. Quietly, businessman Riordan has emerged as a potent force in politics, charity and the Roman Catholic Church. A Republican who mingles easily with Democrats--and supports many of them--Riordan has solid ties across the political spectrum. Spend some time with Riordan and you start to think that this is what political power in the coming decade will look like: non-ideological, empathetic, unsettled by inequity, but measured in its expectations of change. Or, as Riordan describes himself, softhearted but hardheaded.

Riordan is a thoughtful man, unsure of what to make of a world that has rewarded him so lavishly while leaving so many others trapped in poverty. So, over the past 15 years, with little fanfare, Riordan has operated as a bank of last resort for a Dickensian parade of worthy causes, the Eastside Boys Club, for example, shuttered after allegations of financial mismanagement. In the past few years, he has stepped up to more ambitious social projects that affect the entire community. "Nothing is too small for him to get involved," says Francis X. McNamara, former president of the Los Angeles United Way, "nor too big."

There is an urgency to his public works--a need to do good and move on to the next project . . . and then the next. He has accumulated causes the way he did companies a decade ago. Riordan sits on the boards of about two dozen private companies and public institutions. He took a position on the powerful city Recreation and Parks Commission, hoping to open more parks in inner-city neighborhoods; he's now president. And, at the request of his friend Mayor Tom Bradley, he joined the Coliseum Commission.

Which is how Dick Riordan has found himself in this conference room, arguing about scoreboard deals, renegotiation terms and who has reneged on what. Meanwhile, down the hall in his office, messages are stacking up. He's late for a meeting of the Archdiocesan Education Foundation, which he chairs. Finally, he looks at his watch and stands up. The two sides appear to have moved within sight of an agreement--at least enough to let the attorneys handle the details. Azoff, chairman of MCA's Music Entertainment Group, is on his way out, too. "Dick," he says, smiling and wrapping his arm around Riordan, "you're a great American. When your business goes bankrupt because you're spending all your time on this crap, we'll always have a job for you at MCA."

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