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L.A.'s 'Batman' Candidate: Rich, Enigmatic

BILL BOYARSKY

May 12, 1993|BILL BOYARSKY

Suddenly, out of the blue, it struck me that Richard Riordan is a lot like Batman.

The mayoral candidate and the caped crusader are both rich. They live in mansions. They stand ready to dash from their luxurious homes to save their besieged cities, Batman in his Batmobile, Riordan in his Ford Explorer.

More important, despite all the publicity heaped on him, Riordan, like Batman, remains an enigma.

Although well-known to insiders as an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and an attorney with political connections, Riordan had just about zero recognition among the general public until he started running for mayor.

He's much more recognized now that he's in the June 8 runoff against Councilman Michael Woo. But, as was the case of Ross Perot before his presidential campaign, the outline of the man has been put before the public, but not yet filled in.

When the press and the White House began hammering away at some of Perot's more unflattering behavior, such as spying on his business opponents, his standing in the polls dived. The irascible little Texas multimillionaire suddenly become something sinister as President Bush's campaigners filled in the empty canvas with a dark and threatening image.

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One side of Riordan is the Dick Riordan of the business world, the deal maker, the salesman, the wheeler-dealer, the tough negotiator who can squeeze a rival into surrender.

Unfortunately for those trying to campaign against the Riordan enigma, he does all this in private. If Riordan has a temper tantrum or messes up at a corporate meeting, only his employees and corporate buddies know, and they won't tell. Woo, on the other hand, spends his working days in the fishbowl of the City Council. Let Woo make a mistake and the whole town hears about it.

Since so few people have had the opportunity to see Riordan in action, I've decided to share some of my own experiences for what they might reveal about the man.

I first met him in 1989 during the investigation into Mayor Tom Bradley's private business dealings. Riordan, a power in the Bradley camp, called me up and said he wanted to have lunch. Shortly after we sat down at the restaurant, he gave me a cold look and asked how long the paper was going to continue its investigation of the mayor.

Until we get to the bottom of it, I replied. He scoffed at the investigation. I defended it. When the lunch ended, I was puzzled. Why had he set up the lunch? Was he part of the mayor's defense team or was he just curious?

I'd just met the takeover Riordan, the entrepreneur who's tough enough to close down factories.

The second time we talked was after Riordan had given a speech to members of the Southern California Organizing Committee, which fights for social and educational programs in poor areas.

SCOC is part of a grass-roots network of community activists in Latino and black neighborhoods closely tied to the Catholic archdiocese. Riordan is a Catholic who has supported the activists. With his taste for back-room maneuvering and his powerful political connections, he's won support for many of their projects and they respect him. So, even though Riordan, on his way to another event, was wearing a tux, his working-class audience applauded him.

I called him a few days later because I was interested in his message, a critique of the Los Angeles Unified School District. We met for a drink. Unlike our previous meeting, he was friendly. We talked about the problems of helping poor schools. We gossiped about politicians. We had another drink.

This was Riordan the salesman, the man who divides his time between helping the poor and charming corporate chiefs into mergers and other deals.

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Much of the remaining campaign will be devoted to defining the real Riordan, to filling in a canvas that is now largely blank.

Riordan began last week by mailing out a multicolored booklet titled "The Secret Life of Richard Riordan." The secret is that he's too good. I don't have the space to mention all the good works listed in the booklet. It took Riordan 14 pages. Let me just say that it's impressive.

Woo wants to define a different Riordan. The Woo version of Riordan will be that of a job-destroying corporate raider and a back-room wheeler-dealer. The back-room theme was emphasized Tuesday when Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina endorsed Woo. She said Woo, as an elected official, has had to answer to the public while Riordan has been "accountable to no one."

It's like a movie, "Batman Unmasked." We, the audience, will be awaiting the outcome.

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