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NEWS ANALYSIS : For Riordan, It May Come Down to Matter of Candor : Mayoral race: His handling of attention surrounding arrest disclosures is seen as a test of his approach to office.

May 30, 1993|FRANK CLIFFORD and JACK CHEEVERS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With the Los Angeles mayoral election only 10 days away, Richard Riordan is confronting the political hobgoblin of our time--the character issue.

It is the one thing that can break a seasoned politician or inhibit an amateur, such as Riordan, from running for office in the first place.

Experts say that for Riordan, who does not relish talking about any aspect of his personal life, the test is how well he deals with the disclosure of his three arrests and whether he can quickly put the issue behind him.

"How he responds to an adverse personal situation as a candidate is really a test of how he can handle such a situation when he holds public office," said Dan Garcia, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and a senior vice president of Warner Bros. "Politics is a rough-and-tumble world, and for people like Dick, coming to it from the private sector, it poses a challenge that he may find distasteful. But like it or not, it's part of proving you're a leader."

Supporters insist that Riordan has not been hurt by the disclosures, and Riordan appeared more comfortable discussing the matter Saturday. He also put his campaign back on the offensive by accusing a Woo aide of coaching a woman to cry as she criticized Riordan for shutting down the Fresno business where she worked.

Woo "has sunk to a new low," Riordan said. "The exploitation of this woman is despicable."

Still, people inside Riordan's campaign and outside it acknowledge that he has not mastered a seasoned politician's ability to swiftly leave controversy behind.

Riordan's test grows out of a campaign debate last Wednesday when, in answer to a question from the audience, he said he had been arrested twice, once in 1964 for interfering with a police officer and in 1971 for drunk driving--a charge reduced to reckless driving. On Friday, after more questions from the press, the Riordan campaign issued a statement saying he had also been arrested in 1974 for driving while intoxicated.

Veteran political consultant Joe Cerrell said he believed that the revelation of the second drunk-driving arrest was damaging but by no means fatal.

"First time, it was no big deal, an old charge," he said. "Nothing to get excited about. Now, we got the second time and it raises eyebrows. It gets people wondering: Is this a pattern (or) is there going to be something else to come up? A third (revelation) could start showing some ill effect."

Throughout the episode, Riordan sometimes has veered from active participation in the discussion, allowing aides to respond to the press.

But this is not the first time that he has come up with incomplete or inaccurate answers to provocative questions. Nor was this the first time that Riordan's veteran operatives have taken over the job of clearing the air while the candidate stood to one side.

His staff had to correct his statement about his role in reorganizing Mattel Inc. In a recent debate before a hostile audience, Riordan grew so flustered that he was barely capable of responding to his opponent's attacks on his record.

On Friday, as Times reporters asked about his brushes with the law, an agitated Riordan allowed his campaign chairman, Bill Wardlaw, to step in like a lawyer defending a client. Wardlaw took charge of the meeting and made it clear when he wanted Riordan to answer a question and when he did not.

Wardlaw said Riordan is not being overly managed. "What you're dealing with is a man who's not a politician; a very accomplished man, but one who has not been in this setting before," he said. "That is a great strength, but in the political process it also has some weaknesses."

But Wardlaw added that he would have preferred Riordan to have remembered all the arrests the first time he was asked. "Obviously, it would have been much better if he would have remembered with great precision the first time," he said. "There was nothing to be gained by not remembering precisely; all we do is extend the story."

Paul Clarke, formerly a Republican campaign manager and now a corporate consultant, said: "It would have been better if all of it came out at once. You can't just string out these things."

Any further revelations would "raise questions about forthrightness" and "create problems that he doesn't need" in the final days of the campaign, Clarke said.

Aides are trying to control Riordan because he is a "neophyte running for a very high office," Clarke added. "He just isn't on his guard all the time the way a seasoned politician is. He blurts out things.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political analyst at Claremont Graduate School, said Riordan's handling of the matter "goes to the issue of credibility, it goes to the issue of trust, it portrays a bit of a splotch on his armor. If he handles it, it will not be harmful, but if he doesn't, he may well be in trouble.

"And it has hindered the ability of the (Riordan) campaign to make its case," she added. "It's taken them off balance."

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