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Can Riordan Tolerate the Limits of Public Power? : Mayor: Accustomed to having his way, he will face hurdles not present in private finance. Can he accept "no" for an answer?

July 04, 1993|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, a visiting scholar at the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Colleges, is the author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press).

Among the first emotions Mayor Richard Riordan will feel as he settles into his third-floor City Hall office is a sense of victory--not a sense of power. That will take time, perhaps several months, even a year. The sense of power will come slowly, not because the office of mayor is so powerless (which it is, relative to every other major city in America), but because it takes time for the office to become incorporated into the officeholder's personality.

Riordan, to be sure, has held considerable power in the business world. But like others who have moved from private to public power, he will not find the transition particularly smooth or easy. Power is held more firmly in the business community, especially in the world of finance, from which Riordan comes.

If he had landed the top job in a large bureaucracy, where he would control the salaries and promotions of his subordinates, Riordan would not so acutely feel the change. But when it comes to persuading others to do his bidding in government, the new mayor will confront a discomfiting reality.

He will not control the constituency of any member of the City Council. He will not control department heads, or anyone below them, who are protected by regulation, union contracts and the fact that no one outside really knows what is going on inside any given agency because there are no obvious measures of achievement, or failure, like profits or sales. The press will not do his bidding. Even the private interests who helped to elect him mayor will not enhance his sense of power: They will want results, not just any, but those that favor them.

What's left is very little discretionary authority, because the law already prescribes what is to be done, who does it and how much it costs. And the law is not easy to change, especially when the law-maker is the state or federal government.

Riordan will chiefly come to know his power in the ways others react to him, not by issuing orders. Words he uses casually will be heard as if he bellowed through a megaphone. And they will be similarly distorted. Some will react to a mild observation as if it were a command.

Riordan will also learn the limits of his power on the borders of his realm--the world outside his office, where other holders of power stand guard at their own borders. What he will see as part of his job, others will perceive as interference--and they will react accordingly. It is not that they are out to subvert him; it is just that they want to protect their own turfs. If he does not secure his power by learning quickly whom to trust and how to trust them, he will be in trouble.

The new mayor will be able to make appointments to his own staff (fewer than 100 out of 350) and to the commissions, but there will be no formal Riordan "cabinet," because the department managers are already in place, secured by Civil Service. While the commissioners will tend to reflect the new mayor's views, they must also come to terms with each other and with the departments and issues they oversee, which will, in some way at least, shift their loyalties.

Riordan could be a powerful mayor if he marshals his allies well. His influence could be enormous, but it will be influence , not power. It will be indirect and depend on the willingness of others to listen to him, to understand him and to follow his lead. He has experience in bringing people together, but then he held out the carrot of his wealth, and the respect we give those of wealth. He will find the prestige of being mayor a more variable--and less reliable--thing.

His power as mayor will be enhanced if he focuses his message and brings the power of the media to bear on those outside his realm. But media coverage of City Hall is partly dependent on the public's interest in city politics, and Los Angeles has always been a private city, with what--at best--could be described as a low level of political culture.

The new mayor of Los Angeles may be assisted by the sympathetic attention of the Clinton Administration in Washington, especially because the President depended so heavily on California for his own victory. And he may be helped by media attention from outside the city, which helped most of us who live here to recognize that we are a community in crisis and we need to do something about it. The problem for Riordan will be getting agreement on what that something is, bringing it about and then getting agreement on its success.

Riordan will gradually--and unhappily--conclude that power is a temporary thing. Term limits notwithstanding, almost everyone who stands in his way can afford to wait him out. As a former businessman accustomed to getting his way without much delay, holding public power may prove to be his most exciting--and frustrating--experience.

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