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Mystery Mayor : He's Got 40,000 Books, Friends All Over Town, and a Reputation as a Soft Touch. He's a Risk-Taker and Problem Solver. Yet He Can Be Absent-Minded, Inarticulate, Contradictory and Downright Sloppy. Can a Entrepeneur-Turned-Politican Lead L.A.?

July 11, 1993|FAYE FIORE and FRANK CLIFFORD | Times staff writers Faye Fiore and Frank Clifford covered the Los Angeles mayor's race.

Mr. Riordan is running about 10 minutes late," the secretary apologizes politely. "Can I get you something to drink?" The plush Bunker Hill penthouse is still trimmed with the deflated victory balloons of election night. Inauguration day is exactly two weeks away, but Richard Riordan, Los Angeles' mayor-elect, seems as guarded as Riordan the candidate as he takes a seat on a low beige couch. This isn't even his office we're sitting in.

He radiates the afterglow of victory, a king newly crowned. Settling back with a cup of black coffee, he agrees to show us more of himself than the slick images projected during the race. It isn't easy. He is still wearing pancake makeup from a television interview earlier in the day, a habit acquired during the campaign. The public spotlight makes him squint. And suddenly everything about him is news--what he has for breakfast, where he buys his suits, what time he gets up in the morning. It's annoying. With every personal question, he puffs out his cheeks in exasperation and blows out a gust of air before answering, grudgingly.

But when the conversation rolls around to his passion for books (he owns 40,000), Riordan perks up. He started writing one 30 years ago, a mystery novel based on his life. The central character is him, a corporate lawyer in a firm that has just lost one of its biggest clients. "It's at night and we're going out, and we're getting drunk 'cause we just lost the client . . . and I have too much to drink." He pauses to consider the irony of what he's just said. The crisis of his campaign was the revelation that he had been arrested three times in the 1960s and '70s on alcohol-related charges, including drunken driving. "Actually, I wrote this about the time I had those arrests. Anyway, I go to sleep in the car and . . . "

The plot unfolds. Riordan meets a man in a beard and a sweat shirt who turns out to be a Howard Hughes type, one of the wealthiest men in the world. "He says, 'I want to hire you,' " Riordan prattles happily on, "and I say, 'You don't want to hire me, you should have seen what I've been through last night.' And he says, 'I know, my people followed you.' And he hires me to represent his empire. And then the mystery starts."

The mystery in the novel, never finished, is a murder. The mystery in the saga of Los Angeles is him. Newly installed in City Hall, he is an enigma with contradictions at his very core. The more you study Dick Riordan, the more you can't define him. Mixed signals beam from him like a scrambled cable channel that will not tune in: he's a Republican who gives money to Democrats, a candidate known to land squarely on both sides of a controversial issue, a good Samaritan who ran one of the meanest campaigns in the city's history, a devout Catholic who has trouble publicly confessing his sins.

He's worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million, and he invested $6 million of it to win this election. But this idea keeps emerging--he sees himself less as politician than rescuer. The day he took out his filing papers to run for mayor, he spotted a blind man at 1st Street and Broadway about to step into a manhole. Riordan leaped from the passenger seat of his car. "Stop! Don't take another step!" he hollered, then ran over and guided the man across the street.

But the rescuer image collides with his reputation as one of the great exploiters of the '80s, the decade of greed. It was a paradox that dogged him through the campaign: Dick Riordan the philanthropist who repaves inner-city basketball courts; Dick Riordan the bottom-line businessman who saves Barbie at the expense of 250 Mattel jobs.

For a 63-year-old Princeton alum, top-of-his-class law school grad, respected downtown lawyer and wildly successful venture capitalist, he has a surprising tendency to misspeak, a sort of political Tourette's syndrome. When his much-debated plan to lease out Los Angeles International Airport came under attack, a peeved Riordan defended himself: "I feel very confident I'm wrong." When it was suggested at a televised debate that Riordan had to be scolded for his lousy attendance record while he served on the recreation and parks commission, he shot back: "That's not true! I was never scolded." And the campaign was haunted by a 1986 magazine interview in which Riordan made a joke worthy of the ancien regime: "I'm taking lessons in learning how to wave to the poor people."

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