But Riordan stormed into Democratic territory all over this riot-scarred, recession-weary city. He boldly courted both parties with a mean message--Los Angeles is a "war zone," a place where mothers have to duck behind cars when they walk their children to school. Eliciting just enough prominent ethnic endorsements from unsuccessful black candidate Stan Sanders, Jewish City Councilman Joel Wachs and Latino Councilman Richard Alatorre, he made it easy enough for Democrats to cross over to his side.
It was the sense of Riordan the conciliator, Riordan the moderate, Riordan the philanthropist that enabled a city of mostly registered Democrats to elect him with hardly a pang of partisan conscience. In the end, nearly half of the union households in Los Angeles voted for Riordan. He captured nearly half the Jewish vote, with some Westside neighborhoods voting Republican for the first time since before the Depression. He won 43% of Latinos, 31% of Asians, 28% of gays and 14% of blacks. Not quite 40% of all Democrats who went to the polls in June voted for Riordan. (As if to reassure them, Riordan the Republican was out jogging with President Clinton before he had even moved into City Hall.) All the while, he held on to his base, winning 79% of the voters who call themselves conservative.
It was a sweet victory for a novice candidate rendered speechless more than once by the efforts of his opponent to make him look like Simon Legree, but there was a flip side. People in Los Angeles don't vote, and Riordan won nearly 315,000 ballots in a city of 3.5 million people. The majority of voters who elected him were white in a city where white people are now becoming a minority. Exit polls indicate most of the people who voted for him were not wildly excited when they punched the hole next to Dick Riordan's name--51% saw him as the lesser of two evils. The election only proved that a Republican--a Riordan Republican--can get elected. Successfully governing is another matter.
But it wasn't just political strategy that made converts of the people who should have been Riordan's political enemies. It seemed to be the man himself. When he is relaxed, there is a warmth and openness about Dick Riordan. He laughs in braying gusts. His body English, darting and halting, is awkward but endearing, full of blarney and charm, the perfect foil to the coiffed politician, invaluable attributes in a town where the mayor must sometimes finesse the power the city charter denies him.
"I think he is a very charming man. He is very seductive and I mean that in a very positive way," says the UTLA's Bernstein, whose support Riordan sought when he helped found LEARN, a program dedicated to decentralizing and revamping the city school system. At the outset, Bernstein made clear that she viewed partnership with a rich white male the way another woman might regard sharing her garden with a venomous snake. But Riordan won her over. He did it in part by giving $75,000 to one of UTLA's pet projects--Dial-a-Teacher, an after-school homework hot line--and partly by being Dick Riordan. "He gets you to sort of trust him. He makes you feel comfortable. Then he sort of comes in for the kill," Bernstein says. "If the kill is making the city safe, then fine."
THE SUN IS A LOW BALL OF FIRE IN THE EARLY EVENING SKY WHEN A REDFORD EXPLORER PULLS INTO A parking lot of a small park in Koreatown. Riordan climbs out of the front seat and rolls down the sleeves of his blue button-down Oxford shirt. He slips into a dark jacket, crisply pressed, a typed sheet of prepared remarks tucked into the pocket. His gray hair is parted on the side and sprayed. He is made up for the cameras. Dick Riordan, candidate for mayor, is there to address a candlelight vigil commemorating the riots that, precisely one year before, had the city in flames. The national anthem begins to play; Riordan stands and sings. A breeze kicks up, but his hair does not.
This is the Dick Riordan the Dick Riordan Campaign wanted us to see, in full public-relations armor, a gaggle of aides encircling him like Secret Service agents hired to protect not the man, but the image.
But on this evening six weeks before the election, Riordan will surprise them. He starts for the baseball diamond where he is to make his remarks brief and wrap up by 6:15 to head for the next campaign stop. The program is running late and an aide keeps checking her watch. When he finally speaks, Riordan puts the script aside. The grieving mother of the only Korean killed in the riots is in the audience, and he is compelled to reach out to her. He shares the pain he felt when his only son died. "I know the grief I had, but I can't imagine the grief and despair you had losing a son over such a meaningless act."
The aides gather to whisk him away, but the mother is faster. She has collapsed in Riordan's arms. He sits down on a metal folding chair, stunned. Even over this squealing public-address system, he has touched her. She is sobbing. He is late for his next event, but she will not let go of him and he does not seem to care. Television cameras zoom in around them. An aide taps Riordan on the shoulder as if to say, "Let's go." Another aide taps that aide on the shoulder as if to say, "Let's not." Riordan bites his lower lip. Tears roll down his makeup.
The mother releases him at last and he stands, reluctantly, as the handlers converge and steer him toward the Explorer. He peels off the blue jacket and climbs into the front seat. His chest heaves with emotional exhaustion. One troubled Angeleno rescued; 3.5 million more to go.