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'State of City' Talk by Mayor Defies Custom

March 24, 1995|JEAN MERL and JOHN SCHWADA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Flinging aside tradition, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan turned his State of the City speech into a giant pep rally Thursday, outlining no new proposals but capturing the enthusiasm of his Eastside high school audience with an address laced with pop music lyrics and sports slogans.

His unconventional approach--long on boosterism and short on details--seemed less successful with members of the City Council. Only three of them attended the upbeat pitch to 350 carefully selected students at Woodrow Wilson High. In the buzz around City Hall after the speech, the mayor--an entrepreneurial multimillionaire elected as a take-charge outsider--got kudos for taking his message beyond the traditional halls of power to the city's future voters. But he also drew a few brickbats from insiders concerned that he had not given political and community leaders anything new to consider.

And in that sense, the speech may have said as much about the state of politics in L.A. as the state of the city in general.

The idea for the road trip into the domain of the MTV generation was Riordan's, according to his press office. The mayor, 64, spent part of Tuesday on the El Sereno campus, listening to student concerns before he and aides wrote the final version of his speech, in which he said he found that many of his priorities meshed with issues the young people had talked most about--jobs, crime and strong neighborhoods.

For instance, he said his recent proposals to overhaul the city's permit application process would help bring new employers to town, and he likened the problems in getting a building permit to the hassles of obtaining a driver's license.

In talking about improving the enjoyability of life in the city, Riordan drew applause when quoting a song of Grammy winner Sheryl Crowe: "All we want to do is have some fun . . . I'm not the only one." And he borrowed the Nike athletic shoes slogan, urging students who want to make changes in their communities to "adopt a 'Just Do It' attitude."

Sounding like he was writing slogans for the marketing campaign the city is about to launch, Riordan told the students that "Los Angeles is too great for small dreams" and exhorted them to "discover and enjoy Los Angeles" as he urged them to do their part to help make the city cleaner, safer and more enjoyable.

The speech, preceded by fanfare that included the marching band, drill team and an ROTC color guard, posed quite a contrast to the annual "state of the city" ceremonies of years gone by. Tradition has it that these are formal, somewhat solemn affairs, delivered in the ornate Council Chambers to city officials, spouses and invited guests.

Like other mayors before him, Riordan used last year's address--his first since his election in June, 1993--to flesh out the themes he had sketched during his campaign by expanding his ideas for enlarging the police force, streamlining bureaucracy and turning over some city functions to private contractors.

Last year's speech, delivered in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, was far more somber: Riordan spoke of his budget and of "tough choices, painful choices, choices that will impact our daily lives."

This year, Riordan, who donated time and money to public and Catholic schools for several years before running for office, had a far more upbeat message to impart.

"Los Angeles is a place for new ideas, where dreams are respected and where people from all over the world come to discover what's new and what's next," Riordan said. *

He also preached activism, urging students to register to vote, to get involved in community service and to "let your voice be heard" by calling or writing Congress to save a federally funded summer jobs program.

Riordan wanted to speak directly to students, said Noelia Rodriguez, the mayor's press deputy.

"We wanted to get his message across to a group that doesn't usually have access to him," Rodriguez said, adding that the mayor himself suggested the idea about a month ago. "We have specific (proposals) throughout the year; that wasn't the purpose (of Thursday's speech)."

Councilman Mike Hernandez, whose daughter graduated from Wilson last year, applauded the mayor's "inclusiveness" but said he left the campus Thursday "wondering what we're going to do about the city budget."

Hernandez, Council members Jackie Goldberg and Richard Alatorre, City Atty. James K. Hahn and City Controller Rick Tuttle were the only elected officials on hand.

Others, such as Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., said they were surprised that Riordan had not surrounded the speech with greater solemnity.

When he learned the speech was short on details, Svorinich was disappointed. "You know I'm very supportive of the mayor," he said. "I never want him to be in a position where people say, 'Where's the meat?' I cringe when they say it isn't there."

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