It was in dealing with the federal government that the Administration suffered perhaps its most embarrassing setback: failing to win a slot in a federal empowerment zone program inspired by the L.A. riots. The designation would have pumped as much as $600 million a year into poverty-ravaged neighborhoods, but L.A.'s application was criticized as fuzzy and unfocused, its officials as overconfident and complacent. So sharp was his disappointment that Riordan--who contended that the guidelines had been rigged to favor East Coast cities--snubbed a phone call from President Clinton intended to put the best face on a consolation package of aid.
As Citizen Riordan and his staff of mostly City Hall outsiders tried to learn the ropes, there were other missteps as well, including an ill-fated plan to raise money by selling the historic Central Library Downtown to a subsidiary of Philip Morris, then leasing it back. Riordan's efforts to disband the Board of Public Works flopped last year, and, in the face of City Council and employee union objections, he's no longer talking much about turning large segments of city services over to private contractors. Airline opposition and federal regulations have stymied for now his plan to sell off LAX, but he says he has not given up.
There have also been questions about whether Riordan will be able to keep his promise to increase the size of the police force by 2,855 by the summer of 1998. Already, he's hedging a bit. When he unveiled his ambitious Project Safety Los Angeles plan early in his Administration, "I didn't anticipate the attrition," Riordan says, referring to the higher-than-usual exodus out of the department in recent years. While the mayor says he still hopes to get enough bodies, more often than not these days, he's talking about a more efficient use of the bodies he has. "I've learned that what's important is how many hours you get of police out on the streets, and we've done that by getting them off desks, paying overtime, giving them computers."
Even Riordan and his allies concede that he's still in his apprenticeship. "He's learned real quick," says City Councilman Richard Alatorre, a 22-year veteran of state and local elected offices and perhaps the mayor 's closest council ally, "but he's still a neophyte in this process. He's impatient, and he wants to do everything. Lots of times I've had to tell him, 'You're nuts, man!'because what he's wanted to do is stupid from a political point of view."
Alatorre doesn't mean that as an insult. Quite the contrary. "He's a shrewd businessman who has a different approach. We need that right now. The conventional ways of doing things are not working."
His friends describe Riordan as a quick study, and there are signs of an increasing political sure-footedness. After the stunning loss of the empowerment-zone designation , Riordan quickly began heavy-duty negotiations with the feds that increased the size of the consolation prize by $180 million. Now, armed with $430 million in federal grants and loan guarantees, the city is about to open an ambitious Community Development Bank aimed at boosting the economies of the city's poorest neighborhoods. When combined with the resources promised by several private financial institutions, the bank could do far more lasting good than the empowerment zone designation, Riordan insists. (Some remain unconvinced. "It will be less money, despite what others might say," says Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Riordan critic who has pointedly questioned the mayor's commitment to the black community.)
He's also learned to pick his battles more carefully. In last year's budget, he proposed complicated and politically unpalatable moves such as the consolidation of some departments and contracting out jobs now traditionally performed by city workers. This year, Deputy Mayor Michael Keeley--the bright , dedicated but sometimes-abrasive prot'8eg'8e from the mayor's law firm--consulted with department heads and council members before putting together the proposed spending package. The document saved for another time a lot of the things that got last year's budget into trouble with the council.
Other successes have been his private fund-raising drive, the Mayor's Alliance for a Safer Los Angeles, which is on the way to bringing in $15 million for timesaving computers for police stations and patrol cars, and the deal to procure a second training academy, which opened this year in Westchester.
Riordan can still seem uncomfortable with the demands of democracy and the cumbersome give-and-take it requires. He prefers to call on people he admires in business, philanthropic and professional circles and appointing them to unpaid task forces to study city finances, raise money for Police Department computers and suggest ways to fix the city's convoluted building-permit system.