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Riordan Fund-Raiser Kicks Off Reelection Campaign

Politics: $500-a-plate dinner is sold out. Mayor's strategists hope show of strength discourages competitors.

February 29, 1996|JEAN MERL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Apparently heeding that old adage about the best defense being a good offense, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan is holding a sold-out fund-raising dinner tonight for a reelection bid that has yet to attract any substantial challengers and is still more than a year away.

The $500-a-plate "Leap Into the 21st Century" dinner is billed as the official kickoff of Riordan's reelection campaign, although the mayor already had gathered a war chest of nearly $1.2 million by the end of 1995.

Riordan strategists hope that the early show of political muscle will discourage competitors. The lawyer-entrepreneur-philanthropist dipped deeply into his own fortune to win his first bid for public office in 1993, spending about $8.5 million, including $6 million of his own money, to capture the city's top office in the most expensive campaign in Los Angeles history. He will not hesitate to do so again if necessary, insiders say.

But collecting a lot of other people's money early in the game is a favorite strategy for candidates who want to keep the field clear by demonstrating not only the depth of their campaign chests but also the timbre of their political support.

The 1,000 Riordan supporters who gather at the Century Plaza Hotel to dine on breast of chicken Wellington, salad of California gourmet greens, wild rice, fresh vegetables and almond basket of ice cream, raspberries and chocolate sauce represent a broad cross-section of city political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike.

"The support is there, one manifestation of which is that thousands of people are willing to put up their money" to help Riordan win a second term, said Bill Wardlaw, the conservative Democrat attorney and political player who talked his longtime friend, the Republican Riordan, into running in the first place and who is overseeing the crucial beginnings of the reelection campaign while assembling its key players.

Consultant Arnold Steinberg, who did polling for the mayor's first campaign, is on board. Veteran fund-raiser Alice Borden is in charge of efforts to fill Riordan's campaign coffers, and the mayor hopes to choose a campaign director soon, Wardlaw said. He would not comment on who is under consideration for the post.

But Riordan insiders say that Clint Reilly, the pricey, controversial San Francisco-based consultant who ran Riordan's 1993 campaign, is not on the list. Reilly came under heavy criticism for his handling of Kathleen Brown's failed gubernatorial campaign the following year, which ran out of money and folded before election day.

Riordan, 65, insists that he is not interested in running for another office once he is through as mayor, and most of those close to him believe that he is unlikely to change his mind.

Only three people with some of the name identification, political experience, and fund-raising and political support that would be needed to pose a serious threat to Riordan are publicly considering a challenge--state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), Rep. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City) and Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, an African American political leader who is among the mayor's severest critics. All said this week that they have not yet made a decision about running.

Most other area politicians who have expressed interest in the office seem content so far to wait until 2001, when term limits would force even a victorious Riordan to retire.

Political experts view Riordan's reelection prospects as very strong at this point, even though a Times Poll last summer showed that his once considerable popularity had slipped and key leaders of the city's African American community have publicly criticized the white, Westside mayor.

Some other potential difficulties include the timing of the coming fight over whether Police Chief Willie L. Williams should be rehired next year, which may well come to a head in the middle of the April primary races. Williams is highly popular with city residents, but is disliked by the LAPD rank and file and its union, and his leadership abilities have been questioned by Riordan and his Police Commission. Without a clear improvement soon, the city's sluggish economy also could pose problems for Riordan.

But many observers, including longtime Democratic campaign consultant Joseph Cerrell, one of the city's keenest followers of both local and national politics, said the biggest problem for Riordan could lie in his 1993 campaign promise to add 3,000 officers to the LAPD by the end of his first term. Riordan has since softened the pledge, saying that his successful efforts to free officers from desk work is resulting in more cops on the beat and that is what is important.

"That could be his 'No New Taxes,' " Cerrell said, referring to the later-broken campaign promise by President George Bush that helped undo his try for a second term. "It's a very legitimate issue, and an opponent could ride it very well."

At this point, Riordan looks like a winner, Cerrell said, but with more than a year until the election, almost anything could happen.

"All it takes is one major screw up" or one unexpectedly strong challenger for the whole picture to change, he added.

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