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School Fight Has Riordan's Inner Circle Squaring Off

NEWS ANALYSIS

Politics: Handling of Zacarias issue has divided confidants Soboroff and Wardlaw, clouding Soboroff's mayoral plans.

November 03, 1999|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The controversy over Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ruben Zacarias' ouster has driven a wedge between two of Mayor Richard Riordan's closest allies and has helped deepen discontent among many Riordan backers with the man their leader has endorsed to succeed him.

Nowhere is the rupture in the so-called "Riordan family" more obvious or significant than in the break between lawyer Bill Wardlaw, Riordan's closest friend and advisor, and real estate broker Steve Soboroff, Riordan's choice to succeed him in the mayor's office. In interviews and meetings, Soboroff has denied playing a role in the campaign to push Zacarias out, but has said that Wardlaw has had a hand in that effort.

On at least one occasion, Soboroff has gone so far as to label Wardlaw a "puppeteer."

In an interview Tuesday, Wardlaw declined to characterize Soboroff's remarks but stressed that he had no role in the events that led to the school district board's controversial decision to appoint a chief executive officer, a move that severely limited Zacarias' authority.

Relations between Soboroff and Wardlaw never have been close, as Wardlaw has conspicuously declined to back Soboroff's candidacy despite pressure from Riordan that he sign on. The latest conflict, however, has sharply escalated the bad feelings between the two men. It is a feud that has particularly dire implications for Soboroff, who is trying to build a coalition that includes Westside moderates and Latinos, among others, to win the mayor's office in 2001.

Soboroff may be on particularly dangerous ground in that his challenge to Wardlaw's role involves, by implication, a suggestion of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Riordan, because it would be impossible to imagine Wardlaw acting to overthrow the school superintendent without consulting Riordan. Riordan has consistently denied any role in the controversy beyond expressing his support for the school board, a majority of which he helped elect earlier this year.

Peace Overture Rejected

In an interview Tuesday, Soboroff seemed to seek a way out of the tangle. "I don't have any problem with Bill," he said. "He's been an incredible help to the mayor."

Soboroff added that the two men often sit next to each other at basketball games and enjoy each other's company. Associates of Soboroff similarly tried to downplay any conflict, blaming the dispute on misunderstandings and misinterpretations of remarks the mayoral candidate made in various meetings.

Wardlaw's camp was having none of that.

"They're trying to cool this off now," one person close to Wardlaw said. "But they don't have much to work with."

Both of the debate's contestants are formidable: Wardlaw is a famously hard-nosed lawyer whose loyalty to Riordan has long been a central fact of Los Angeles political life; Soboroff projects an amiable air but is a political novice with a temper he occasionally displays to his detriment.

At issue is the question of who has played what role in the school board's clumsy moves to push Zacarias out of office, first by appointing a powerful deputy, then by moving more directly to buy out his contract.

Soboroff initially boasted of working on the inside to reshuffle the district, especially touting his role in bringing former school board member Howard Miller back as facilities chief. When the board then elevated Miller to chief executive, however, many Latino leaders complained and Soboroff quickly sought to distance himself from that aspect of the controversy. He told supporters that while he supported Miller in one role, he opposed him in the other.

Had the matter ended there, it probably would have quieted down in a few days. But Soboroff then went further, telling associates that the real responsibility for pushing Zacarias aside rested with Wardlaw.

Wardlaw responded by telling people close to him that while he was working to clean up the mess at L.A. Unified, he never sought to bring Miller on board, an assertion made credible in part by the ideological gulf between the liberal Miller and the far more conservative Wardlaw.

"I had absolutely nothing, nothing to do with Howard Miller's promotion at all," Wardlaw said Tuesday. "I didn't know about it until after the fact."

Once the issue erupted with the board's appointment of Miller as chief executive, Wardlaw did play a role, as he and others acknowledge. Although Wardlaw was not specific about his part, several sources said his role essentially was to make clear his support for buying out Zacarias' contract and bringing the controversy to a close. Given Wardlaw's close relationship with Riordan, his comments to insiders were widely interpreted as being the mayor's position as well.

"I had a strong view that what was important was that we put an end to this episode and get with focusing on the children and teachers of this district," Wardlaw said. "I told that to anyone who would listen."

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