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NEWS ANALYSIS

Vacationing Mayor Pedals as Strikers Burn

September 22, 2000|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's crippling strike grinds on and Los Angeles' working poor scramble onto bicycles and into gypsy cabs to make their way to jobs, clinics and schools, the city's multimillionaire mayor is biking, too.

His companions, however, are celebrities, and the roads they are traveling run through the lush wine-producing valleys of southwestern France.

Mayor Richard Riordan's absence during so painful a moment for the city, especially for its poorest residents, has drawn ridicule and criticism from union leaders and others, who complain of what they see as his insensitivity. At a spirited rally for the striking transit workers Thursday morning, Riordan's bike trip made him the butt of jokes and the target of attacks.

"This mayor leaves office next June," began Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and normally a Riordan ally. Then, as Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa--a mayoral candidate, longtime labor supporter and friend of Contreras--stepped toward the microphone, Contreras continued: "Next year, when [Villaraigosa] becomes mayor of L.A., we won't have these problems."

Contreras later asked council members Nate Holden and Jackie Goldberg if they would send a message to the mayor to return from France and help end the strike. Cheering and clapping, the crowd broke into a chant: "Bring him back!"

"Message delivered!" Holden responded as the crowd cheered wildly.

In a telephone interview from France, Riordan defended his absence. According to the mayor, he and the rest of the MTA board have agreed to let the transit agency's staff handle the negotiations, making his presence unnecessary.

Moreover, Riordan said he is in regular contact with local officials, although county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who heads the MTA, said her last conversation with Riordan was on Monday, when he participated in a conference call. Riordan said his own position is that the MTA should be asking for bigger concessions from its workers, so his presence in Los Angeles would not help bring the two sides closer together but might actually exacerbate the split.

"I think we've asked for too little," said Riordan, who generally supports organized labor and who played an important role in helping to resolve the janitors' strike earlier this year.

Riordan did not, however, address the question raised by some of leaving on such a lavish vacation while so many in his city are struggling. The French bike trip is Riordan's second European vacation in a month. He traveled to the former Yugoslavia and Italy in late August.

The criticisms of his trip are all the more stinging because they come at a rough time for the mayor. Among his friends and supporters, there is a deepening sense that Riordan and his administration are slipping up frequently in their final year in office, beset by misjudgments and miscalculations. The normally congenial Riordan has contributed to those concerns by venting his anger on a number of recent occasions, fueling the sense that he and his administration are isolated and defensive.

According to people close to the mayor, Riordan privately has acknowledged that the administration is having its troubles. He recently has tried to bring back some key staff members who departed in recent years, including former Chief of Staff Robin Kramer and former Deputy Mayor Noelia Rodriguez.

He has also complained of feeling overwhelmed by anger. Some of that is directed toward media coverage, some of it focused on his longtime friend and advisor Bill Wardlaw, whose public break with Riordan over the election of the next mayor has hurt Riordan's administration in various ways.

Without Wardlaw--who is a Democrat--the Republican Riordan has struggled, most noticeably in the negotiations over the future of the Los Angeles Police Department.

The mayor for months insisted that the U.S. Justice Department was not serious about its threat to sue the city over the LAPD's alleged "pattern or practice" of infringing on civil rights. He repeatedly questioned whether the department's negotiators had the authority to file such a lawsuit. Many advisors warned him that he was wrong to dismiss the federal government's seriousness, but Riordan persisted in arguing that the Justice Department was bluffing.

As recently as Sept. 8, Riordan wrote to the Justice Department, urging it to reconsider its insistence on a consent decree to resolve the LAPD negotiations. Such a decree, Riordan wrote, would be "punitive" and would leave the city with an "undeserved stigma."

Deputy Atty. General Eric H. Holder responded the same day, according to copies of the correspondence. In his letter, Holder brusquely warned Riordan that federal officials did indeed "remain ready and able to file our lawsuit."

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