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What's Riordan Done for L.A.?

Plenty. After the greatest comeback since Lazarus, L.A. is thriving, thanks to the mayor.

July 01, 2001|DAVID FRIEDMAN | David Friedman, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a Markle Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation

If outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan were a Democrat, he would be hailed as one of the city's greatest political leaders ever. Under his tenure, Los Angeles rebounded spectacularly from a social and economic collapse that, just a few years ago, seemed all but irreversible. By helping to rebuild the city's vitality, Riordan made possible the resurgence of the same prosperity-dependent, post-material liberalism that now tends to discount his remarkable accomplishments.

It is difficult to overstate the turnaround that has occurred since Riordan took office in June 1993, just a year after the riots. To be sure, the city's economic and social leap forward was consistent with urban growth and lower crime trends that were occurring nationwide. Some of what happened on his watch might very well have taken place no matter who was mayor.

In 1993, however, it was far from clear that Los Angeles would ever join in the party. The city sharply lagged behind the rest of the state, let alone the country. It was, by any measure, a world-class disaster zone.

Total crime had skyrocketed to a record 350,000 incidents per year, including a ghastly 90,000 serious violent crimes--murders, rapes, robberies and assaults. Federal defense cutbacks, shamelessly targeting Southern California, were in the process of stripping some 460,000 jobs from the regional economy, a staggering 11% of total employment.

Lulled into a false sense of well-being by years of unconscious growth, Los Angeles leadership had largely evaporated. Public budget shortfalls had reached crisis proportions and once-popular Mayor Tom Bradley's job approval rating had fallen to a mere 30%. Westside liberals, buffered by wealth and distance, disdained the suffering around them. The radical left celebrated what they viewed as proof of capitalism's failure all around them. Hollywood filled theaters everywhere with disgracefully exploitative films about gun-crazed Los Angeles aerospace engineers and gang mayhem.

It was no wonder that the city's once-confident businesses closed shop or fled to happier, more heavily subsidized locales. Those that remained mounted a strikingly self-destructive campaign against state and local regulations, perversely enhancing perceptions that greater Los Angeles had the worst business climate on Earth at a time when attracting new investment was the region's single greatest priority. Academics and politicians, almost totally divorced from economic reality, indulged pipe-dream fantasies like defense conversion or electric cars, none of which would prove to have any appreciable role in the city's eventual recovery.

To most observers, even those who should have known better, Los Angeles had no conceivable upside. Top business forecasters predicted decades of double-digit unemployment and virtually permanent recession. A whopping 83% of city residents told Times pollsters that things were going "badly," by far the most negative sentiment ever recorded. Headlines declared the end of Los Angeles' "Golden Age." Almost no one dared suggest the city was, or could become, anything but a polluted, unmanageable multi-ethnic dystopia.

Riordan, a multimillionaire with a rare and deep commitment to Los Angeles, was one of the few who dared to see the possibilities. He ran for and won the mayor's job at a time when it was arguably the least desirable office in the country.

After his election, he focused on safety and growth, reining in the worst of the city's detractors and pushing hard for, if not always achieving, a beefed-up police force. As the city's larger firms vanished, Riordan reached out a welcome hand to the far more vibrant small and medium sized employers, particularly in the oft-ignored and much-maligned San Fernando Valley, that increasingly comprised the city's economic core.

His style was often stumbling, and almost never electrifying. But by tempering (if not actually reducing) L.A.'s chronically anti-business bureaucracy, encouraging overlooked industries, and taking an unambiguous stand against crime, he positioned the city for its stunning recovery.

Crime in Los Angeles precipitously fell over the ensuing years, consistent with similar declines in most other urban areas. Despite a recent uptick, the city's crime rates are still 50% lower than when Riordan first took office. The regional economic collapse bottomed out mid-decade, and the Los Angeles region has recovered nearly all its employment losses, a net gain of over 450,000 jobs. Unemployment was halved to less than 6%, a big reason why poverty rates fell to the lowest levels in years. Over $500 million of new tax revenue, including an additional $200 million from business, sales and construction-related levies, flooded into city coffers.

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