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Riordan Loves State--the Way It Used to Be

November 08, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

"I love California" may sound trite. Schmaltzy. Patronizing. From Richard Riordan's lips, however, it sounded like a promising political pitch.

That's why he's running for governor, Riordan told a relatively sedate, small rally on Olvera Street Tuesday morning. "I love California!"

Well, Dick, that's not quite going to do it, I thought. It's wonderful, but hardly a qualification for being elected governor.

Then the former mayor, in the speech officially announcing his candidacy, strung together some words that could strike a chord for anyone who has lived here awhile. He simply articulated the sorry truth: California's vaunted lifestyle has been deteriorating. And it isn't necessarily inevitable.

"Those of us who have lived here a few years remember a California with the nation's best roads, abundant water, grade A schools and quality health care," said Riordan, who moved to L.A. County 45 years ago.

"We remember what it is to be the best. No. 1 . . .

"But from the redwoods in the north, across the Golden Gate Bridge to the deserts and mountains of the south, a dark cloud has settled over our state."

No apologies were offered, however, to Winston Churchill, Riordan's inspiration for the "dark cloud" line. In his historic 1946 speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., Churchill warned the West that "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent."

"I did steal that," Riordan told me, chortling.

He resisted a campaign wordsmith's suggestion to make it a "Gray cloud."

Modern schools. More freeway lanes. New water reservoirs. A better health care system. Windmills. Solar panels. Bullet trains. All needed. All possible.

All expensive. "If you have the right leadership, money will follow," Riordan insisted. "Bond issues, whatever it takes." But, he added, "I'd do everything in my power not to raise taxes."

Everybody talks about California not keeping up--except the candidates during the stretch run.

Democrats like to fall back on their proven winners: abortion rights, gun control, environmental protection. Gov. Gray Davis was smart enough in 1998 to add education. Republicans can't get off tax cuts and lock-'em-up.

Assuming Riordan wins the Republican nomination--a logical assumption--the GOP centrist won't differ significantly from Davis on most litmus-test issues.

Before the March primary, Riordan intends to ignore his underdog Republican opponents and attack Davis' management style. Sounds boring, but he again may be onto something: The Democratic incumbent is a cautious micro-manager who can't bear to delegate authority.

"We need a leader who can take bold action and doesn't wait until a challenge becomes a crisis," Riordan repeatedly asserts.

Assailing Davis also helps Riordan mend fences with Republican activists, who keep being reminded by rival Bill Jones that the former mayor has contributed more than $1 million to Democrats. Riordan's message to these Republicans: Focus on the current enemy--Davis.

I asked Riordan why he is a Republican.

"Because Democrats have perpetuated poverty by doling out to the poor," he replied. "By not providing quality education to the poor. By delivering government resources to the poor through poverty pimps."

Phrases like "poverty pimps" will keep reporters covering Riordan, who has earned a reputation for gaffes.

"I can be hurt more by my small goofs than I can be helped by my brilliance," he observed, but added: "I'm not going to tiptoe through the campaign worrying about misstatements."

Good, because people like me then will follow, waiting for him to trip. But despite Riordan's theory about goofs hurting, they need not maim. Ronald Reagan committed gaffe after gaffe, but voters ignored them because they knew where he stood. He had core beliefs.

I asked Riordan whether he had core political beliefs.

"My basic conviction is what is in the best interest of the poor," he said. "We need to have successful businesses so there will be quality jobs. . . . We should fire bureaucrats in school districts who fail poor children. . . .

"And the poor should have the same option on abortion that the rich have. Government should supply the resources so poor people have a choice."

He paused and quipped: "I just lost the Republican nomination."

We'll find out whether "I love California" also is a core conviction. He could become known as the candidate--the first since Pat Brown--who is determined to fix up this state.

Riordan could give Davis a real run, selling schmaltz.

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