For months, Richard Riordan has made support for abortion rights a centerpiece of his campaign for governor. The implicit argument: No Republican opposed to abortion rights can beat Democratic incumbent Gray Davis in November.
But Davis has reached back into Riordan's past to cast him in precisely the terms Riordan hoped to avoid: as an opponent of abortion rights in a state that has strongly supported them.
Riordan's record on both sides of the abortion debate has made the Davis attack possible--and has forced Riordan in recent days to field questions about his commitment to abortion rights.
Riordan gave more than $10,000 to anti-abortion groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then, in a television interview in 1991, Riordan said he agreed "very strongly" with the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to abortion rights.
"Being fairly liberal-minded, I surprise myself at my emotions on the abortion issue, because I feel very--I think it's murder," he said in the interview.
On Monday, Davis began airing a television ad that shows Riordan making those remarks. It is the second Davis spot that questions Riordan's credentials as a "pro-choice" candidate.
Riordan faces Republicans Bill Jones and Bill Simon Jr. in the March 5 Republican primary. But Riordan and Davis have campaigned as if they were already facing off in the general election--a reflection of Riordan's strong lead in fund-raising and early polls.
Despite Riordan's assertion that he favors abortion rights, he has a history on the other side of the issue.
In 1987, his foundation donated $250 to the Right to Life League of Southern California. In 1991, it gave $10,000 to Americans United for Life. Both groups seek to outlaw abortion. Americans United for Life is a legal arm of the nation's anti-abortion movement.
But two years later, in his first campaign for mayor, Riordan described himself as "pro-choice"--a position he has adhered to ever since.
Since the first Davis ad questioning Riordan's abortion record began airing more than a week ago, Riordan has been peppered with questions about his stand on the subject, often a difficult one for Roman Catholic politicians such as himself.
"I don't like abortion," Riordan said last week. "However, I respect and support the right of a woman to make her own choices with respect to her body."
Asked whether he still believes abortion is murder, as he stated in 1991, he responded, "I'm just not going to get into that," but added: "I am a champion of a woman's right to make her own decision, so obviously I don't think it's a crime. It goes without saying."
Riordan said he did not remember the Right to Life League donation. The $10,000 contribution to Americans United for Life was solicited, he said, by "a lawyer who I'd known well for years who was very much involved with this group."
"The main reason I gave was because I knew him well, and he asked me to," Riordan said. "I can't remember his name. He was a partner at Kindel & Anderson at the time."
Riordan said the donation paid for "advertising encouraging girls to put children up for adoption," a goal he said he still considers worthwhile.
Asked whether he had donated to groups that favor abortion rights, Riordan replied, "I doubt it." He also has declined to fill out questionnaires from Planned Parenthood and the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, which ask candidates to detail their positions on abortion.
Riordan declined to say whether his thinking on abortion had changed over time.
He said he disagreed with state court cases that bar requirements for parental notification when minors have abortions, but pledged to uphold the law.
"I strongly believe it's in the child's interest, and society's interest, that the child discuss having an abortion with her parents or some other adult that they respect," he said.
Riordan said he would support a ban on certain late-term abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother's life. Some proponents of abortion rights see efforts to ban the controversial procedure as the first step toward more restrictive laws on all abortions.
In his TV spots, Davis cites Riordan's donations to anti-abortion groups and his support for the Reagan administration's effort to put Robert Bork--an advocate of overturning Roe vs. Wade--on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Garry South, the chief architect of Davis' reelection campaign, said Riordan was calling himself "pro-choice" for political gain. South questioned Riordan's inability to recall the circumstances of his donations.
"Why would an Israeli contribute a dime to Hamas, which is dedicated to destroying the state of Israel?" South asked. "Why would a black American contribute a penny to the white Aryan Nations, which is dedicated to obliterating blacks in the United States of America?"