Mayor and ‘Problem Solver’ Richard Riordan Dies at 92

Cityside Column: The two-term Los Angeles mayor came to elected office late, and had his own unique approach

Near the top of every obituary of Mayor Richard Riordan is the story of how he spearheaded the rebuilding of a fallen portion of the 10 Freeway after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. It should be mentioned first: The new span opened less than three months after the temblor and 74 days ahead of schedule; it was an inimitable response to a challenge that literally shook the city and proof of what is possible in Los Angeles. Riordan’s leadership became a thing of instant legend and resonates nearly three decades later—when Karen Bass announced her run for mayor in the fall of 2021, she said addressing the homelessness crisis would require the city to come together the way it had after the earthquake.

“When you have a crisis like that, you have to think outside the box,” she told LAMag at the time. 

Riordan died on Wednesday evening at the age of 92, and across Los Angeles his legacy is being recounted and his achievements remembered. There were many during his two terms as mayor from 1993-2001: He guided the city in its recovery after the 1992 riots; he focused attention on bolstering the economy and attracting jobs-generating businesses; he helped increase the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department; he played a leading role in the modernization of the ancient City Charter.

I was working at Los Angeles Downtown News during his tenure. For me, it’s another achievement that stands out — if not for Riordan, there would be no Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The structure is a Los Angeles landmark, but what many forget is that it almost never broke ground. It was conceived in 1987 with $50 million in seed money from Disney’s widow, Lillian, but the price to construct Frank Gehry’s swirling edifice kept rising. It was dead until Riordan made it a priority.

“The Disney family spent $50 million on Disney Hall and it got them nowhere. They had no other backers, the money they spent was essentially on plans and working drawings and things that were virtually worthless,” Riordan told me in 2008 when I wrote about the project’s 5th anniversary.

Riordan then recalled meeting with an attorney and the Disney family. “I said, ‘Let me see if I can get Eli Broad interested,’” Riordan, referring to the billionaire businessman and philanthropist, continued. “When they were in my office I called Eli; he said he was interested, and the rest is history. Eli was the one who made it happen.”

Riordan’s impact was far larger than he let on. He and Broad — who would later build his eponymous art museum next to Disney Hall on Grand Avenue—took a sort of squeeze-play approach to corporate philanthropy. I don’t know quite what happened behind closed doors, but I do know that I attended a series of press conferences where large corporations and some of the biggest names in business would announce seven and eight-figure donations to the stalled project. The Ralphs Food 4 Less Foundation and Ron Burkle gave $15 million, and the ARCO Foundation gave $10 million. Bank of America donated $5 million. Riordan and Broad each gave $5 million personally.

The result was that the $274 million concert hall opened in 2003, 16 years after first being announced.

That was one of many ways Riordan shaped L.A. And how he would get things done was frequently unlike what you would get from a traditional politician. That’s probably because Riordan came to elected office at 62 and after a successful career where he was an attorney, venture capitalist, civic leader, and entrepreneur. Politics were far from his only interest—he played ice hockey and owned the restaurants the Original Pantry Café and Gladstones in Malibu. While in office, he and journalist Patt Morrison started a book club.

“Learning and applying that learning to solve problems, that was the coin of the realm in his world,” Austin Beutner told me Thursday morning. A former investment banker, the top deputy to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and ex-superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Beutner first met Riordan in 2000 — when the late mayor’s grandchildren and Beutner’s children attended the same preschool. Riordan would later quietly become a founding board member of Vision to Learn, which is Beutner’s nonprofit that provides free eyeglasses to low-income children.

There’s more that separated Riordan’s time running L.A. from the tenures of any common politician. He was famously a Republican in a Democratic city and during his first election— against City Councilman Mike Woo—ran on the slogan, “Tough enough to turn L.A. around.” He took just $1 a year in salary. Spend time in his orbit and you would hear that a guiding principle was the phrase, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

He used the line, Beutner says, but it was “tactical” — part of an approach to addressing greater issues. 

“It was about solving the problem. It wasn’t about re-identifying a problem that already exists, which we see too much,” Beutner says. “It wasn’t some wild promise of how it’s going to get better without any idea how to get there. It was, ‘Let’s do this. If this doesn’t work, let’s try this. If that doesn’t work, let’s try something else.’”

Not everything went smoothly. For all Riordan’s successes, there were notable clashes with the City Council and he could bristle at the pace and machinations of government. While he grew the size of the police department, he was also mayor when the Rampart scandal erupted. After being termed out, he ran for governor in 2002 but fell in the Republican primary to the conservative Bill Simon.

Still, Riordan continued to make an impact on the city, including his efforts to help children and influence education.

In the wake of his death, accolades and memories are pouring in. “Mayor Riordan’s legacy includes our city’s iconic Central Library, which he saved and rebuilt, and which today carries his name,” Bass said in a statement. Steve Soboroff, a Riordan advisor who helped get Staples Center (now Arena) approved in the 1990s, on Wednesday morning tweeted, “Last night you lost someone who cared about you, whether you knew him or not, whether you were an Angeleno or not.” 

Bernard Parks, whom Riordan tapped in 1997 to be police chief, said on Twitter, “Today we find ourselves without the man who was our compass during the very many challenges of the 90s…. Together we made this city one of the safest in the nation.”

Richard Riordan hadn’t served in City Hall for more than two decades but his fingerprints are still all over Los Angeles.

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