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Why Riordan hesitates

July 03, 2001

Will Richard Riordan run for governor? The White House wants him to; President Bush telephoned to implore him to get in the race and Bush's top political advisor, Karl Rove, twice met with the just termed-out former Los Angeles mayor and promised him untold millions in campaign cash from Bush's wealthy backers.

In bunches, Republican California congressmen also want him to run. The likes of Orange County's Dana Rorabacher, San Diego's Duncan Hunter and Duke Cunningham, David Drier of San Dimas and Howard "Buck" McKeon of the northern Los Angeles suburbs are among more than a dozen GOP representatives urging him to run.

They prefer him to Secretary of State Bill Jones — the lone Republican in statewide office and already a declared candidate — in part because Jones has proven a weak fund-raiser and a whiney candidate. They also remember that Jones deserted Bush in the midst of last year's primaries, switching his endorsement to Arizona Sen. John McCain.


But Riordan isn't so sure. Sources close to the ex-mayor say he now leans toward running, believing Jones wouldn't present much of a primary election challenge. Despite earlier statements scoffing at the possibility of a run, the calls from fellow Republicans have felt good. The question in Riordan's mind is whether he could beat Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and how tough that assignment would be. He hopes to learn more about that in a planned July tour of the state.

Riordan, a centrist who has endorsed Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the late five-term Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and state Attorney Gen. Bill Lockyer and used Democratic campaign consultants in both his mayoral runs, says he'll delay any final decision until September.

Why wait? For one thing, Riordan has no desire to be a sacrificial lamb if Davis regains the poll strength he showed before the energy crunch bit into his numbers. Here are a few of the things he's waiting to find out:

* Will there be blackouts this summer and if so, will the public blame Davis? While it's true that no electric customer in California has endured more than a total of four hours of power outage this year, even brief blackouts bring big headlines that redound to Davis' detriment. No blackouts, or only a few, and Davis becomes more formidable, especially since he can credibly claim his eight-month campaign for federal price controls eventually resulted in both rules that make blackouts less probable and the likelihood of large rebates.

* What will the billionaires do? Both Riordan and Davis have been backed heavily by Southern California moneybags like developer Eli Broad, grocery magnate Ron Burkle and Univision TV kingpin Jerry Perenchio. The wealthy Riordan, who took only a dollar a year in salary as mayor, could afford to finance his own campaign in full. But if the big donors desert him to back the ex-mayor, Davis could find his own fund-raising severely hampered.

* What does Nancy Daly think? If Riordan's longtime companion wants him to run, he probably will. But she may not like the idea of the 71-year-old getting into a year-long statewide battle, with all the travel required, no matter how healthy his regular bike-riding and ice skating keep him. Then there are the realities Riordan would face if he did get in the race. Fact No. 1: No Los Angeles mayor has ever been elected governor, even though Tom Bradley once came close. Others such as Sam Yorty and Fletcher Bowden never made many ripples in their attempts.

There is no doubt about the antipathy of much of the state toward Los Angeles.

Fact No. 2: No incumbent elected governor since Culbert Olson in 1942 has been defeated while seeking a second term. Yes, Pat Brown lost when running for a third term and his son Jerry lost a race for the U.S. Senate after completing two terms in Sacramento. But the only one-term governor since World War II was Goodwin Knight, who opted to run for the Senate in 1958 after serving that single term.

And there's the matter of Riordan's record as mayor. Never mind the fact that his past support of and by Democrats, plus his pro-choice and pro-gay rights record, would cause some Republicans to sit on their hands if he ran.

Riordan promised in his 1993 campaign to hire 2,000 more police officers for Los Angeles. There's been an increase, but not nearly that many. Plus the LAPD is still mired in scandal and morale is at an all-time low, with fewer than 20 percent of the department's officers actually living in the city.

He promised to mitigate traffic, which now crawls along slower than ever. Democratic campaign ads could even fault Riordan for the active secession movements in three large areas where many residents want to carve independent cities from chunks of Los Angeles.

Some Republicans have liked the idea of a Riordan run ever since a major poll last spring showed him in a dead heat with Davis, while Jones and Bill Simon Jr., the other current Republican possibility, were far behind. With Davis rebounding a bit in the polls and plenty of his own negatives, Riordan has a plateful of food for thought before making his final choice.

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