Richard J. Riordan, the take-charge venture capitalist who as mayor shepherded Los Angeles’ rebound from the 1992 riots, expanded its Police Department and masterminded its recovery from the Northridge earthquake, has died at his Brentwood home.
The last Republican mayor of what became a liberal city, Riordan was 92. Relatives said he died shortly after 7.30 p.m. Wednesday with family, friends, caregivers and his beloved dogs around him.
A moderate, pro-choice Republican, Riordan made a fortune as an investment broker and became a civic and political donor before emerging as a first-time, outsider candidate at the age of 62.
He promised voters a better business climate, more cops and improvements in basic services when he took office in July 1993. By the time he departed eight years later, forced out by voter-imposed term limits that he himself had advocated, much of his vision for a cleaner, safer, better-functioning city had been realized. Crime was down, the local economy had rebounded, and although the Los Angeles Police Department remained short of his goals, it had grown to a record number of officers.
He also played a key role in revamping the City Charter to require more accountability from department heads and give residents more voice in city government through a new system of neighborhood councils, helping defuse efforts by San Fernando Valley activists to split from the city.
But also on Riordan’s watch, the Rampart police corruption scandal surfaced in late 1999. Critics accused him of failing to act quickly enough on reform, and Riordan later reluctantly ceded control of the LAPD to the U.S. Justice Department in the form of a federal consent decree.
A self-proclaimed “problem solver,” Riordan liked to gather people outside government to come up with solutions. Early in his first term, he tapped longtime friend and philanthropist Eli Broad to raise money to get the stalled Walt Disney Concert Hall project back on track. Similar efforts raised millions to computerize police stations and patrol cars and helped finance the successful 1999 campaign for charter reform against City Council opposition.
But the affable, impatient Riordan never quite figured out how to work within the bureaucracy’s channels, and his frequent clashes with council members, who said he excluded and disrespected them, left both sides frustrated.
“When he had to work within city government, he wasn’t very effective, but when he could work outside city government, he did very well,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Law, who spent time with Riordan during the often-strained efforts to fashion a new charter to put before voters.
After James K. Hahn succeeded him as mayor in 2001, Riordan tried to break into state politics but lost the 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary to conservative Bill Simon Jr. He considered running again in the 2003 special election to recall and replace Gov. Gray Davis but demurred when his friend and Brentwood neighbor Arnold Schwarzenegger jumped into the race.
Yet Riordan remained a player in civic life long after leaving City Hall, raising money for children’s programs, backing candidates in local races and continuing to push for school reform, a favorite cause.
“He was a business guy who thought he could run L.A. better than the politicians,” said Raphael Sonenshein, head of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “There were moments when that was true and moments when that was not true.”
When Riordan, coaxed by his longtime friend and Democratic operative Bill Wardlaw, entered the crowded, nonpartisan municipal primary as Mayor Tom Bradley was preparing to end his unprecedented 20-year tenure, many saw Riordan as a long shot. He was, after all, a wealthy white Republican in an increasingly poor, minority, Democratic city.
But it also was a city that felt down on its luck. Violent protests had erupted the previous spring after the acquittal of four police officers charged in the beating of Black motorist Rodney G. King, and unemployment was climbing. Crime was at a peak. Riordan’s portrayal of himself as a City Hall outsider “tough enough to turn L.A. around” resonated, especially with white Valley voters.
His efforts to pass a city term-limits ballot measure and a promise to accept only $1 a year as pay cemented his image as a citizen politician uninterested in a long career on the public payroll.
It also helped that he was wealthy enough to bankroll much of what then was the most expensive campaign in city history. Riordan contributed $6 million of his own money to compete in a large primary field and defeat then-Councilman Mike Woo in a bitter runoff. The Riordan campaign spent part of its treasury on a widely distributed booklet, “Turning L.A. Around,” that detailed his ideas.
Once elected, he streamlined the city’s permitting process, took steps to cut red tape for film and television shoots and convened a committee to overhaul the complicated and, according to many, unfair business tax system.
“We’ve gotten a new attitude at City Hall,” Riordan told a group of San Fernando Valley residents in 1997, during his successful campaign for a second term. “People no longer think of the person on the other side of the counter as an enemy, but as someone who pays their salary.”
Some of Riordan’s plans hit roadblocks, including a proposal to sell the Central Library to a private corporation and lease it back. (The library has since been renamed for him.) Regulatory problems and airlines’ objections stymied his efforts to lease Los Angeles International Airport to pay for a police buildup. His attempts to privatize some city services put him on a collision course with the city’s employee unions and a majority of the City Council, and he never was able to fully revamp the business tax code.
Even some of his supporters on the council complained that the mayor and his staff of mostly government outsiders, in their rush to get things moving, sometimes undermined the council’s legitimate role. For his part, Riordan cast himself as battling a recalcitrant bureaucracy and a dithering, wrongheaded City Council. He once referred to city employees as “brain-dead bureaucrats.”
With philanthropist Broad, Riordan also teamed up to spearhead the election of a new board majority for the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1999. The new majority lasted only four years, but that was long enough to bring in a high-profile superintendent — former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer — to improve test scores and jump-start an ambitious school construction program.
Tellingly, as he was about to leave office in 2001, Riordan highlighted this effort to improve schools — over which City Hall has no formal jurisdiction — as “the thing I am most proud of having done in my life.”
His time as mayor also was marked by rocky relations with some Black leaders. It did not help that he had succeeded Bradley, the city’s first Black mayor, nor that he helped force out Metro chief Franklin E. White, one of L.A.’s highest-ranking Black officials.
He clashed publicly and repeatedly with two of the City Council’s Black members, Rita Walters and Mark Ridley-Thomas, who two years into Riordan’s tenure told The Times that the mayor’s relations with Black residents had been “limited and strained.” A majority of Black voters supported his opponents in the 1993 election.
The same was true in 1997, although his showing among Black voters improved somewhat thanks to some endorsements from Black community leaders. For that campaign, he was armed with a prodigious campaign treasury largely made up this time of donations instead of his own money, and soundly defeated his only substantive challenger, then-state Sen. Tom Hayden, in the April primary.
A Catholic who for years had given generously to archdiocese projects and causes, Riordan did well among Latinos, many of whose leaders knew him through his longtime education initiatives on the Eastside and elsewhere. One of his few allies on the City Council was the influential Richard Alatorre, a liberal Democrat.
Another was council President John Ferraro, who tried, often in vain, to keep peace between the council and a mayor whose style was loose and unpredictable. Riordan challenged office visitors to chess. He sometimes padded about his City Hall suite in socks. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor and a penchant for off-the-cuff remarks. He once greeted hunger strikers while eating a hamburger.
He seemed to relish mingling with the city’s residents. He cheerfully joined clowns at the launch of an environmental cleanup program in Hollywood and, after a speech at Wilson High on the Eastside, he twirled the student body president in a spontaneous dance as the band played.
But the mayor was at his best on Jan. 17, 1994, when the Northridge earthquake struck, killing at least 57 people and buckling freeways and buildings. Within an hour of the 6.7-magnitude quake, Riordan was in an underground command center, issuing orders and placing calls.
Shortly after, 250 steaming takeout containers of scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits materialized in the bunker for hungry emergency workers — donated from the mayor’s Original Pantry restaurant downtown, which he had bought to spare it from the wrecking ball.
Riordan worked to exhaustion in the ensuing days, cutting red tape and convening officials across local, state and federal governments to coordinate aid, restore services and quickly rebuild the Santa Monica Freeway, sections of which had collapsed. His leadership was widely viewed as pivotal in getting the city back on its feet.
Born May 1, 1930, Richard Joseph Riordan grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., the youngest of eight children in an affluent Irish Catholic family. He said one of his most vivid Depression childhood memories was seeing unemployed men coming to the family’s back door in search of food or work. He attended an all-male Jesuit prep school where both neckties and Latin were mandatory.
Next came Santa Clara University, where he played on the football team. He transferred to Princeton after two years, then served in the Army in Korea and graduated first in his class at the University of Michigan Law School.
Along the way, Riordan met Eugenia “Genie” Warady at a resort in New York. They married and moved to Southern California. The couple had five children as he built a law practice — starting out with O’Melveny & Myers before co-founding Riordan & McKinzie — and began making his fortune in investments.
In his first venture with Riordan Freeman & Spogli, he hired Wardlaw to handle the legal work. Thus began a deep friendship that eventually steered Riordan to the mayor’s office and briefly faltered when the two backed opposing candidates to succeed Riordan.
Riordan left the venture after five years to launch his second investment firm, with Christopher Lewis. Soon, former Rams quarterback and USC athletic director Pat Haden joined, and the firm became known as Riordan, Lewis & Haden.
During the 1980s, as his wealth grew and he contributed generously to church, education and civic causes, Riordan emerged as a political player. He lent $300,000 to Bradley’s campaign for governor and served on the city’s Coliseum and Recreation and Parks commissions. And, with the help of Wardlaw, he led the successful campaign to oust state Supreme Court Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird in 1986.
A few years later, Wardlaw and his wife, Kim, persuaded Riordan to run for mayor and oversaw his campaign. Wardlaw became the new mayor’s most trusted, though unofficial, advisor. It was in large part through Wardlaw that Riordan forged an alliance with then-President Clinton and helped the city secure millions of federal dollars for police officers and city programs.
Riordan endured personal tragedies even as he found business and political success. He lost two of his children — Billy, his only son, in a scuba diving accident off the East Coast just days before his 22nd birthday; and daughter Carol, from complications of an eating disorder when she was 19. Their deaths affected him deeply, and, as mayor, he sometimes reached out to other grieving parents by recounting his own pain at the loss of a child.
Riordan was married four times. He had his 23-year union with Genie Riordan annulled by the Catholic Church. The two remained close until her death in 2022. He married Jill Noel in 1980, and filed for divorce in 1996 after a four-year legal separation. On Valentine’s Day in 1998 he married children’s activist Nancy Daly, who had been at his side during the 1993 inaugural festivities. Daly died in 2009. Riordan married Elizabeth Gregory, then the head of admissions at Harvard-Westlake School, in 2017.
After giving up his gubernatorial hopes, Riordan served for about two years as state secretary of education under Schwarzenegger. As a private citizen, Riordan continued his civic and philanthropic activities, in part through the Riordan Foundation. He became chairman of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a nonprofit charter school management organization. And he remained owner or shareholder in four restaurants, including the Original Pantry.
A bout with prostate cancer while he was mayor and heart bypass surgery in 2006 did not slow him down for long. Fit and vigorous, he continued to ski and take long bicycle rides. In 2016, he purchased a 60-acre estate in Ojai, complete with horse stables and income-producing orchards.
“He left the city a better place,” Chemerinsky said. “And I say that as someone who disagreed with him, often.”
Riordan is survived by his wife; three children, Mary Elizabeth Riordan, Kathleen Ann Riordan and Patricia Riordan Torrey; three grandchildren, Luca, Jessica and Elizabeth; and a sister, Mary Elizabeth Riordan Hearty.
Merl is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Steve Marble contributed to this story.