Los Angeles city officials announced on Thursday that former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan had died late Wednesday.
Born in New York City in 1930, Riordan graduated from Princeton University in 1952 with a Bachelor’s Degree and from the University of Michigan in 1956 with a law degree, with the latter coming after service in the Korean War. Later in 1956, he moved to Los Angeles, taking a job as a lawyer at an LA firm. For the next several decades, Riordan remained a lawyer in the city while also being a prominent member of the GOP. While not elected to any positions, he did find himself in non-elected positions, such as becoming the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioner in the late 1980s. He also was in headlines around the state in 1986 when he helped oust state Supreme Court Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird in 1986.
In 1993, Riordan ran for Mayor of Los Angeles, winning the Primary to face Councilman Michael Woo. In a charged election, both Riordan fought hard on both economic issues, as LA was seeing a large decrease in Defense Contractor and aerospace jobs following the end of the Cold War, and crime issues, as gang warfare was at it’s peak in the city and the election was coming only a year after the Rodney King riots. While Riordan initially had trouble getting votes outside his San Fernando Valley, Westside, and Harbor bases, a spirited campaign brought out many diverse voting blocs to come out to vote for him, including the Jewish vote and the gay vote. In a stunning turnaround, Riordan beat Woo 54% to 46%, becoming the first Republican Mayor of Los Angeles in 36 years.
While Riordan and the majority Democratic City Council butted heads often, Riordan managed to bring up some reforms in the city, such as making permits easier to apply for and receive. Crime also went significantly down during his tenure, as he often bypassed the LAPD Commissioner to get projects and policies done. He was also significantly tested by the 1994 Northridge earthquake and was even applauded by Democrats for how he handled the crisis. In 1997, he managed to win reelection over then-state Senator Tom Hayden by over 60% of the vote, largely by using Hayden’s Senate voting record against him.
In his next term, Riordan faced a few stumbles, such as approving the consent decree that stymied subway and light rail funding for several years in favor of buses, and having the LAPD rampart scandal an issue in 1999. He was also a large presence at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in the city, slightly embarrassing Democrats as they had to work with a Republican Mayor in a Democratic-majority city to help set the convention up. Term-limited out in 2001, Riordan backed former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa in the 2001 Mayoral election. However, James Hahn ultimately won in the runoff election that year. In 2002, Riordan ran for Governor, but ultimately lost the GOP nomination in the primary to Bill Simon, who in turn lost to Gray Davis in the 2002 Gubernatorial election.
In the following years, Riordan remained active in politics, often back Republican and DINO Democrats in the city, and was often credited for helping the GOP keep a noticeable presence in the city as it continued to shift more Democratic in the new Millennium. As of 2023, he has remained the last Republican Mayor of the city.
The last GOP Mayor of LA
Following his death on Wednesday, many LA and state politicians wrote in praise of Riordan and what he did for the city in the wake of the of a major economic upheaval and the 1992 riots.
“Mayor Richard Riordan loved Los Angeles, and devoted so much of himself to bettering our City,” said Mayor Karen Bass on Thursday. “He always had a place in his heart for the children of LA, and worked to improve how the City served our youth and communities as a passionate member of the Los Angeles Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners.”
Mayor Richard Riordan loved Los Angeles, and devoted so much of himself to bettering our City.
I extend my deepest condolences to all who loved and looked up to Mayor Riordan. May he rest in peace. https://t.co/Oc4H7cOLqL
— Mayor Karen Bass (@MayorOfLA) April 20, 2023
Longtime Democrat opponents who were on the LA City Council and in other city positions during his tenure also praised Riordan as Mayor despite past differences.
“Richard Riordan loved Los Angeles, and his contributions to the city are extraordinary and lasting,” noted City Council President Paul Krekorian. “When the city was devastated by the Northridge earthquake he threw every ounce of his energy and managerial skill into the city’s recovery, and vital infrastructure was rebuilt in record time.”
Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) added, “His response to crisis earned Los Angeles national recognition, both in rebuilding after the devastating Northridge earthquake in 1994 and working with the U. S. Department of Justice to reform the Los Angeles Police Department and advance community policing efforts. His legacy has left a lasting mark on our city, and his loss will be deeply felt by all Angelenos.”
LA-based political analyst William Howe said to the Globe on Thursday that “When Riordan wasn’t being blocked by the City Council, he could really shine. He went around all the red tape to make major changes in the LAPD, and when the ‘quake hit in ’94, he reacted very quickly and managed to bring the city together. He really helped bring LA back from the reputation it had as a crime haven in the 80s and early 90s, and even had the foresight to start looking into homeless issues. He was a pillar.”
“When a Democratic majority city like LA not only elects a Republican as Mayor but also reelects them, you know that you have a special person in the office.”
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