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Tue, Apr

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan was Truly One of a Kind

LOS ANGELES

OBITUARY - More than ten years ago, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan asked me to co-write his memoir. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have published their obituaries about Dick with various facts and dates, so I’d like to share some things that people may not know, including my own story of working with him. Dick was truly one of a kind. 

To anyone who knew him, he was always called “Dick.” Never Rich or Richard. Just Dick, which made sense – he was never one to put on airs. In fact, he was the opposite of that. He was modest and humble and wanted people to feel at ease around him. Dick would even crack jokes about himself to break the ice. In certain ways, he just wanted to be one of the guys – and he was always a lot of fun. 

At the same time, Dick was brilliant. His folksy ways could disguise that brilliance. During my first interview with Dick for the memoir, I quickly realized that I was dealing with a very sharp man, and that I better stay on my toes. I didn’t know at the time that he studied, at Princeton University, under the preeminent French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations. One couldn’t be an intellectual slouch if you were studying with such a towering intellectual figure. 

In his memoir, The Mayor, Dick said, “My belief in God also helped solidify my thoughts about any kind of discrimination, which I had always abhorred. Maritain helped me realize that we are all equals in God’s eyes, and all of theology can be summed up in two sentences. First, in God’s eyes, I am extremely important. Second, in God’s eyes, everyone else is just as important as I am.” 

One can see why Dick was an old school Republican, or what they used to call a “Rockefeller Republican.” He was conservative on fiscal matters, but decidedly liberal on social issues. He was pro-choice, pro-immigration, anti-discrimination, and pro-LGBT rights, supporting same-sex marriage years before it was fashionable, even among Democrats. Dick, in fact, said one of the reasons why he hired me was because I am gay – in his professional and public sector lives, he found that his gay employees consistently produced top-notch work. In many ways, he was a kind of non-ideological maverick, who was guided by fairness. 

Dick was also a successful lawyer and venture capitalist who became a very generous philanthropist. For decades, he dedicated himself to helping poor children, especially children of color, succeed in life by receiving a quality education. One of the first efforts he funded through his nonprofit, the Riordan Foundation, was providing schools with an early computer program called “Writing to Read,” which improved literacy rates among children. He actually brought that program to Mississippi schools, where it was a major success – a success that Dick was extremely proud of. Dick was also a major donor to Catholic charities. 

Then Dick became the mayor of Los Angeles in 1993. Only months later, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake jolted L.A. Much has been written about how Dick quickly took charge in response to the citywide emergency. One thing people may not know is that he almost died before he could take charge. 

Dick lived on the Westside, and he was desperate to get to L.A. City Hall. He drove himself in a Ford Explorer to Downtown L.A., speeding 90 miles an hour on the Santa Monica Freeway. Then he saw two large, very bright headlights coming straight for him, which was alarming since the vehicle was on the wrong side of the freeway. He swerved and hit the brakes, barely dodging a head-on collision with a large truck. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Dick looked up the freeway and saw that the La Cienega Boulevard overpass had collapsed. If the truck hadn’t slowed him down, he would have driven himself into certain death. For the next several weeks, Dick worked tirelessly to repair L.A., and brought a sense of calm, but urgent, leadership to the city. 

There are many other things that I could write about Dick. He and his close friend Eli Broad, the billionaire, were instrumental in finally completing the Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of L.A.’s great landmarks that was designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry. Dick was also instrumental in getting Staples Center built, with help from another close friend, Steve Soboroff. Dick and Steve also completed the Alameda Corridor, a high-speed, cargo-only rail project that quickly moved goods from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles, which contributed to the economic growth of the L.A. area. Dick was also an avid reader, who hosted a book club at his Brentwood home for decades. 

And people may forget, but Dick was a popular mayor. The reason for that popularity, I think, is that Angelenos knew he took the job very seriously, and he didn’t see it as a political steppingstone for higher office. He just wanted to be mayor – and get a lot of things done. Angelenos understood that about Dick, and greatly appreciated it. At the same time, Dick knew that he wasn’t perfect, and I think Angelenos appreciated that, too. 

I’d also like to mention a few things on a personal level. Dick gave me all kinds of great advice and bits of wisdom, and I still use that advice and wisdom to this day. One of my favorites was no sudden left turns. It was actually advice that Warren Christopher, the former Secretary of State, gave to Dick, who then passed it along to me. Dick explained that if you’re feeling emotional or angry over a situation at work or in life, and you want to lash out, don’t do it. That would be a sudden left turn, which could cause even more trouble. One had to wait and calm down before making any decisions. It’s something I’ve used, not always perfectly, for years. 

Dick also believed that one should get a project moving and not wait for years of planning and studies to be completed, which could kill a project even before it got started. If issues or problems came up, one could adjust and improve accordingly. The main thing was to get the darn project started. That’s also stayed with me. 

And Dick believed in hiring the smartest people, particularly in areas that he didn’t have an expertise in. He’d then give them the freedom to do their jobs, and he’d defer to them when appropriate. He never assumed he knew everything, and he never had an outsized ego that would prevent him from understanding that he didn’t know everything and needed help. It was an example of his humility – and his brilliance. Because for me, the smartest people know when they need help, and then ask for it. 

There are many other things that I learned from Dick. Things that I think about often and have guided me through life. I was extraordinarily lucky to have known him and spent so much time with him. He changed my life for the better, and I’ll always be grateful. I’m sure there are many other people who feel the same way. We thank Dick, and we will miss him. 

(Patrick Range McDonald, author and journalist, Best Activism Journalism: Los Angeles Press Club, Journalist of the Year: Los Angeles Press Club, Public Service Award: Association of Alternative Newsmedia, and a contributor to CityWatch.)