GUEST COMMENTARY - The death last week of former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan is a reminder of both how low the city’s political culture has sunk and how strong leaders can help turn around a seemingly hopeless situation.
Riordan, who died at 92, was no natural politician. The native of New Rochelle, New York, and Princeton graduate moved to Los Angeles in 1956. He was awkward, sometimes disheveled, and held onto conservative Catholic ideas in a city dominated, even by the time of his election in 1993, by secularists, liberals, unions, and ethnic nationalists.
Riordan won office in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots, which resulted in more than 50 people killed, more than 2,300 injured, thousands arrested, and property damage totaling about $1 billion. In leading the fractured city, Riordan proved remarkably successful, helping to reduce crime, slow economic decline, and push a series of improvements. “He was such a contrast to what we have today,” notes long-time political observer Jack Humphreville. “Riordan got things done, while people like [former mayor, now ambassador to India] Eric Garcetti just talked a big game.”
In her statement marking Riordan’s passing, new mayor Karen Bass graciously highlighted his contributions, both in office and through his private philanthropy: renovating the city library, building Disney Hall and the Alameda Corridor (a critical trade route through the city), and spearheading the construction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Most critically, Riordan helped engineer a reduction in crime, an issue that today’s progressive leaders, like Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, continue to avoid addressing.
Riordan’s triumph makes a stark contrast with the failed mayoral campaign last year launched by billionaire Rick Caruso.
(Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. This story was first featured in city-journal.org.)