Opinion /

Los Angeles’ Mayoral Election: A Riordan Redux?

No matter who wins, the new mayor should examine the inclusive approach of Mayor Riordan, who stayed about the fray of partisan politics to deliver results

Rick Caruso’s candidacy for Mayor of Los Angeles is shaking up the 2022 race.

The billionaire businessman and University of Southern California’s outgoing Board of Trustees Chair is running on a tough-on-crime platform that contrasts with the decidedly progressive approaches of his main rivals.

If Caruso prevails, he wouldn’t be the first mayoral candidate to succeed as a pragmatic, centrist outsider — Richard Riordan showed the way almost three decades ago.

Currently, the frontrunner is Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass, who has gained endorsements from both moderate and progressive Los Angeles politicians. Bass would be the first female Mayor and first African-American since Mayor Tom Bradley to hold the office. Her embrace of police reform and previous support for District Attorney Gascon is likely the most controversial aspect of her bid for the mayoralty. Councilmember Kevin de Leon is also in the running. His traditional base of support consists of labor and environmental groups: the former of which has been arguably the most powerful interest group in contemporary Los Angeles and California politics. Another candidate in the race is Councilmember Joe Buscaino, running on a tough-on-crime approach. Buscaino and Caruso both endorsed the ongoing recall against Gascón, which could endear them to voters most concerned about the rise of crime in the city.

The issue of rising crime in Los Angeles has shone a spotlight on the limitations of a political monoculture.  A Democrat-versus-Democrat dynamic has made politics a tug-of-war between interest groups and competing ideologies. Los Angeles’ Democratic Party activist base and current mayoral frontrunner Bass have embraced a pro-reform-on-criminal-justice platform — one not unlike the platform upon which soft-on-crime DA Gascón was elected. Many Democrats nationwide and in California are backtracking from soft-on-crime stances at a time in which Bass, a champion of such reforms, is now holding Gascon at arms’ length. The public backlash to police reform policies leaves an opening for a candidate in the moderate lane.

In 1993, Riordan, a Republican candidate for mayor and political outsider, jumped into the race to lead America’s second-largest city. At age 63 upon assuming office, his victory marked a significant shift towards the middle. No Republican had won the mayoralty of Los Angeles since the 1950s, and the Republican Party of California at that time was known for electing conservatives rather than moderates. Riordan stood out as a pragmatic candidate ready to resolve Angelenos’ problems rather than a virtue-signaling, grandstanding ideologue of any particular persuasion.

Riordan triumphed in the June 9, 1993 runoff against his closest rival, Democratic City Council member Michael Woo. Riordan represented a departure from the two preceding mayors, both Democrats. Tom Bradley had been elected to and held the office for twenty years and was criticized by voters of all political stripes for his inability to tackle crime and economic turmoil engulfing the City of Angels. Before him was Democratic mayor Sam Yorty, a Midwestern transplant from Nebraska. Yorty became unpopular with Los Angeles’ African-American community for his handling of the 1965 Watts Riots and his polarizing rhetoric during his 1969 re-election campaign. The previous two mayors saw a series of crises unfold: the aforementioned riots in Watts, the 1968 East L.A. walkouts for civil rights and education for Chicanos, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. By 1993, Angelenos had had enough.

Riordan attained goodwill and a positive reputation for bringing down crime and bringing back jobs lost over the course of the early 1990s recession. The mayor became respected enough that Democratic candidates running for Los Angeles’ school board touted the former mayor’s endorsement. At age 92, he continues to be admired by both liberals and conservatives alike for his pragmatic, unifying leadership — a leadership style which few California politicians have managed to match.

Fast forward to the 2022 Los Angeles mayoral race.

As it was in 1993, the Los Angeles of the 21st century is beset with economic stagnation,  a struggling school system, crime and homelessness. Crime has skyrocketed over the past year to the extent that even wealthy Hollywood donors are contributing sums to a recall of the soft-on-crime District Attorney George Gascón. The cost of living keeps expanding as more and more Angelenos are leaving the city.

Like Riordan, Caruso is running as an independent-minded political outsider, competing with lifelong Democratic candidates who have spent decades in elected office. Both Caruso and Riordan have been known throughout the City of Angels for their philanthropic efforts centered around helping Angelenos in need. Yet another similarity between the former mayor and the college trustee is that both are running moderate campaigns centered around the issue of crime.

On Caruso’s campaign website, he states: “Rhetoric about ‘defunding the police’ makes no sense when you consider that murders are skyrocketing and LA is the most under-policed big city in America.” With respect to the District Attorney, Caruso commented: “As I’ve said many times, I firmly believe that George Gascón needed to stand up, admit that many of his policies have put the city of Los Angeles in peril — crime is rising — change those policies, or he should step down, and if he doesn’t step down, he should be recalled”.

Regardless of who prevails this year, the new mayor would be wise to follow the pragmatic, inclusive approach of Mayor Riordan, who stayed about the fray of partisan politics to deliver results. 

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