Support for LAist comes from
Made of L.A.
Stay Connected

Share This

Civics & Democracy

Former LA Mayor Richard Riordan Dies At 92. He Led The City Through Northridge Quake

A man with light-tone skin and gray hair has both thumbs up. He's standing in what appears to be a driveway. A van behind him has Biltmore above its windshield.
Richard Riordan gives the thumbs up after he was reelected in 1997.
(Hector Mata
AFP via Getty Images)
Our June member drive is live: protect this resource!
Right now, we need your help during our short June member drive to keep the local news you read here every day going. This has been a challenging year, but with your help, we can get one step closer to closing our budget gap. Today, put a dollar value on the trustworthy reporting you rely on all year long. We can't hold those in power accountable and uplift voices from the community without your partnership.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan has died at the age of 92.

His death was announced Wednesday night by his family, who said he died peacefully at his Brentwood home.

Riordan was a businessman, Korean War veteran, investment banker and lawyer before throwing his hat into politics. He was 62 years old when he was elected mayor of L.A.; he served from 1993 to 2001, when term limits forced him to step down.

In 2002, Riordan ran for governor of California, but lost to Bill Simon in the Republican primary.

Support for LAist comes from

In 2014, Riordan spoke on LAist 89.3's AirTalk about his unconventional entry into politics and why people encouraged him to run.

"I've always been a very good problem solver, even in my late 20s and 30s and into my 40s waiters at a club I used to belonged to would all come up to me if they had a problem," Riordan said. "People throughout the city heard about it. I always found a solution and the solution may have been to talk to somebody else who knew more than I do."

L.A. Mayor Karen Bass issued a statement lauding Riordan's service. "Mayor Richard Riordan loved Los Angeles, and devoted so much of himself to bettering our City," she said. While noting that Riordan was born in New York, Bass said he "will be remembered as an L.A. original."

She also said:

"Mayor Riordan’s legacy includes our City’s iconic Central Library, which he saved and rebuilt, and which today carries his name.

In the wake of the Northridge earthquake, Mayor Riordan set the standard for emergency action — he reassured us and delivered a response with an intensity that still pushes us all to be faster and stronger amidst crisis."

Riordan was a moderate Republican known for supporting LGBTQ and immigrant rights, along with the right to abortion.

While he was liberal on social issues, Riordan was an economic conservative. He staunchly opposed efforts to raise the minimum wage in L.A. and fought efforts to raise taxes to pay for city services.

LAUSD Board Member Jackie Goldberg, who sat on the city council while Riordan was mayor, described a 12-month “battle royale” with him over efforts to provide a living wage to city workers and contractors.

Goldberg said Riordan created and funded community business groups to oppose the effort.

Support for LAist comes from

“He vetoed the item when we finally got it done twice. We overrode the veto twice,” she recalled. At the same time, she said, Riordan was “cordial to everybody whether we agreed with each other or not.”

Few police reforms

In his AirTalk interview, Riordan said he regretted agreeing to settle a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice that resulted in a costly consent decree mandating reforms at the LAPD in the wake of the Rampart Scandal.

“We had to spend 35 or 40 million dollars a year,” he said. “They could have relied on me and my administration” to make the necessary reforms. “Look at my record. I would have followed through and made it happen.”

In fact, there were few substantial reforms enacted at the police department during Riordan’s eight years in office.

His ascension to mayor stood out in a city known for electing Democrats. Before his 1993 win, the last Republican elected mayor was Norris Poulson, who left office in 1961. No Republican has won since Riordan.

He was elected in the wake of the Rodney King beating and the uprising that followed the not-guilty verdicts for the officers involved.

"Los Angeles was down on itself in 1993 when the mayor’s race took place,” said former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a Democrat. Riordan “came in really as a breath of fresh air,” he said.

'The last of the moderate Republicans'?

“He was probably the last of the moderate Republicans in L.A. and California politics along with Arnold Schwarzenegger at a time when there were a lot more Republicans in L.A.,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

But Riordan couldn’t rise in the GOP. The conservative Simon easily beat him in the 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary.

“He was kind of a transition between the [former Mayor Tom] Bradley era — of the Bradley liberalism — and the liberal L.A. of today,” Sonenshein said. “The earlier one had gotten kind of exhausted and it was a real opening for a different approach.”

Analysts say Riordan's stewardship of the rebuilding effort after the 1994 Northridge earthquake was one of his most noteworthy accomplishments. He ensured the 10 Freeway was rebuilt about two-and-a-half months after the quake, when some engineers had predicted it would take over a year.

Another major accomplishment was Riordan's spearheading of charter reforms approved by voters in 1999 that created neighborhood councils and local planning commissions, and gave the mayor the power to fire general managers more easily.

“He was really the inspiration for charter reform — carried it to the end, funded the campaign, made sure it happened,” Sonenshein said.

While the charter reforms gave mayors more power, Riordan was disappointed they didn't happen in time to give him more power, according to George Kieffer, who sat on one of the charter commissions.

Dick was ... his own boss for most of his life," Kieffer said. "And reporting to anyone or being slowed down by anything troubled Dick.”

Riordan could be awkward and unpredictable, said Sonenshein, recalling a time when he was called into the mayor’s office to discuss differences over charter reform. Sonenshein was part of a charter reform commission appointed by the City Council — one that rivaled another panel backed by Riordan.

Sonenshein expected Riordan to be angry.

“But instead he wanted to play chess,” he said. “So we played a little bit of chess and talked about education.”

Riordan was an advocate of reform at the Los Angeles Unified School District, backing candidates who supported charter schools during his time in office.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

Most Read