In standing up in public and denouncing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as irrelevant and calling out the corruption at City Hall that leaves Los Angeles teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Dick Riordan has assumed a role that no other prominent person has shown the courage to take on.
He has heard the cry of the people and is speaking in their voice. It is the voice City Hall has ignored for a long time but they can’t ignore Riordan. So they attack him with all the artillery at their disposal to prevent him from becoming a rallying point for public anger and discontent.
They accuse him when he was mayor of making many of the same mistakes as they are making today, of giving into the blackmail of city unions and too often doing city business for the benefit of special interests. And so they ask, what right does he have to criticize?
They never mentioned any of these criticisms until now because they don’t see anything wrong with what they accuse Riordan of doing.
There is a big difference, though. Riordan does think it’s wrong and he thought it was wrong then. But he couldn’t see any other way to get anything done. He thought he was being pragmatic, a good leader and businessman, cutting the best deals he could for the good of his city.
He was wrong about that and I told him so many times over many years, in public and private. There is no other person over the last four decades who has done more than Dick Riordan to try to fix the schools and city government, no one who has tried to reinvent a civic leadership that could see beyond its own selfish interests.
As mayor, Dick Riordan did turn LA around as he promised. He just couldn’t get it moving because the entrenched interests were too strong and he is too much of an elitist to rally the public behind him.
He believes now as then that the best and the brightest should be in charge as they are in successful business enterprises where you pay people to work for you and to obey your orders, rewarding them when they show imagination and achieve goals.
It’s not that way in public life.
Those same people don’t have to take orders from the best and brightest or anybody else for that matter because they’re the ones paying the bills, the salaries, the subsidies.
What the civic, cultural, economic and political elite — such as they are — don’t understand is that they are the leaders, the best and the brightest by one measure or another, but they are just hirelings. The people are the owners, the bosses and nothing good can be achieved without bringing them to the table of power and mobilizing them in support of policies that make a city great, that respects and balances the competing interests.
Just the other day, Riordan admitted he never understood the Valley and still doesn’t even though it was the Valley that elected him mayor and loved him dearly. “The Valley feels cheated by the city constantly… The
Valley, it’s an enigma to me,” he told Patt Morrison last week.
The Valley, I’m talking about, is the middle-class and working-class people who own homes or are saving to buy one, who go to work every day no matter how much crap they have to take, who hold their marriages together if they possibly can, and believe that owning a piece of the rock entitles them to expect that their government will serve their interests.
It took me a while to figure out when I came to the Valley. But it’s really simple. What the Valley wants, what most people want, is nothing more than respect for their values and interests.
What City Hall has been doing for too long is treating people with contempt. It has reached such unprecedented levels that a grassroots rebellion has sprung up and gained strength.
And for the first time a civic leader has stepped forward and spoken out against what is going on at City Hall, called out the city’s leadership for their failures and warned that bankruptcy for the city is inevitable unless there is a radical shift in direction now.
This is exactly what thousands of people all over of the city have been saying for a long time and mostly getting little more than lip service from our elected officials who have spent nearly all their time and efforts preserving a failed system that serves only insiders and special interests.
After years of warnings, after a year of almost daily debate, they have sent pink slips to barely 100 workers out of the 52,000 on the city payroll, handsomely paid off 2,400 others to retire in their mid-50s, given raises to overpaid DWP workers and padded the utility’s payroll with dozens of transferred workers who got raises of up 50 percent.
They are now in the process of slashing basic services to the public, closing libraries two days a week, shutting down parks programs, protecting jobs in planning and building code enforcement to benefit developers at the expense of the services that preserve the quality of life in our neighborhoods. They are abdicating their responsibility to fix potholes, trim trees and repair sidewalks.
They have ignored the rising public groundswell. But they cannot ignore Dick Riordan. His voice carries too much weight with too many. So they attack him with specious arguments that have nothing to do with today’s crisis.
We don’t have to agree with everything Riordan believes anymore than we have to agree with each other on everything.
What matters now is we all agree on cleaning up City Hall. Riordan’s fight with City Hall is our fight. I believe this is the moment when we show we can all get along and work together for the common good.