L.A.'s Riordan a thoroughly modern mayor

January 15, 1998|By George F. Will

LOS ANGELES -- It says much about modern government that one of the nation's most successful elected officials is one of the least powerful. And it says something about political leadership today that that official is this city's mayor, Richard Riordan, who has a personal library of 40,000 books and is given to citing Maimonides (d. 1204) on "the eighth level of giving" (giving that makes the recipient self-sufficient). Lately he has been coping with a multilayered controversy about gasoline-powered leaf blowers.

Many middle-class Southern Californians tolerate immigrants when there is lawn work to be done. Much of it is done by immigrants whose wages are depressed by competition from the constantly growing reserve army of other immigrants. To maximize their efficiency, the lawn workers use the blowers, which make noise and other pollution.

Banning gas-powered blowers will mean that the lawn workers will earn less by servicing fewer lawns, or that lawn owners will pay more per lawn for maintenance. During this controversy -- conflict of class, ethnicity and hypocrisy characteristic of this collage city -- it was the job of the mayor, the only visible symbol of community, to seem sympathetic to all sides. Which Mr. Riordan seems to have done.

Public empathizing -- and "acting as if I had the power," he says -- may seem a humble task. However, such tasks are the stuff of municipal governance, and of a mayor's life in a city where the city council and various agencies are notably nonsubservient. For Mr. Riordan, being an ameliorative presence amounts to practicing what he, a Catholic intellectual (a philosophy major at Princeton), preaches. That is the theology of G. K. Chesterton, who distilled it to this: I am important, and everyone else is, too.

Besides, bite-size actions, such as spreading a balm of sympathy in the leaf-blower dispute, nibble away at tensions in a city that should be enjoying this momentary respite from larger calamities -- a moment for worrying about microproblems like leaf blowers.

This was, after all, the first city to suffer a major postwar riot (Watts, 1965). It is the only city to have suffered two such riots. (The 1992 riot, after the first trial acquitted the police officers charged in the Rodney King beating, was the nation's worst since the New York draft riots of 1863.) The Northridge earthquake of 1994 was the worst -- in terms of the dollar value of destruction -- natural disaster in the nation's history.

Next? The Eastern Sierra, 300 miles north, California's most volcanically active region, is the head of a vulnerable network of streams, reservoirs and aqueducts that supplies two-thirds of this city's water. Seismic activity has been increasing ominously there.

Meanwhile, Mr. Riordan, a second-term Republican, can savor the not inconsiderable success of a steep reduction in violent crime, largely because, he says, so many of the relatively small cadre of violent people are now in prison. And he says city government has become less of a job-killing machine.

Reel moves

The bureaucratic drag of permit processes has been diminished enough that movie production is up 60 percent since Mr. Riordan became mayor.

That paradox -- measuring success in terms of movies made in the movie capital -- leads to another: Success in economic revitalization has required a surge of upscale immigration, bringing people to fill some of the more than 30,000 unfilled jobs in the computer industry.

Perhaps more efficiencies are needed in a city where, Mr. Riordan says, some hotels send their linens 120 miles to Tijuana to be laundered by low-wage workers. However, Los Angeles has passed New York as a center of the garment industry because immigrant workers -- Mr. Riordan calls them the "backbone" of the city's recovery -- have transformed this city as radically as immigration has transformed Miami.

Fred Siegel, in his book "The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities," notes that in 1960, five years before the liberalization of immigration laws, Los Angeles had the largest percentage of native-born white Protestants of any major U.S. city. Only 9 percent of the residents were foreign born. By 1980, the percentage was 27; by 1990, 40. Some 750,000 of the city's 3.5 million residents entered the country in the 1980s.

Mr. Riordan says part of his job is answering, "Nothing," when asked what he can do to solve particular neighborhoods' problems (abandoned buildings, aggressive panhandling, graffiti). Nothing much, that is, beyond bestowing recognition by expressing empathy. Which is, come to think about it, a lot.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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