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By HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan insists that he lacks power, but Riordan himself demonstrated last week that he can have considerable clout when he chooses to use it.

Riordan successfully lobbied the Elected Charter Reform Commission to reject, on a 9-6 vote, a compromise proposal that would have robbed him of a most-cherished goal getting future L.A. mayors the unilateral power to fire department heads.

(As expected, the Appointed Charter Reform Commission unanimously approved the compromise proposal, which would allow the City Council to override mayoral firings of department heads, setting the stage for a possible ballot showdown between the two proposals in June.)

The power to fire department heads might seem arcane to many Angelenos, but for Riordan, it has become such a passionate pursuit borne out, friends and advisors say, by personal experience during his first term in office that he pulled out all the stops to keep it alive.

He held press conferences, individually lobbied commission members and made impassioned pleas to the entire commission to resist the urge to compromise on that point.

"The presentation he made to us was not great oratory," said architect Chester Widom, the elected commission's vice chair, who voted against the compromise. "But he had such strong arguments and brought with him such a sense of conviction that he convinced me and made me stronger in my own convictions. And I'm saying this as a lifelong Democrat."

Even commission chairman and USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who backed the compromise proposal, conceded the power of the mayor's arguments.

"I've come to admire that the mayor acts out of principle and does what he thinks is best. That, in itself, can be very persuasive," Chemerinsky said. "But the downside to this is that he's often unwilling to compromise."

The power of "quiet persuasion" on issues on which he chooses to take a stand is a Riordan trademark, say local political observers and Riordan advisors both past and present.

"When he thinks he is right on an issue, he hangs himself out there and exposes himself to risk," said William Ouchi, dean of the Executive Education program at UCLA's Graduate School of Management and Riordan's first-term chief of staff. "He then personally calls up all the people involved in making the decisions and basically asks them why they are opposed and what it's going to take to get their support."

Ouchi cited several examples of this during Riordan's first term, including the mayor's pledge to put 3,000 more police officers on L.A. streets and to get funding for the Alameda Corridor.

"Everybody said that you couldn't add 3,000 cops," Ouchi said. "Even (then-L.A. Police Chief) Willie Williams said you can't do it. But he had concluded that for L.A. to come back from its doldrums and terrible public image, there was no choice but to guarantee public safety."

Another close Riordan advisor, Freeman Spogli & Co. partner and Democratic power broker William Wardlaw, concurred. "When he believes in a cause and works on it, he brings a lot of energy and focus to it. He's willing to put things on the line, and that makes him quite formidable," Wardlaw said.

While Riordan has demonstrated the ability to take a stand, he has not done so on many critical issues. One recent example: Riordan, citing scheduling conflicts, did not appear in person to pitch the New Coliseum football stadium proposal to National Football League owners in Kansas City last fall. (He sent a videotaped speech instead.)

Both Wardlaw and Ouchi said the mayor picks and chooses his battles carefully. "Look," Wardlaw said, "there are no limits to the opportunities he has to promote causes. Everyone comes to him, including many people who criticize him publicly and then come to him privately for support. He has to prioritize."

At the top of his priority list, Wardlaw said, is anything having to do with the welfare of children, especially education.

"On issues relating to children, he will always be moved," Wardlaw said.

Others say privately that, unlike some politicians who can deftly handle three or four issues at once, Riordan can only focus on one or two initiatives at a time. Furthermore, they say, he has been limited by the degree of staff turnover within his administration, particularly at the chief-of-staff post.

"Every time a top-level staff member gets up to the point where they are really prepared to mount a campaign to push things through on behalf of the mayor, the next thing you know they are gone," one political observer said.

But on charter reform, Wardlaw said, Riordan saw a need for some fundamental changes to be made.

"He experienced the drawbacks of the current government structure first-hand, and that is what drove him to push on that issue," Wardlaw said, referring to Riordan's push for unilateral power to fire department heads. "It's important to note that he is not doing this for his own power; the changes wouldn't take effect until after he leaves office."

As for the NFL, some observers say there is a legitimate reason for Riordan to stay on the sidelines.

"Los Angeles is not like Cleveland or Houston, where substantial public investments in football stadiums have either been made or pledged," said Gil Ray, a partner at the L.A. law firm O'Melveny & Myers LLP, a board member of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce and a Riordan friend. "If Riordan were to have gone to Kansas City and make an all-out pitch like he did on the charter proposal, the NFL owners would likely have asked him for substantial public dollars and he would not have been able to deliver. There simply isn't the appetite here in L.A. for that sort of thing."

Riordan's lack of involvement in the efforts to bring football back to L.A., Ray suggested, is more a negotiating strategy than a lack of interest.

Yet even when the mayor cares deeply about an issue and has tried to move forward on it, he occasionally stumbles. Frustrated over the lack of progress on the multibillion-dollar expansion plan for Los Angeles International Airport, Riordan last summer removed L. A. Airport Commission President Dan Garcia and replaced the public relations team handling the expansion effort. Those moves created a lot of additional controversy and ultimately did little to push the expansion effort forward.

Also last summer, Riordan prematurely announced that he was planning to back a slate of candidates for the Los Angeles Board of Education, even before some of the people he planned to back had been contacted.

"He tries hard on many issues," said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "But sometimes he stumbles because he hasn't been around the world of politics for a long time. That was the case with the first attempt to have L.A. designated an empowerment zone (by the federal government) in the mid-1990s. Then he focused on that and was able to get something."

On charter reform, Jeffe said, Riordan may have won one round, but the biggest war lies ahead.

"The real judgment of Riordan's commitment is how much money he is going to be putting into the campaign" to pass the Elected Charter Reform Commission's proposal. "It's a question of how much he's going to follow through."

Local political consultant Richard Lichtenstein said Riordan will carry some key advantages in the campaign.

"His campaign will clearly have his leadership, credibility and resources, and those are very powerful tools going into an election," Lichtenstein said. "He also will have Bill Wardlaw, and (Democratic political consultant) Bill Carrick behind him, and these are very powerful allies."

But the compromise charter proposal also has a powerful array of backers, including city employee unions, downtown business interests and City Council members. And, as demonstrated in recent elections, public employee unions can turn out large numbers of voters.

If last week is any indication, Riordan will either triumph on charter reform, or go down swinging.

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