Campaigning Gaffes Eroded Riordan’s Once Huge Edge
By HOWARD FINE
It was supposed to be a bus tour through the Central Valley reminiscent of Sen. John McCain’s “straight-talk express.” Reporters would get the opportunity to go one-on-one with the leading Republican candidate for governor, Richard Riordan, and the former L.A. mayor would charm them with his candor.
But the late January tour went horribly wrong when Los Angeles Times reporter Carla Hall asked a sensitive question about the death 20 years ago of one of Riordan’s daughters. After trying unsuccessfully to convince Hall not to print anything about his daughter’s death, Riordan exploded at her in front of the statewide press corps.
In the grand scheme of a gubernatorial campaign, it might seem like a small matter. But days after Riordan’s stunning 18-point defeat in the gubernatorial primary, the episode proved to be one of the key turning points in the campaign. And it provides a window into what went wrong in a campaign that just two months ago seemed to be a lock for Riordan.
“This was not an election won by Bill Simon,” said local attorney and Republican Sheldon Sloan. “It was an election lost by the Riordan campaign and it shows that, no matter how many advantages one has going into a campaign, there’s no substitute for competent management.”
As Riordan embarked on that fateful bus tour, he had just wrapped up what was widely regarded as a solid performance in the first gubernatorial debate, in which he held his own against fellow Republicans Simon and Bill Jones. And while Simon was beginning to close the gap in the polls, Riordan still held a comfortable 24-point lead.
To be sure, some cracks had already emerged. Riordan was not nearly as popular in northern California and the Central Valley as he was on his home turf in L.A. hence the bus tour. And Riordan was being dogged with the tag “Republican in Name Only.”
But the bus incident exposed a crucial weakness: Riordan’s campaign staff, an odd mix of Republicans and Democrats. Campaign manager Ron Hartwig came to the Riordan campaign from the L.A. office of Hill & Knowlton, but had virtually no previous experience running a campaign. And when Republican Don Sipple was brought on board, sources familiar with the campaign said he was often overruled.
“I don’t fault Riordan for what happened on that bus; he responded to that reporter in a way that any parent would when dealing with a difficult set of circumstances,” said Dan Schnur, who briefly served as Riordan’s communications director for the campaign exploratory committee. “But I do fault his campaign staff. In no way should a candidate be left in a position to negotiate what reporters should or shouldn’t cover.”
Schnur said the staff’s inability to shield Riordan showed how unprepared they were to handle the higher level of media scrutiny that comes with a statewide campaign.
“It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and criticize in hindsight,” said Carolina Guevara, a spokeswoman for Riordan’s campaign. “But the fact of the matter is that you had for the first time in history an unopposed incumbent who spent $10 million to demonize Dick Riordan because he wanted to hand pick the candidate he wanted to run against in November.”
Riordan’s tendency to make flip remarks would come back to haunt him several times, most notably at the state Republican Convention. After former Gov. George Deukmejian, a Jones supporter, said he could never vote for Riordan, he shot back that “the only thing he (Deukmejian) remembers is his grudges.”
That remark incensed many Republican voters, who view Deukmejian as the party’s elder statesman.
After the bus tour ended, Riordan’s staff apparently decided that he had had enough media exposure for a while and kept the candidate out of the public eye and away from the media for the next nine or 10 days, through the first week of February.
Sequestering Riordan proved a catastrophic move. For that’s precisely when Gov. Gray Davis began airing his first commercials attacking Riordan’s record on abortion. And for a full week, there was no response from the Riordan side.
“The cardinal rule of political campaigns: when attacked, respond back immediately, before the attack can inflict any lasting damage,” Schnur said.
The bunker mentality adopted by the campaign reinforced the image that Riordan had been knocked on the defensive.
“That was the crucial turning point in this campaign, when the Davis people started running the negative ads full-time, about Riordan calling abortion murder and then flip-flopping,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant who was a Riordan supporter during the primary campaign. “And the Riordan campaign didn’t respond.”
When Riordan’s campaign did respond, the message was not consistent. One commercial took Davis to task for going negative; another commercial totally ignored the attacks and focused on Riordan’s record.
By then, it was too late. The Davis ads had confirmed the seeds of doubt in the minds of many Republicans. Meanwhile, the Simon camp was airing commercials featuring the endorsement of the highly popular former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani.
Suddenly, the Riordan campaign was in free-fall, while Simon began to surge.