It doesn't say much for Team Bush that top White House aides have all but crowned the 71-year-old outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan as the GOP nominee in the 2002 California governor's race.
Partly because they are miffed at California Secretary of State Bill Jones for endorsing Sen. John McCain in the 2000 GOP presidential primary, the loyalty-mad Bushies have embraced a Republican who has given more than $1 million to Democrats, including $20,000 to Gov. Gray Davis.
"At the risk of sounding like a smart ass," quipped Davis' political guru Garry South (who talks as though he majored in Smart Ass), "Dick Riordan is one of our major donors. We've enjoyed his money over the years. I only hope if he runs for governor, that he doesn't stop giving us money."
South believes that the donations will hurt Riordan with GOP primary voters. Actually, Riordan's big donations could hurt him with voters of all political stripes, because giving thousands to the most liberal of Democrats suggests that he has no center.
Riordan spokeswoman Carolina Guevara disagrees. "As a nonpartisan mayor, he's had to work with officials on both sides," was her explanation of his donations. But can't a mayor work with people without giving them money? Then there's his administration's hiring of convicted Clinton aide Webster Hubbell. L.A. Controller Rick Tuttle determined that the Department of Airports paid $24,750 to Hubbell to make "two five-minute (phone) conservations" that were "totally unnecessary." Hubbell's sweet deal doesn't contrast well with the hundreds of workers laid off due to Riordan's leveraged buyouts.
As the campaign consultant for the candidate who ran against Riordan in the 1993 mayoral run-off, South knows all the skeletons in Riordan's walk-in closet. South knows the Catholic Church annulled Riordan's first marriage, which produced five children, and that Riordan donated big bucks to give Cardinal Mahoney a helicopter for two years. He knows about the decades-old drunk-driving arrests.
South knows how gaffe-prone Riordan is. Take the 1986 quote: "I'm taking lessons in learning how to wave to poor people." Or the time when candidate Riordan met a woman who asked him if he agreed that "Black people are just awful." In front of a Dallas Morning News reporter, Riordan replied, "Some of them."
On the plus side, Riordan was a better mayor than candidate. He spruced up the downtown. He can boast that Los Angeles kept its lights on while other towns experienced Gray-Outs. A recent Field Poll showed Riordan neck and neck with Davis -- before Riordan seriously considered running.
"When Richard Riordan took over the city of Los Angeles, it was a mess," noted GOP consultant Kevin Spillane, who began a Draft Riordan movement. "He leaves it eight years later in much better shape, and with very high approval. Gray Davis inherited a state that was in great shape and succeeded in turning it into a mess."
What about the bigger-than-Bush gaffes? "He says things that are not politically correct. That's part of his appeal," said Spillane.
Two other pluses: Riordan is pro-choice. (Both Jones and William E. Simon Jr. are pro-life -- and quick to mention that California's governor can't mess with abortion since it is a privacy right in the state constitution.) Also, Riordan fared well among Los Angeles' Latino voters.
He would be a candidate with great strength and great weaknesses. He has a good record, but could blow the whole game by saying something hinky. Would Jones or Simon be better candidates?
Simon seems a cross between Riordan and Al Checchi, who ran as a Democrat for guv in 1998. Like Riordan, Simon also has given money to Dems, if in smaller amounts. He gave Davis $250. Like Checchi, Simon failed to vote in a number of statewide elections.
On the other hand, Simon's campaign consultant Sal Russo was able to boast that Simon had just raised $2 million: "We raised more in one week than Bill Jones did in a four-year cycle."
In January, Jones reported having a measly $118,000 in the bank, compared to Davis' $26 million. Pitiful.
When I started to write this column, it was going to be about how Jones just might enjoy victory in 2002 in the way that Candidate Davis did in 1998. Back then, President Clinton had so little faith that Davis or Checchi could win the election that he asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein to run for governor.
No need. Davis kicked butt. Primary voters turned against the checkbook candidate -- Checchi -- and the moneyed L.A. arriviste -- Jane Harman -- and instead chose the dreary technocrat with state experience, Gray Davis.
Davis then was able to enter the general election as a dragon slayer. If voters see Riordan and Simon as checkbook opportunists, maybe Jones could win the sympathy vote and the primary, as Davis did.
It doesn't hurt that Jones is the sort of straight-shooter whom many Democrats find themselves liking. The Davis people didn't laugh out loud at my theory. South sees Jones pulling a Davis as "one possible scenario. I have never underestimated Bill Jones in a Republican primary if he can get enough money together, and that's a question."
When Garry South agrees with me, the back of my neck starts to tingle.