Death of a RINO

Posted: Mar 08, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- When I visited newly elected Mayor Richard Riordan of Los Angeles in January 1994, he pointed with sardonic pride to a campaign button bearing the letters RINO -- Republican In Name Only. That attitude led to the humiliating end of Riordan's political career Tuesday. An unprecedented $10 million spent by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis to pick the weaker Republican candidate for governor of California contributed to Riordan's landslide defeat by neophyte Bill Simon. But the major cause was his contempt for his party reflected by the RINO button. "He really was not a Republican at heart," veteran California GOP operative Ken Khachigian (neutral for governor) told me. Agreeing, national Democratic consultant Bob Shrum said: "He was running as somebody the Republican Party isn't." Tuesday provided a salutary lesson for President Bush's political advisers, who saw in Dick Riordan the answer to their California problems. Contrary to sophisticated opinion, tribal tugs of party loyalty persist. The White House sought to revive the state's comatose GOP by promoting the race for governor of a popular former mayor of Los Angeles whose connection with the Republican Party was minimal and contempt for it was palpable. I first met Riordan, a fabulously rich businessman, after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. His suggestions for urban peace sounded sensible but not very conservative. In passing, he informed me he was about to run for mayor the next year. He indicated he would not stress his Republican affiliation in seeking the non-partisan mayoralty in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. He was true to his word, even after entering the mayor's office. Apart from flashing his RINO button, he fawned over President Bill Clinton, endorsed Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein for re-election and avoided Republican Party functions. He was so excessive in praising the way Federico Pena handled the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake as Clinton's secretary of Transportation that he suggested Pena would make a good president. Nevertheless, when George W. Bush took office last year, Riordan was still a nominal Republican and a popular two-term mayor. The California GOP seemed dead after crushing defeats for governor in 1998 and president in 2000. Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, and investment banker Gerald Parsky, the president's man in California, saw a Riordan candidacy for governor as preparation for the 2004 presidential campaign. Indeed, Riordan actually led Gov. Davis in the polls. As for Riordan's social liberalism, did not California Republicans back pro-choice Pete Wilson for governor? But unlike Riordan, Wilson was a faithful party worker dating back to service as a state assemblyman, mayor of San Diego and U.S. senator. The depth of Riordan's problems inside the party was revealed to me last October by veteran Orange County Republican Chairman Tom Fuentes. Riordan, informing Fuentes that his campaign would be receiving contributions from Democrats as well as Republicans, had asked whether Fuentes' business firm contributed to both parties. "In Orange County," Fuentes replied, "we call those people whores." Fuentes indicated he would have trouble voting for Riordan in a general election. Riordan did little to counteract such hostility, surrounding himself with liberal Democratic advisers and neglecting old wounds. Former Gov. George Deukmejian had not forgiven Riordan for lavish contributions to the two-time Democratic nominee against him, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Deukmejian made clear he could not support Riordan even if nominated. Bush's California agents unsuccessfully tried to talk Simon into running for attorney general, but as early as November the Bush-Riordan romance had soured. "Riordan is unfocused, unorganized and doesn't listen," a key California Republican told the White House. Even so, the Bush team never expected an 18-point loss, even when the polls turned against Riordan last week. Now, the president's men must grit their teeth and help Simon against the coming onslaught from Davis. Champagne corks are popping in the governor's office, but Democratic consultant Joe Cerrell remembers 1966 when his party's establishment undermined San Francisco's moderate Republican Mayor George Christopher to permit a clear shot at an "easily beatable" conservative: Ronald Reagan. Cerrell tentatively views Simon as another probable loser, but adds: "His momentum could propel him all the way, and that makes me worried."