Richard J. Riordan, a Queens-born lawyer, businessman and former mayor of Los Angeles who helped stabilize a city troubled by racial protests and brought a free-enterprise approach to rebuilding the city’s infrastructure after a devastating earthquake in 1994, died on Wednesday at his home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. He was 92.
His daughter Patricia Riordan Torrey confirmed his death.
Mr. Riordan, whose unfiltered speech occasionally got him into trouble, began his career in business and turned to politics later in life. He was elected mayor in 1993, in his first effort at electoral politics, and served until 2001, prevented by term limits from seeking a third term.
Before that, he was a shrewd investor who turned a modest inheritance into a large personal fortune. He was a venture capitalist in the 1960s, before such investors had acquired that name, and gave his own money away well before philanthropy came into vogue among California’s newly wealthy.
A moderate Republican, Mr. Riordan came to politics in 1992, when it became clear that Tom Bradley, the Democratic five-term incumbent mayor, would not seek re-election. Mr. Riordan, then 62, was encouraged by friends to run, in part because of his solid ties across the political spectrum. He won handily, with 54 percent of the vote.
But Mr. Riordan was bequeathed a city that was still reeling from riots stemming from the acquittal of four white police officers in 1992 after the beating of Rodney King, an unarmed Black motorist, the year before.
“The city was out of control,” said Patrick Range McDonald, a journalist who ghostwrote Mr. Riordan’s 2014 memoir, “The Mayor: How I Turned Around Los Angeles After Riots, an Earthquake and the O.J. Simpson Murder Trial.” “Residents did not feel safe.”
Mr. Riordan expanded the police department to 10,000 officers and generally brought a “calming influence to the city,” Mr. McDonald said.
Mr. Riordan’s most dramatic moment came with the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake in 1994 that destroyed buildings and roads throughout the Los Angeles region.
“Dick worked day and night, visited neighborhoods throughout the city, made sure people received supplies and health care, and constantly sounded a theme that Angelenos needed to work together,” Mr. McDonald said. “So while the rest of the world was waiting for post-riot Los Angeles to descend into complete chaos, residents instead banded together, with Dick leading the charge.”
Mr. Riordan took an unorthodox approach to rebuilding the Santa Monica Freeway, a vital connector between downtown Los Angeles and the city’s coastal regions. City officials had estimated a loss to the local economy of $1 million for every day the freeway was closed.
Mr. Riordan offered contractors a $200,000-a-day bonus for finishing ahead of schedule. The work was finished 74 days before the contracted deadline. “This demonstrates what can happen when private sector innovation and market incentives replace business as usual,” he said at the time.
He was also a longtime advocate of public school reform and a believer in charter schools, helping to finance several of them throughout Los Angeles.
“That wasn’t within his formal job description of mayor,” said former California Gov. Pete Wilson, whose tenure as governor overlapped with Mr. Riordan’s time as mayor. “Nonetheless, he really took it up.”
Neither a polished nor eloquent public speaker, Mr. Riordan was well known for his impolitic wisecracking. In one famous incident in 2004, during a brief stint by Mr. Riordan as California’s secretary of education, a 6-year-old girl at a library event in Santa Barbara told him that her name, Isis, meant “Egyptian goddess.” He responded that “it means stupid, dirty girl.”
He later apologized, saying it was a failed attempt at humor. The remark was widely reported and caused public outcry, with some advocacy groups calling for his resignation, but Mr. Riordan remained in his state government role.
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, when asked if he was sorry for some of the jokes he had cracked over the years, Mr. Riordan said: “I’ve learned to count to three before I tell a joke. Usually something’s funny, click click, and you forget you’ve just insulted every Italian in the city.”
Richard Joseph Riordan was born on May 1, 1930, in Flushing, Queens, to William and Geraldine (Doyle) Riordan, the last of 10 children in an Irish Catholic family. He grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. His father was a successful department store executive. His mother taught prisoners to read and write.
Mr. Riordan entered Santa Clara University in California on a football scholarship in 1948 and two years later transferred to Princeton. He received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy there in 1952.
Soon after graduating, he joined the Army and served in the Korean War as a first lieutenant. After the war, he entered the University of Michigan Law School, graduating in 1956.
He returned to California, a state that had always fascinated him, and began working for a large law firm in Los Angeles. In the late 1950s, after his father died, he inherited $80,000. A neighbor who was a stockbroker recommended that Mr. Riordan invest in technology companies. Three decades and many ventures later, he was worth tens of millions of dollars.
Mr. Riordan also liked to give money away, “almost as if it burns his hands,” The Los Angeles Times wrote in a 1988 profile. He created the Riordan Foundation with a narrow goal: to promote childhood literacy. The foundation, which has given away more than $50 million, has expanded over the years to include broader educational and civic initiatives.
Mr. Riordan’s first marriage, to Eugenia Waraday, lasted nearly 25 years but ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Jill Noel. He married Nancy Daly in 1998, and they divorced in 2008.
Mr. Riordan’s life was scarred by personal tragedy. Four of his siblings, including his twin brother, died young. Mr. Riordan had five children with his first wife. His only son, Billy, drowned in a scuba diving accident in 1978, at age 21. His youngest daughter, Carol, died in 1982, at 18, of cardiac arrest associated with anorexia.
In 2017, Mr. Riordan married Elizabeth Gregory, who survives him. In addition to Patricia, a child from his first marriage, he is survived by two more daughters from his first marriage, Mary Elizabeth Riordan and Kathleen Ann Riordan; a stepdaughter, Malia Gregory; a sister, Betty Hearty; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Riordan ran unsuccessfully for governor of California in 2002. He became secretary of education under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003, but, frustrated by the bureaucracy he encountered, left the post after 17 months.
Mr. Riordan also owned restaurants around Los Angeles, including the Original Pantry Café, a popular diner. Mr. Riordan said he first fell in love with the Pantry when a waiter decided he was taking too long to eat his meal.
“I had a book I was reading,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2008. “I was very relaxed, and the waiter came over and said, ‘If you want to read, the library’s at Fifth and Hope.’” Instead, he bought the restaurant.
Alex Traub contributed reporting.
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