GOP giant falls

Dick Riordan squanders a 40-point lead in California, and one ex-staffer bemoans a campaign that reduced him to "a pooper-scooper."

By Anthony York

Published March 6, 2002 2:23PM (EST)

So, just how do you blow a 40-point lead in six weeks? That is the question many Californians were asking when results from the Republican gubernatorial primary began trickling in Tuesday. The results showed what people on the ground had known for weeks -- conservative millionaire businessman Bill Simon had come from virtually nowhere to snatch the Republican nomination away from former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. In the end, it wasn't even close.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Riordan was supposed to be the man who would single-handedly reassemble the Humpty Dumpty that is the California Republican Party, through a more compassionate, moderate conservatism. But his half-cocked campaign style, and his history of giving big money to Democratic candidates, alienated the voters who would ultimately decide his fate: conservative Republican loyalists.

"It was a combination of arrogance and ignorance unlike anything I've ever seen," says Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' political director, Garry South. "But then, that's Dick Riordan."

GOP strategist Arnie Steinberg says California insiders knew there were problems as early as last summer, before Riordan had even declared his candidacy. On the eve of the state Republican convention, Riordan opted to take a three-week vacation instead of spending time courting the GOP grass-roots activists whose support would be essential in a closed primary.

"When you get in with a candidate like a Dick Riordan, who is basically independent, unfocused and determined to do it his own way, you need someone or a group of people around him who basically really kick ass and have balls," says Steinberg. "Dick never had anybody who would tell him no."

Though the White House, through the urging of Bush's top two California advisors, Brad Freeman and Jerry Parsky, supported Riordan's candidacy and helped lure Riordan into the race, the events of last fall took some of the focus off California politics.

"Karl Rove had more important things to do over the last four or five months," says one California GOP insider. "He had a war to run."

While Rove was distracted, Riordan's campaign sputtered wildly, and nobody in Washington stepped in to help. "In terms of the White House's role of getting in deeper and deeper, that blame goes to Lezlee Westine," head of the president's Office of Public Liaison, says the GOP source. "She was the person at the White House who was the real Riordan-phile, and she just didn't have the political experience to recognize or solve this problem."

"This problem" was that Riordan refused to appeal to conservatives. Many seasoned California political hands tried to tell Riordan he should secure his base, but Riordan ignored them. As a result, the campaign started hemorrhaging staff, Steinberg among them. But there were others: Bush's close friend, Freeman, refused overtures to come onboard as Riordan's finance chairman; California GOP strategist Dan Schnur resigned after a brief stint as campaign manager, as did Noelia Rodriguez, who served as Riordan's deputy mayor in Los Angeles.

Rodriguez's departure was particularly damaging to the campaign because, as Steinberg put it, "She really knows how to tell him to fuck off." Steinberg says he eventually walked out "because I couldn't take always going around with a pooper-scooper."

By Tuesday, sources close to Riordan were using phrases like "criminal neglect" to describe the job by Riordan's closest advisors, among them moderate GOP strategist Kevin Spillane and media consultant Don Sipple.

"I knew when Don was going into this thing, Don would bend to Riordan and wasn't going to stand up to him," Steinberg says. "He just wanted to collect a paycheck."

The White House also had some personal business interfering with the campaign. They still held grudges against [GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill] Jones and Schnur for their support of John McCain during the primaries (Schnur was McCain's communications director). And Parsky reportedly has a deep-seated disdain for Simon, which dates back to Parsky's business dealings with Simon's father.

The question now is whether the White House will be willing to engage in a race that pits a staunch conservative with no political experience against a moderate, if somewhat unpopular, governor. It also remains to be seen whether Parsky's personal dislike of Simon may effectively freeze support either from Washington, or more important, from deep-pocketed GOP donors whom Parsky deals with regularly.

South called the GOP squabbles "a delicious food fight" for Democrats. But it's one in which Davis threw his share of pies. The governor spent an unprecedented $9 million during the GOP primary, most of which was used to trash Riordan, who was clearly the Republican most feared by the Davis camp.

Republicans have tried to draw comparisons between this race and the 1966 governor's race. Then, a moderate Republican big city mayor, George Christopher, was favored to win an easy victory against his neophyte, conservative primary opponent. The Democratic incumbent, Pat Brown, helped torpedo Christopher's campaign, handing the victory to the conservative. That conservative was Ronald Reagan.

But South isn't buying the comparison. "No one who is remotely serious is going to confuse Bill Simon with Ronald Reagan. Nice try, Republicans, but it doesn't wash," he says.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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