A California Leader

Richard Riordan ’52 leaves a lasting California legacy as a distinguished leader, committed philanthropist, and a visionary innovator.

It wasn’t an easy job that Richard Riordan ’52 won in 1992. He became the mayor of Los Angeles a year after riots had broken out in response to the acquittal of four white police officers captured on video beating Rodney King, a Black motorist. Just a year into his first term, the Northridge Earthquake registered a 6.7 shock that killed nearly 60 people and destroyed a vital freeway.

Before entering the world of politics, Riordan made a name for himself in the business world. He invested an $80,000 inheritance in tech companies in the 1950s on the advice of a neighbor. By the 1980s, those investments paid handsomely, and he was worth tens of millions, becoming a philanthropist and an early venture capitalist. The Riordan Foundation initially focused on childhood literacy and gave away millions—much of it to Catholic organizations.

Mayor Richard Riordan Runs For Governor
Riordan joined the Army after graduating and served in Korea as a first lieutenant. After the war,
he attended the University of Michigan Law School. Photo courtesy Getty.

In 1992, Riordan was ready for his second act: politics. When Los Angeles’ incumbent mayor stepped down, Riordan, a moderate Republican, ran and won the seat with 54 percent of the vote. He served until term limits forced him out in 2001. He oversaw a city reeling from riots, shaken from a deadly quake, and in the spotlight from the murder of Nicole Simpson Brown and the trial of her famous ex-husband, O.J. Simpson. Through it all, Riordan helped the city hang together, supporters say.

When the Santa Monica Freeway collapsed in the deadly 1993 Northridge Earthquake, Riordian created an unusual incentive for contractors rebuilding the vital city connection—a $200,000 bonus for each day the freeway was completed ahead of schedule. It opened 74 days early. That innovation is still used today in infrastructure projects.

Riordan ran for California governor in 2002 but lost in the primary. He later briefly served as the state’s secretary of education under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Riordan first came to California by way of Santa Clara. He was admitted to the University on a football scholarship in 1948 but transferred to Princeton after two years. Riordan died April 19, 2023, in the city he once led.

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