Bill Wardlaw may not run Los Angeles, as some people think. The city is too big and complicated for anyone to make that claim stick. But a dozen years into what could be called the Wardlaw dynasty, he remains the closest we have to a godfather of local politics. He can open doors if he likes you and slam shut your career if he doesn't. In each of the last three races for mayor he was chairman of the winning campaign. This year he hopes to hoist James K. Hahn over the potholes along the path to a second term.
Wardlaw is no figurehead who chips in ten grand and annoys the political pros with lame suggestions. He's a campaign junkie of the old school who licked stamps for John F. Kennedy as a 13-year-old and interned with his local congressman while in college. Wardlaw breathes strategy and loves a well-fought scrap. Famously, he also sees a fight through. After nudging former law partner Richard Riordan to run for mayor in 1993, he helped get him elected and all but choreographed his friend's two-term performance in office. When Riordan stumbled into political oblivion while going after the 2003 Republican nomination for governor, it was no coincidence that Wardlaw was no longer backstage. By then he had switched productions and directed Hahn's ascent to the mayor's office. Wardlaw also saved Hahn from ignominy by chairing the L.A. United effort to defeat the Valley's secession drive.
Wardlaw's latest mission is to help Hahn, winner of more citywide races than any L.A. politician, squeak by one final time. Even supporters acknowledge that in the March primary Hahn will almost certainly be the first sitting mayor in 36 years to be forced into a runoff—presuming he makes the cut. Wardlaw confers almost daily with the consultants hired to execute the chosen campaign strategy: Have the mayor stay close to popular police chief William Bratton, keep repeating that Los Angeles is safer now than when Riordan was in office and Bernard Parks was chief, and give the labor unions what they want. Wardlaw is also a prominent debunker of the image that the Hahn administration has tolerated widespread ethical violations, a PR problem that Wardlaw indirectly helped to create.
When he signed on to lead Hahn's 2001 mayoral run, Wardlaw brought along a friend and business partner, Encino developer Ted Stein. Four years earlier Stein (with help from Wardlaw and Riordan) had tried to unseat Hahn as city attorney by spending his own money on personal-attack TV ads. Hahn and Stein made up, and the mayor reappointed Stein to the post he had held under Riordan: president of the airport commission. Stein generated a lot of political ill will among critics who felt he threw his power around with stunning arrogance, acting more like a day-to-day manager than an unpaid policy adviser. More important, he is a person of interest to federal and county grand juries believed to be looking into complaints that vendors wanting to do business with the city were squeezed for campaign contributions to Hahn and the anti-secession campaign. (Stein resigned last April, saying he wanted to spare the mayor further bad publicity.) The investigations have split the L.A. political world in two. On one side are those, such as City Controller Laura Chick, who say "pay-to-play" has been an unspoken fact around the airport and other key commissions since before Hahn became mayor and that the practice has become bolder in recent years. Wardlaw, however, is adamant that pay-to-play is a total fiction that voters care nothing about: "If you went into your Vons and asked ten people, they would think it is a new Lotto game."
He argues that Stein is getting a raw deal, saying he has been hounded out of public life by innuendo when he should be getting credit as an architect of the LAX modernization that the city council recently embraced. "He has been an outstanding public servant who has done absolutely nothing wrong," Wardlaw says during an interview in his office at the leveraged-buyout firm Freeman Spogli & Co., of which he is a general partner.
Such loyalty could become a political liability if Stein or former deputy mayor Troy Edwards is indicted. Both raise dm on ey for Hahn's 2001 campaign. However, loyalty is a trait that his friends mention often, along with a wry sense of humor and a private manner. Platinum hair and large glasses give the slender 58-year-old Wardlaw the look of a Midwestern minister of the Republican faith. But he's a lifelong Democrat, albeit one with a conservative streak—he campaigned for the recall of liberal California Supreme Court chief justice Rose Bird in 1986. He also maintains a strong religious identity. "My mother raised me a Catholic, a Democrat, and a Notre Dame fan," he says. He grew up in the Inland Empire city of Colton. His parents worked in five-and-dime stores. Now a multimillionaire, he lives in San Marino with his wife, Kim McLane Wardlaw, and their two children. On any chart of Los Angeles power couples, the Wardlaws would rank near the top. Both began their law careers at the influential downtown firm O'Melveny & Myers. It was their mutual brainstorm that Riordan should run for mayor. Bill chaired Clinton's two California campaigns for president, and Kim served as Riordan's liaison to the new Democratic administration. Clinton appointed Kim a U.S. district judge in 1995; two years later she moved up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Bill recently got a kick out of nominating his wife as a "superhottie" of the federal bench in a nationwide contest held by the cheeky blog Underneath Their Robes. Kim, a young-looking 50, took second place.
In business and politics Wardlaw rarely comes across as soft. He's called a shrewd strategist and a ruthless competitor, passionate about demanding that his loyalty be returned. In Hahn's campaign he's the one who brings discipline and keeps the team focused on its message. Wardlaw's calls are always answered. He cochaired the drive to raise funds to build the new cathedral and serves on the board of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Not that he always wins. He couldn't get Kathleen Brown elected governor, and last year he fell to the national sidelines early as California chairman of the presidential campaign for Richard Gephardt. But John Emerson, a Hahn confidant who is chairman of the Music Center board and a former official in the Clinton White House, says that Wardlaw is smart enough and trusted enough to always be an asset: "If you're in a race in the city of Los Angeles, you want Bill Wardlaw on your side. If you're involved in a contentious public policy issue, you want Bill Wardlaw on your side."
His balls-out style can offend. His incendiary temper and an, at times, threatening manner grated on some Riordan staffers and have created a class of Los Angeles political operatives who dislike and fear him. Some of Wardlaw's critics believe he cares less about issues than about winning. "Bill has zero interest in the mechanics of government," says one former Hahn associate. . "He wants to exercise power." Wardlaw has such a reputation for savoring the thrill of victory above all else that he feels moved to volunteer that there's more to him. "I do have a point of view," he says. "I want this community to be a better place. I want my son and daughter to want to live here when they get older." Still, he acknowledges relishing a battle. "It's a weakness. I should go to church to ask forgiveness, but I do enjoy the fight, yes."
After he got out of high school, Wardlaw registered voters during Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign. He attended Whittier College on a full scholarship and interned with Congressman Chet Hollifield. He campaigned for Bobby Kennedy in 1968, then went to the UCLA School of Law. After graduation he joined O'Melveny & Myers and got to know top Democrats such as Warren Christopher, who counseled him to pick his causes carefully. Wardlaw took leaves to work for Governor Jerry Brown's presidential campaign in 1976 and to manage Alan Cranston's Senate reelection campaign in 1980, filling the slot that up-and-coming Los Angeles power attorney Mickey Kantor had occupied six years earlier. That experience convinced Wardlaw, who avoids publicity about himself, that he belonged behind the scenes rather than out front as a candidate.
Through a client, Wardlaw met a successful investment lawyer named Richard Riordan, and in 1984, he became managing partner at the Riordan & McKinzie law firm. In the four years before Wardlaw moved to Freeman Spogli, which Riordan cofounded, the two men became fast friends. Riordan, also a Catholic, became the godfather of Wardlaw's children. They traveled to the Vatican to witness Roger Mahony's elevation to cardinal. They spent months discussing the condition of the city under Tom Bradley, who in the early 1990s was limping to the end of his 20-year tenure. Wardlaw persuaded Riordan to campaign for mayor as a self-made millionaire and first-time politician. His role has been likened to that of a wilderness guide. Riordan had run successful businesses and served on commissions, but he had never prepped for the grind of raising money, talking to voters, and being in the public eye. Enter Wardlaw, who whipped the amateur into game shape. "It was very interesting to watch the way Bill was able to manage Dick's transformation from civic leader into a political candidate," says Emerson. Riordan came out of nowhere to defeat front-runner Mike Woo in 1993.
As chairman of the transition team, Wardlaw vetted every major hire and commission appointment—he was determined to keep out those who had not been sufficiently helpful to Riordan. For most of Riordan's years in office, Wardlaw was on the phone regularly, advising the mayor on key decisions. He brought "a strong tactical skill and a deep strategic sense of how to get things done," recalls Robin Kramer, who was introduced to Riordan by Wardlaw and became the mayor's chief of staff. "Bill is one of the smartest, most ethical, and most droll people I have ever met." For the reelection campaign in 1997, Wardlaw added Democratic strategist Bill Carrick to the team. They trounced Tom Hayden.
At the time, Riordan said Wardlaw was "someone who would die for me.... somebody who has no agenda other than his friendship." But their relationship ruptured just before term limits forced Riordan out of office in 2001. Now neither will speak at length about the other. Some of the reasons for the schism were personal, some political. Riordan wanted his friend, businessman Steve Soboroff, to succeed him. Wardlaw did not want to help another wealthy Republican become mayor and preferred a longtime friend, county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. When Yaroslavsky couldn't decide whether to run, Wardlaw adopted Hahn, who was finishing up his fourth term as city attorney. The embrace helped Hahn secure the backing of business leaders, but it also came as a surprise to city hall insiders, who knew that many in Riordan's inner circle held Hahn in low regard. (After Soboroff lost in the primary, Riordan endorsed the more liberal Antonio Villaraigosa.) By a time-honored calculus, however, Wardlaw's move made sense. "Most of us who are long-term players make a decision to go with whoever has the best chance of winning," says a veteran of city politics. "Bill chose Jim."
Wardlaw had guessed right again. Hahn finished second in the primary, but in the runoff he overcame an outpouring of support for Villaraigosa from liberals, Latinos, and labor by tapping an unlikely base of black voters in South Los Angeles and whites in the more conservative west end of the San Fernando Valley. Wardlaw says that picking a winning horse had nothing to do with it: "I was attracted to the mayor originally because I thought he was a very, very decent man, an honorable man, very committed to public service. He's extraordinarily knowledgeable about the city, its problems, the issues facing it."
When asked to name those he calls on for counsel, Hahn mentions Wardlaw first among a half-dozen civic leaders. But Wardlaw is not the untitled chairman of this administration as he was in the previous regime. He and Riordan were best friends and had a mentor-protégé relationship, and Riordan needed help figuring out the ways of politics. Hahn came to the office well schooled in city hall's practices. Wardlaw credits Hahn with showing courage by leading the anti-secession fight and replacing police chief Parks with Bratton. The actions hurt him in his two strongest areas, the West Valley and black neighborhoods, and if he loses his job, it will be because those voters cooled on him. "It made no sense for him politically," Wardlaw says. "You never mess with the base."
The current reelection campaign is proving to be personally awkward for Wardlaw. He and his wife consider Parks, now a councilman who is running against Hahn, and his wife to be family friends. Wardlaw helped Parks prepare for the oral exam for police chief in 1991 when it became clear that Daryl F. Gates would be removed. The position went to outsider Willie Williams, but Wardlaw continued to push Parks, who finally became chief five years later. Wardlaw's children attended the same school as Villaraigosa's, and he also considers the councilman and his wife to be friends. Wardlaw says that he respects both Villaraigosa and Parks but adds, "I wish they weren't running, because Jim will be reelected, and that's unfortunate for them."
He predicts that Hahn will hold on to enough African Americans and Valley residents and benefit from picking up union endorsements that went to Villaraigosa last time. The Hahn camp sees former assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg and state senator Richard Alarcón taking votes away from Villaraigosa. "We know how to get to 50 percent plus one," says Hahn campaign strategist Kam Kuwata.
The mayor's rivals, of course, look at polls showing his support hovering below 30 percent and believe he's vulnerable, especially if Parks can hang on to some African American votes. Their goal for now is to finish first or second in the March 8 primary, then sprint for two months to the final election. "If the runoff is between Antonio and Bob, I know who the winner will be—Los Angeles," says Doug Ring, who resigned as a Hahn commissioner at the Community Redevelopment Agency so he could raise money for Hertzberg. "Jim Hahn is incredibly disengaged."
What the challengers lack, and they know it, is a Bill Wardlaw on their team. It's bucking the odds to try to win in Los Angeles without him and not smart politics to ignore him. These days not many try. During the summer, when the Wardlaws celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary at a downtown club, Mayor Hahn presented the couple with a city proclamation as a gift. Standing by his side, hard feelings forgotten for the moment, were Villaraigosa and Parks.
©Kevin Roderick 2005