April 8, 2004
A Walk in Rick Orlov’s City Hall
Rick Orlov of the Los Angeles Daily News, long known as the dean of City Hall reporters, is that rare media type who has no enemies. That's because he's long had a reputation for being an old-fashioned straight shooter who honors secrets not only in print, but also in hallway gossip.
"He's a person you can trust," Richard Riordan remarked once when he was mayor. "He's not some young person trying to prove himself with a gotcha."
"A big part of it is, you don't play favorites," Orlov said recently over lunch at Pete's Café & Bar, the new downtown hangout for local pols. He's covered City Hall for the Daily News since 1988; I worked with him there in the early '80s, when he was city editor. "I always remember what an editor told me when I started out: 'These people are not your friends,'" Orlov added.
Orlov, 55, was born in Chicago and spent his early years in the Midwest. His parents, both children of Russian Jewish immigrants, met in Los Angeles during World War II at a Hillel-sponsored dance; his father was in the Navy and his mother was a UCLA student. When he was 11, Orlov's family moved to Encino, where his father managed an insurance office, and his religious training ended.
"Up until then, I had been in Hebrew school studying for a bar mitzvah and we attended temple regularly," Orlov said. "But when we came here, my father got in a fight with the rabbi at our new temple, and since his own religious background was minimal, our family became fairly secular. We had Passover seders ... but most of the rest was abandoned."
Orlov, who's a bachelor of the old-fashioned, married-to-his-work newspaperman type, is such a City Hall institution that for years no one complained about his lighting up cigarette after cigarette in full view of the mayor and various councilmembers and their aides. Puffing away in office buildings has, of course, long been illegal, but Orlov's chainsmoking habit apparently was tacitly OK'd under some sort of grandfather clause. It's a moot point now, since he gave up the cigs (and lost 30 pounds) after he was diagnosed with diabetes a couple years ago.
"When they cut off your toes it gets your attention," said Orlov, who now gets around with a duck-headed cane and a handicapped parking pass. He can still drink, which is fortunate, as a key technique of his schmoozey style of information gathering is his endearing willingness to buy everyone a round.
Another newspaper tradition he's kept up is open cynicism about the grandstanding and ineffective ways of local politicians, particularly the L.A. City Council.
"They came out against Proposition 187, so you knew it would pass," he said. "And then there's the war in Iraq. They were against the Patriot Act, and there's a lot of things to dislike about the Patriot Act, but I can't believe anyone in Washington cares what the L.A. City Council thinks."
Over the years, Orlov has seen City Council demographics change along with those of Los Angeles.
"When I came to City Hall in 1988, five of the 15 council members were Jewish and the Bradley administration had a strong presence from the Jewish community in staff jobs, contributors and political advisers. Today I think the only Jewish members are Wendy Greuel, Jack Weiss and, through conversion for marriage, Jan Perry," he said about the African American.
"Councilman Bernard Parks counts a number of advisers from the Jewish community, as does Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilman Dennis Zine," Orlov continued. "Mayor James Hahn does not seem to have the same level of Jewish support that went either to Richard Riordan or Tom Bradley. Hahn's tried to inherit it, but he's had a hard time."
Much of the Jewish community, Orlov noted, was split between Hahn and Villaraigosa in the mayoral election. "That was primarily due to Riordan's backing of Villaraigosa," he noted, "as well as from Jewish leaders like Eli Broad. I'm not sure it has made much of a difference on the council as far as its policies, since it remains a heavily Democratic body that is generally more liberal in its policies than the city's population, and, as in the past, composed of activists on social issues."
Even if he hadn't had to cut back his drinking, which used to extend to Friday evening boozefests at the Daily News press office in City Hall, Orlov finds local politics these days not only less Jewish, but less colorful. "The Riordan administration was more fun because they were so unprofessional politically," he said. "Riordan would just say whatever was on his mind, whereas [Mayor James] Hahn has been around politics since he was 5 years old."
We drove back to the underground City Hall parking garage, and I was impressed by the Dean of City Hall's prime parking space. Rick smiled.
"It's that whole Deandom thing," he said. Â