State Journal

September 21, 2004 1 min read

A bizarre comment to a young student by California Secretary of Education Richard J. Riordan has led to a flurry of scrutiny over his job performance—and plenty of theories about his lack of discretion.

Mr. Riordan, 74, who was known for public relations gaffes during his tenure as mayor of Los Angeles, astounded bystanders at a public library event in Santa Barbara on July 1. While he was reading in front of television cameras to a group of boisterous youngsters, a 6-year-old girl asked Mr. Riordan if he knew that her name, Isis, means “Egyptian goddess.”

On a news clip broadcast across the state, Mr. Riordan appeared confused, then replied, “It means stupid, dirty girl.”

A few seconds later, he called the name “nifty.” Mr. Riordan, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s top education adviser, has apologized several times since the event.

Nonetheless, several civil rights groups are seeking the education secretary’s resignation. And California newspapers have since published several unflattering articles on Mr. Riordan’s performance since being appointed to the Cabinet post by the new governor late last year. Many editorial columns and letters to the editor also have denounced Mr. Riordan.

The governor continues to support his longtime friend, adviser, and fellow Republican. So far, Mr. Riordan has rejected calls to resign.

Meanwhile, theories abound over Mr. Riordan’s remark.

Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, cited Mr. Riordan’s history of ill-considered comments.

“If you’ve ever had a bad fuse that causes the houselights to flicker, then you have some sense of the temperamental organ protected by Dick Riordan’s skull,” he wrote in a July 7 column. “Either the wiring is frayed or a few synapses are gummed up.”

Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials, was more conciliatory toward Mr. Riordan: “His desire to be witty instead of passionate is where he falls short. Virtually everyone who knows him says the same thing, that his heart and intentions are always in the right place, and he really cares profoundly about kids.”

—Joetta L. Sack

A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week