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Hahn Was Unable to Connect With City

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When James K. Hahn won his first elected office as Los Angeles city controller in June 1981, Mayor Tom Bradley hailed the victory as nothing less than the launch of a "dynasty."

There was talk that the 30-year-old son of the revered county supervisor, Kenneth Hahn, would run for governor someday. "Because of his name, everybody will be watching with high expectations," said Nate Holden, a future city councilman who was a Hahn campaign advisor at the time.

Seven elections and 24 years later, the politician with the magic family name has become the first one-term mayor of Los Angeles since the Great Depression.

To Hahn's supporters, his historic loss Tuesday was a sad end for a decent man who courageously sacrificed his political future for the sake of the city, alienating crucial voters with his campaign against San Fernando Valley secession and his move to oust the city's second black police chief.

But Hahn's defeat also marked the fall of a mayor whose administration was tarnished by criminal probes and accusations that he created a "pay to play" culture in City Hall.

And it reflected the repudiation of a leader who never really connected with Angelenos at a time when voters were looking for more than an understated technocrat. "Voters have a different expectation of their leaders today," said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, describing a political climate transformed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, another bland, low-profile politician whose fundraising activities irked voters.

"Voters want someone who is going to be looking out for them. I don't think he was able to demonstrate that," Sragow said of Hahn.

Battling Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa through the two-month runoff, Hahn portrayed himself as a tough-minded reformer who rejuvenated the Los Angeles Police Department in his first term and would rescue the city's ailing public schools in his second.

Instead, voters saw an introverted chief executive whose frenetic campaigning couldn't disguise his inability to tackle some of the city's most stubborn problems, such as traffic and failing public schools.

"I look at New York or San Francisco, at mayors who are doing things," said Michele Gillman, a 48-year-old wedding consultant from Sunland. "We feel like we don't have a mayor."

It is a particularly cruel epitaph for a man who entered politics under the tutelage of the widely acclaimed king of grass-roots politics in Los Angeles.

In a record 10 terms on the county Board of Supervisors, Kenneth Hahn became a legend for his common touch and for the fierce loyalty he engendered in his constituents, including the African American community of South Los Angeles.

The supervisor — a politician who, it was said, wouldn't miss the opening of an envelope — was a constant presence on the streets of his district, where he ministered to those who needed potholes filled and funerals financed.

Kenneth Hahn won a place in the city's political annals for getting call boxes on the county's freeways, helping to build a county hospital in Willowbrook after the 1965 Watts riots and bringing the Dodgers west from Brooklyn, N.Y.

In a gesture that still resonates deeply with older African Americans, Kenneth Hahn was the only elected politician to meet the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the airport when he came to Los Angeles in 1961.

In 1980, he also ushered his only son into the family business.

But the younger Hahn — who readily acknowledged that his election as controller the next year was "because my middle name was Kenneth and my last name was Hahn" — never mastered the political artistry of his father.

Hahn once noted that his sister Janice, now a city councilwoman, was more like their late father. "She got all his charm and personality, and I got his height," he said.

In four years as controller and 16 as city attorney, Hahn would become a very different kind of politician.

Toiling away in city offices that rarely attract headlines, he avoided the backslapping and glad-handing that fueled his father's success. When he ran for mayor in 2001 after being forced out of the city attorney's office by term limits, Hahn presented himself as the steady, safe choice with the stolid campaign slogan: "City experience that really counts."

Almost immediately after his election, however, the new mayor confronted decisions that would profoundly affect the city's future and his own.

An escalating secession movement in the San Fernando Valley was threatening to fracture the city.

And a dispirited Police Department under Chief Bernard C. Parks was struggling with the taint of a brutality scandal and soaring crime rates.

Risking the support of African Americans who had voted in overwhelming numbers for him, Hahn moved in early 2002 to block the reappointment of Parks, the first black police officer to rise through the ranks to become chief.

Later that year, he helped raise $6.3 million to beat back the secession movement in the Valley, which had also been key to his mayoral victory.

"They were both enormously important decisions for Los Angeles," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a former USC law professor who played central roles in rewriting the City Charter and reforming the Police Department. "I so admire him for those two actions, especially because they both alienated a core constituency."

Hahn paid a steep price. African American leaders, who had been so central to his 2001 victory, felt betrayed by what they said was the disrespectful way he pushed out Parks. Many have never forgiven him.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church and other African American leaders whose ties to the Hahn family went back decades blessed Villaraigosa.

And in the Valley, the mayor lost support from many of its most influential civic and business leaders.

Hahn tried in his reelection campaign to turn his vulnerabilities to his benefit, presenting himself as the mayor who made tough decisions and worked steadily, if incrementally, to make life better in Los Angeles.

But a solid majority of likely voters polled by The Times throughout the election campaign said they were unhappy with Hahn's policies and believed Los Angeles needed to move in a new direction.

Layered on top of those frustrations was the growing perception — fed by media reports of criminal subpoenas, resignations and fundraising improprieties — that Hahn presided over corruption in City Hall.

Hahn consistently maintained that he had never tolerated impropriety and was unaware of any wrongdoing in his administration. No one in his administration has been charged with a crime.

But the mayor, who rode a Boy Scout image to victory in 2001, also put some of his key political fundraisers in charge of the Port of Los Angeles, the airports and the Department of Water and Power. And he worked with them to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies that did business with the city.

Hahn's aides consulted frequently with public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard to craft events paid for by the city's public utility that showcased the mayor. The firm last month agreed to a $5.7-million settlement after the city sued, alleging that Fleishman had systematically padded its bills. One of its top executives has been indicted in a fraud case.

The investigations took a toll. Times polls throughout the election consistently showed that more than a third of likely voters thought Hahn lacked the integrity to serve as mayor.

Just as worrisome for the mayor, nearly two-thirds of the respondents in a Times poll in April could think of nothing when asked to name his most important accomplishments.

This, despite Hahn's not insubstantial record.

Crime has fallen dramatically since Hahn tapped William J. Bratton to head the Police Department. Hahn expanded after-school programs, boosted funding for affordable housing and helped negotiate a deal with Sacramento to keep more tax revenue in Los Angeles.

The mayor frequently blamed the media for missing those stories.

But several political observers said Hahn — a naturally reserved man who for most of his term seemed to shrink from the limelight — also neglected the political imperative to communicate and connect.

That, as much as anything, may be the story of his one term.

"If you are mayor of Los Angeles or San Francisco or any big city — but especially in a city as diffuse as Los Angeles — you have to spend a huge amount of time out in the community, going to community meetings, homeowner associations, ballgames," said Bill Boyarsky, a former Times city editor and columnist who covered mayoral politics for more than two decades. "You have to be part of the fabric of the city."

That, by and large, was not Hahn's style.

Raising two children as a separated father in San Pedro, Hahn once said he wanted "to show that an ordinary guy with a family can be the mayor of the second-largest city in America and still be a guy who lives in a middle-class neighborhood."

But this "ordinary guy" often seemed uncomfortable communicating with ordinary Angelenos. And he struggled to build relationships with other civic leaders that could have eased passage of his chief initiatives. His bid to raise the city sales tax to hire more police collapsed, in part, because few City Council members felt any loyalty to the mayor. Hahn's calendar for his nearly four years in office showed the mayor scheduled, on average, less than one meeting a day.

And though other city leaders led drives to cut business taxes, build more rail lines and reduce pollution, Hahn remained largely on the sidelines.

Even one of his biggest successes — City Council approval of an $11-billion makeover at Los Angeles International Airport — probably never would have happened if a determined city councilwoman, Cindy Miscikowski, had not stepped in to resuscitate his moribund plan.

"When you're mayor of the city, you've got to pull people together. You've got to build relationships," said west San Fernando Valley Councilman Dennis Zine, a Republican who initially backed Hahn but switched to Villaraigosa.

"His ability to reach out and connect just really wasn't there," Zine explained. "It's the reason why people weren't with him."

In the end, many Angelenos cursing at gridlock on the freeways and saving money to get their children out of the troubled public schools didn't know what Hahn was doing to ease their tribulations.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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