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Despite her shortcomings, Janice Hahn has the best grasp of the county supervisors' role

Despite her shortcomings, Janice Hahn has the best grasp of the county supervisors' role
U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Los Angeles), center, is running for the county seat being vacated by Supervisor Don Knabe. (Christina House / For The Times)

The late Deane Dana was elected to what was then an all-white, all-male, mostly conservative Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1980, the same year that Don Knabe entered political life. Knabe soon became Dana's chief of staff — and then succeeded him as county supervisor in 1996. Now Knabe nears the end of his tenure, and his senior deputy, Steve Napolitano, is running to succeed him. Voters in the county's Fourth District — anchored by Long Beach but stretching north and west along the coast to Marina del Rey, and north and east inland through Downey, Whittier and all the way to Diamond Bar — might choose to see Napolitano's candidacy as an unseemly bid to perpetuate a succession of political power for a small group of insiders. Or, in the alternative, as a welcome opportunity for steadiness and experience in an era of sweeping political change.

Janice Hahn acknowledges having had her sights on this office for years, through nearly three terms on the Los Angeles City Council and two and a half terms in Congress. The county Hall of Administration where she would serve is named after her father, Kenneth Hahn, a county supervisor for 40 years. A City Hall building down the street is named for her brother, James K. Hahn, who was Los Angeles mayor and city attorney. Her uncle Gordon Hahn served on the L.A. City Council and the state Legislature. A man, unrelated to her family but with the same name as Janice Hahn's father, was elected county assessor in the 1990s most likely because voters mistakenly thought they were voting for the Hahn family patriarch. Voters might see her run as a distasteful exercise in dynastic entitlement or, in the alternative, as a triumphant homecoming.

But the June 7 race (voting by mail is already underway) is not merely a battle over who is most politically entitled. It's an election for an extremely important office, with choices that are too limited. The matchup is enough to make a voter briefly consider the third candidate, Whittier Union High School District school board member Ralph Pacheco, a likable man with too narrow a vision of the supervisor's job. But that would be a cop-out. The Times endorses Hahn as the best candidate, but not without some serious concerns that will demand continuing vigilance if she is elected.

First, the reasons to prefer Hahn to the other candidates.

The essential job of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is to provide human services to those members of society who find themselves in deepest need of protection and assistance: the poor, the homeless, the sick, the addicted, children of neglectful or abusive parents, victims of crime, perpetrators of crime who desire to change their ways but cannot succeed without help. But its responsibilities also extend to the struggling working and middle class families needing better transportation options and sustainable wages, and all sectors of society who want, need and deserve clean beaches, open space, and recreation opportunities. It's common to think of those things as being the work of city governments, with their relatively well-known mayors, police chiefs and city councils. But in California, and especially in Los Angeles, those tasks are primarily the responsibility of below-the-radar county boards of supervisors.

People in need have long been the focus and the passion of Janice Hahn. If the current board loses direction, she is the candidate most likely to prick its conscience. If elected, she will join a majority already in the midst of refocusing the county on delivering crucially needed services.

Pacheco and Napolitano both approach the job as if the county were a small city and the Board of Supervisors a small city council that fields complaints about potholes and traffic signals. And yes, county government is all that, especially in unincorporated areas where no city government is around to do the job. But Los Angeles County is more like a state than a city. It requires a more sweeping vision and a deeper commitment. Of the three candidates, Hahn is the one who demonstrates the strongest grasp of the supervisor's job.

She brings to mind the common saying about people who work on behalf of others — that they are all heart. That's the greatest asset, and the biggest headache, with Hahn. She too often governs as if she's all heart.

There was no better reminder of that than her comment at a recent candidates' forum, when the subject turned to the homeless and how best to alleviate their misery. Hahn's suggestion: Dip into the county's reserve fund. After all, she explained, why else is that money there?

It's there to prevent the county from defaulting and failing to deliver any services to anyone at all. County supervisors — even those whose top priorities do not include fiscal prudence — need to know that.

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Twenty years ago, the county veered perilously close to bankruptcy, and the agonizing daily task of supervisors then was to strip people in need of one service after another — cut general relief, close clinics, slash payments to juvenile defense lawyers. In the years that followed, the board's fiscal prudence too often turned into resignation or exhaustion, and in their concern over the county budget the supervisors missed many opportunities to help those in their care.

A different attitude came with the election 18 months ago of liberal Democrats Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis. With Mark Ridley-Thomas, the new majority has reoriented the board toward a more vigorous embrace of the county's mission.

But this new board majority has governed during a still-brief period when the economy is sound. The three have yet to face serious setbacks. There are too few voices — at least, too few to which they seem to listen — cautioning them to balance their laudable ambitions against limits they have not yet faced.

The board needs such a voice. Napolitano says he can provide it, but he brings too little else. Hahn brings a lot more — but the fiscal reality checks that this Board of Supervisors needs will most likely have to come from somebody else.

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