Local Elections : Even in a Wheelchair, Hahn Is the Man to Beat

Times Staff Writer

As his fellow board members slogged through an agenda of zoning cases and planning issues on a recent Thursday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn sat 6 miles away at a Baptist church listening to a group of black ministers pray for his reelection.

Still largely confined to a wheelchair 18 months after a debilitating stroke, Hahn beamed as one clergyman after another left the pews, squeezed his right hand and spoke out passionately for his recovery--both physically and politically.

“We had said we wanted a black man in his position,” said the Rev. P. J. Jones, turning to smile at the white supervisor. “But I don’t know of anyone downtown who is blacker than Kenny Hahn. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but he’s blacker than the mayor.”

The portrayal of Hahn as a “black politician” who eclipses even Tom Bradley, Los Angeles’ mayor and a longtime symbol of black political power, drew laughter and some applause from the 50 ministers. But no one challenged the statement, nor did anyone hesitate to endorse the 67-year-old man who sat with his paralyzed left hand strapped to his wheelchair and a tissue resting on his lap.


“Some people ask about Kenny Hahn’s health,” said another minister at the pulpit. “Well, let me tell you, he can do more from his wheelchair than other politicians can do from their limousines.”

These are indeed extraordinary times for Hahn, who has represented the 2nd Supervisorial District--a heavily minority and largely black district that stretches from Culver City to Lynwood--for nearly 36 years.

Hahn, who is running for a record 10th term--40 years in office--has long enjoyed a political popularity that borders on the reverential. But despite a history of steamrollering election-year opponents, he faces eight challengers in the June 7 primary, including several former supporters who question his slow comeback from the stroke.

“I have voted for him in the past,” said Roye Love, 52, a county welfare administrator who now opposes Hahn. “But his physical condition should not permit him to continue because the level of his representation is grossly inadequate.”


Gil Smith, a former Carson mayor whose candidacy also has support from Baptists ministers, added that Hahn’s illness has only magnified what had been signs of deteriorating leadership and a lack of effectiveness on the board.

“Kenny is a friend, but the district has been without adequate representation even before he suffered the stroke,” said Smith, 53, who calls Hahn a part-time supervisor. “This is a job which requires new leadership, new thought, new involvement.”

Although Hahn is considered a clear favorite to hang onto his $81,505-a-year job, his opponents hope to force him into a runoff by hammering away at his absences from board meetings and by reminding the district’s 608,000 voters that their communities are still plagued by crime, poor economic conditions and high unemployment.

Richard Atkins, a 62-year-old Inglewood businessman who managed only 3% of the vote against Hahn in 1984, said he is back in the race because the incumbent is “an incapacitated politician” who is unwilling to give up control of “his official kingdom” while he attempts to battle back from a serious illness.

Missed Meetings

Hahn suffered his stroke in January, 1987, and missed several months of work. After returning in August, he was absent for about half the supervisorial meetings. And although his attendance has improved over the last few months, Hahn still routinely departs early for rest or physical therapy, and his staff closely regulates his public appearances.

What Hahn has not done, however, is curtail his penchant for the press conferences and publicity that have marked his political career and that he uses to enhance his reelection chances.

Hahn called reporters to push for “summit meetings’ on gang violence and traffic congestion, and to unveil his plans to reorganize mass transit in Los Angeles. He also used the media to dare people to find things wrong in his district, offering a $1 reward for every pothole sighting and a $5 reward for finding a flooded intersection.


During the Southern California Rapid Transit District’s deliberations over a new general manager, Hahn peppered the leading candidate with letters and telegrams urging him to accept the offer--he didn’t--and then sent copies to reporters. And last week, Hahn distributed copies of a personalized “endorsement” letter from former President Richard M. Nixon that he said backs his candidacy--although he received the letter last October.

Chance to Speak

As he did before his stroke, Hahn unabashedly uses the board meetings as opportunities to speak out for county labor unions and push his own views--at one point angering fellow Supervisor Pete Schabarum, who denounced Hahn as a political demagogue. But Hahn refuses to apologize for his political nature.

“I still make news. I don’t say, ‘Give me my shawl and let me go to sleep,’ ” he said. “Kenny Hahn is going to keep speaking out on the issues and think of new ideas until he has no more breath.”

Among his pet ideas that have been implemented are telephone call boxes on local freeways, the county’s paramedic system and Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. He also is the author of a 1980 ballot measure that continues to provide sales tax dollars for mass transit.

“A lot of people wish he were strong and more vigorous, but the name ‘Hahn’ is still magic--no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Bishop H. H. Brookins, an influential clergyman who had tried to persuade Hahn to step down from office.

Brookins and other close Hahn allies had expressed concern over the supervisor’s health and worried privately that if Hahn is unable to complete another four-year term, Gov. George Deukmejian would be in a position to appoint a successor.

But Brookins and others now support Hahn, who has capitalized on his incumbency and his ability to raise money while opponents scrape for campaign funds and any public forum.


Fat War Chest

A recent $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner pushed his campaign treasury to $430,000, according to his aides--more money than his combined opponents intend to spend. The highly visible Hahn name is also back at its accustomed election-year place--on a billboard off the well-traveled San Diego Freeway.

If his opponents needed any reminders of Hahn’s influence, Gil Smith pointed to a meeting last January that he had organized to inform business representatives and potential contributors that he was interested in running for Hahn’s seat. As he arrived for the downtown meeting, Smith said, the first person he encountered was Mas Fukai, Hahn’s chief deputy.

“That sent all kinds of signals to people there,” Smith said of Fukai’s presence. “Later I heard that half the people got phone calls telling them, ‘If you make a contribution to (Smith), don’t bother to come into Hahn’s office anymore.’ ”

Fukai told The Times that he recalled attending the event but denied Smith’s charge of intimidating prospective campaign donors, describing it as “a bunch of baloney.”

Still, some of Hahn’s opponents complain that he has a stranglehold on the district.

“It’s an uphill battle,” said Esther Lofton, 57, a Hahn challenger who lists herself on the ballot as an educator-administrator. “This community doesn’t vote on issues, it votes on personalities, and (Hahn) has tremendous financial power that nobody else has.”

Joseph Gardner, 57, a retired county employee, agreed. “There have been no campaign forums because the incumbent is not able to attend, and the news media have conceded that no one can beat him,” he said. “But I’m trying.”

Another candidate, Yancy Rosborough, 53, a county administrator in the custodial unit of the Department of Health Services, said that Hahn has become complacent and has not done enough to rid the district of violent crime and to find youths more job opportunities.

That same theme is echoed by Al Cunningham, 42, the manager of a trucking firm who said Hahn has begun to neglect the district. “The biggest issues are crimes and gangs in our community, and Hahn just can’t deal with those problems in his current state of health. It’s all lip service.”

The lone Republican in the nonpartisan race is also the youngest. Rayne R. Baughman, 24, owner of a valet parking firm and a law student, said he is banking on his Westchester community to help his candidacy. But he added that he has other goals.

“What I am really after,” he said, “is to go after a staff position.”