THE MAYOR UNDER FIRE : 7 Days That Shook City Hall : Week of Political Drama Poses the Greatest Threat Yet to Bradley
In mid-afternoon Wednesday, amid the anarchy of Los Angeles City Hall, Councilman Richard Alatorre picked up his telephone and called beleaguered City Atty. James K. Hahn, who was under relentless attack from lawmakers who believed that he was bungling the investigation of Mayor Tom Bradley.
Hahn was on the 18th floor of City Hall East, the square high-rise in back of the ornamented old City Hall, his office looking out over the city in which his father, County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and now he, played a prominent political role. But the father had never been in the situation that faced the son.
City Council President John Ferraro had just sent a letter to James Hahn demanding that he speed up the investigation and perhaps accept help from the council. Other council members were demanding the same. A misstep or show of weakness could abort a promising political career.
Alatorre--profane, blunt, toughened by political battles here and in Sacramento, where he was a legislative leader--warned Hahn against surrendering. Alatorre not only is a supporter of Hahn but is Bradley’s leading backer on the council and a foe of those council members demanding a more aggressive, council-run investigation of the mayor.
Fired Off Letter
“You’re going to get your . . . kicked if you bend over and bow to pressure,” Alatorre said.
Hahn held firm. He fired off a letter to Ferraro turning down his demands and saying that the city attorney, as an elected official, was accountable only to the voters of Los Angeles. Although the controversy over his investigation continued, Hahn survived the momentary crisis. He was alive to fight another day.
That brief conversation was one of the many dramatic moments of a week that may be forever ingrained in the memories of the participants. It was a week that changed power relationships in City Hall, made some people winners and some losers and created the gravest threat yet to what had seemed to be the almost-permanent mayoralty of Bradley.
And with the story on the front pages of the newspapers each day and leading the evening television news, the politically heated investigation of the mayor suddenly brought the city government into sharp public focus.
“I go to cocktail parties with my nonpolitical friends, and I can bring up Bradley and they know what I am talking about,” political consultant Allan Hoffenblum said.
That was a change for a city that has become famous for civic apathy, a metropolis where less than 20% of the voters went to the polls in the last mayoral election.
After that, novelist Joan Didion wrote in the New Yorker: “Maybe a hundred people in Los Angeles, besides the handful of reporters now assigned to City Hall, actually follow city and county politics. A significant number of the hundred are lawyers at Manatt.”
The reverberations of this past week, dominated by hearings by Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky’s Finance and Revenue Committee, went far beyond the offices of Manatt--Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Phillips, the highly political Westside law firm headed by former Democratic National Chairman Charles Manatt. Manatt partner Mickey Kantor is part of Bradley’s defense team.
The new awareness of life at City Hall, said political consultant Patrick Caddell, could touch off voter protest in a city that has been so silent politically that he calls it a place full of “dogs that don’t bark.”
The investigation, he said, reveals “a lackadaisical attitude by the political community to the frustrations in the city, a failure of the political community to respond to its responsibilities. It is going to invite a voter revolt. It will almost demand it.”
Councilman Ernani Bernardi also noted the phenomenon of voter disillusionment with City Hall. While expressing sympathy with the mayor (“I hate to see Tom get in this situation; he must be miserable.”), Bernardi said the week’s revelations make it appear “you can’t get anything done in City Hall unless you know someone.”
Most affected was the mayor. An official in the city treasurer’s office testified before the committee Thursday about what he called a “cover-up” in records of two deposits of $1 million each in Far East National Bank, which had employed Bradley as an adviser. He said the words “per the mayor,” written on a deposit document, had been covered by white correction fluid after a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner had inquired about Bradley and the bank.
Treasurer Leonard Rittenberg and another official in the office testified differently, saying the blotting out had occurred before the reporter’s inquiry. Rittenberg’s testimony, and that of his assistants, revealed that the treasurer’s office, long a City Hall backwater ignored by press and politicians, was riddled with long feuds and hot office politics.
Another twist to a most complex plot was added by Bradley’s deputy mayor, Mike Gage, who said he had spoken to Rittenberg about the Far East deposit but only to ascertain whether putting money in Far East was part of its customary deposit policy.
Whatever the truth, even Bradley supporters said the mayor did not come out of this week a winner.
“One does not have to be a political analyst to see the political damage,” one said.
Will he be forced from office, either by recall or from suffering so much political damage that he will be forced to resign?
Political consultant Hoffenblum said Bradley has “a reservoir of good will.”
“I don’t see a ‘hang-the-bum’ type of feeling. He has been mayor so long. It is not a Nixon type of approach. There had always been a public distrust of Richard Nixon. Tom Bradley is more like Ronald Reagan, well liked by a variety of people,” Hoffenblum said.
Should more damaging revelations emerge, he added, “my feeling is his trouble will come from the insiders and power brokers downtown.”
“If they feel he is no longer effective,” they will ask him to quit, he said.
But, Hoffenblum said, if “this is on the front pages for 10 days, (he’s) cooked.”
“I think he will be out by the end of the year,” he said.
“I’ve said for some weeks he is in trouble, and he potentially could be recalled,” Caddell said.
But another political consultant, Joseph Cerrell, said: “I am in a small minority of guys who do not think this is a major catastrophe. I will probably eat these words, but I expect Tom Bradley will serve out this term.”
Inside the mayoral office suite Friday, the assessment was more optimistic, although aides said Bradley, behind his stoic exterior, was not happy.
“It is like someone throwing stones at someone on a pedestal, and he is fighting back the best way he knows how for his dignity and reputation,” Bradley aide Philip Depoian said.
As for the hearings, he said, “I think from the beginning of the hearings until Thursday (when they recessed) there has been no information damaging to the mayor politically or ethically.”
Noting the testimony about the fighting inside the treasurer’s office, Depoian said: “What we have here is a feud between lower-level officials. It may be titillating to the press and to the public that is following it, but there are no answers.”
As the tumult of the week ended and a late Friday afternoon calm settled on City Hall, council aides and outside political consultants counted up the other winners and losers.
In looking at the score card, City Atty. Hahn, under fire for two days until his sharp counterattack on Wednesday, was damaged by revelations that auditors from City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie’s office--shiny-pants accountants, Comrie called them--made the big discovery: the whited-out reference to Bradley.
Hahn’s investigators were accused of missing the discovery, something Hahn denied. On the positive side, interviews with mayoral personnel indicated that Hahn’s crew was on the job. One aide said he was questioned for an hour by two attorneys and an investigator. Friday morning, Hahn seemed in good humor when he dropped by the office of his press secretary, Mike Qualls.
“I’m holding up pretty good,” he said. “But this certainly is an unusual situation.”
As for the impact on his political career, Hahn said: “The stakes were established here that this is a lose-lose situation. I don’t think it can inure to anyone’s political benefit.”
The tensions in the office were evident. Just before Hahn came in, Qualls had just finished muttering obscenities about what he considered errors in a story about Hahn.
Charles Goldenberg, the deputy city attorney in charge of the investigation, said: “What did Andy Warhol say--15 minutes of fame? I’ve had mine and I don’t need any more.”
For Yaroslavsky, his role as chairman of the investigating Finance and Revenue Committee was a needed political plus for a man who had been written off as faint-hearted when he pulled out of a race against Bradley this year.
Not a lawyer, he had to work hard to ask the right questions. His aide, Alisa Katz, took careful notes, and each night, after she had taken care of her family, they talked on the phone for two hours, going over the day’s testimony.
Then Katz stayed up until 1 a.m. writing out questions on her word processor. Yaroslavsky did the same at his house. They met in the office at 8:30 a.m. for final preparations.
Despite all the work, there were critics.
“The questions were much longer than the answers,” Councilman Nate Holden said.
Other winners were Ferraro and Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores. Ferraro took advantage of his position as council president to put pressure on Hahn and then backed Flores’ idea of a new committee to take over the entire investigation.
If that happens, it would be a loss for another council member, Michael Woo, chairman of the Government Operations Committee, which originally handled the probe. As Yaroslavsky, Ferraro and Flores captured the headlines, Woo was pushed to the background.
It was, one Bradley aide said, maneuvering for the post-Bradley era by council members who wanted to be mayor.
“Except,” he said, “they want the post-Bradley era to begin this year.”
Ferraro and Yaroslavsky said they are aware that critics will note that their own personal futures and ambitions might be helped by their investigation of the mayor.
“I have a responsibility as president of the City Council, and people would not want me to ignore the problems, the controversy that is facing the city,” Ferraro said. “I want to do things properly. I don’t want to appear to be pushing.”
“My own personal feeling has been to bend over backward to be fair, to get the facts, get the truth, not at anyone’s expense,” Yaroslavsky said.