The Politician’s Politician : Supervisor: Kenneth Hahn was the master at getting potholes fixed and not missing a photo opportunity. He is retiring after 40 years in office, leaving a legacy of achievement.


He always traveled with a shovel in his car trunk--the better for impromptu groundbreakings--and his eyes open for any pothole bold enough to disfigure the streets of his beloved 2nd District.

His accomplishments range from the ballclub he helped lure from Brooklyn to the freeway call boxes he championed to the myriad civic edifices bearing his name.

But when Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, undisputed master of pothole politics and king of the photo opportunity, retires Monday after 40 years in office, he leaves behind more than mere monuments.


He leaves behind the Kenny Hahn Anecdote.

Every aficionado of Los Angeles political lore, it seems, has one.

“I remember when we used to meet planes of visiting dignitaries at the airport,” Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus said. “I would always stand next to Kenny, who would say: ‘Move here, Joy. Stand still, Joy.’ He would direct me. He always knew better than anybody where to position himself. And I hoped that I learned his lessons well.”

“Kenny’s first rule of politics was to always make sure he got in the middle of the picture,” said Bob Bush, a former Hahn press deputy, “so he couldn’t get cropped off (in newspaper photos). . . . He also kept ribbon, a scissors and a shovel in his car trunk so that he could have instant ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings.”

In fact, there were two shovels: one silver and one gold.

“If Boys Market is having a groundbreaking,” said Victoria Pipkin, a Hahn aide, “they get the silver shovel. When he does a library or a hospital, those are gold shovel events because those are ‘his projects.’ ”

The folksy 72-year-old Hahn made his mark as a backslapping, old-school politician who to this day is frequently seen wearing a weathered Stetson hat. When he first was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1952, Los Angeles had one freeway, Red Cars ruled the streets and City Hall was the tallest building in town.

As Los Angeles County grew larger, more sophisticated and more diverse, Hahn maintained his popularity while practicing the politics of a bygone political era.

Before he was slowed by a 1987 stroke, Hahn drove to work a different route each day with tape recorder in hand looking for chuckholes. He once offered $1 for every pothole sighting in his district. “I only had to pay $3,” he boasted.


Such attention to basic constituent services is the reason most often cited for why Hahn, a white politician, was reelected by landslide margins in a South-Central district that has become predominantly Latino and black.

He was elected 10 times--a California record that is not likely to be broken in this era of term limits. Even in 1968, only three years after the Watts riots, Hahn received 69% of the vote against a respected black opponent, former councilman and current Judge Billy Mills. In 1988, a year after suffering the stroke, Hahn was reelected by 84% of the vote.

“He is as talented a local politician as I can imagine in American politics,” said Morgan Kousser, a Caltech political history professor. “He did all the things that politicians are supposed to do.”

No matter was beyond the scope of his official duties as a supervisor.

He sent letters to residents, generals and even Popes--with copies always going to the county press room. They are included in the more than 250 boxes of papers that Hahn has donated to the Huntington Library.

A 1953 letter to Henry Ford II demanded the auto maker’s cooperation in fighting smog. A 1981 missive asked President Ronald Reagan to intervene in the baseball strike.

Hahn, a deeply religious man who often quotes Scripture, recently said: “There is a verse in the Bible: Pharaoh grew up and did not know Joseph, who saved the Egyptians. If they forgot him , I said, they’re not going to forget Kenny Hahn. I used that verse to tell every department to put up a big sign every time I was building a new fire station, a new hospital, a swimming pool.”


Many were named after him, enabling Hahn to boast that when he retires, “I’m going fishing at Kenny Hahn Park.”

Other reminders of his legacy include the newly christened Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, which joins the Kenneth Hahn Shopping Plaza, the Kenneth Hahn Swimming Pool, the Kenneth Hahn Community Center and Kenneth Hahn Lake. The legendary supervisor even managed to get his name on the Hahn Trolley, a shuttle bus in Watts.

Always skilled at grabbing headlines, Hahn proposed statehood for Los Angeles County, pushed for construction of a pipeline to bring water from Alaska to drought-stricken Southern California, put the Fire Department on alert to watch out for falling Skylab debris, and dispatched the heads of warring transit agencies to a boat in Marina del Rey and ordered them not to return until they worked out their differences.

His proudest accomplishments include his role in placing call boxes on freeways, establishing the paramedic program, bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles and building dozens of public facilities, from Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center to the Music Center. He successfully led the fight to establish the sales tax that is helping to bankroll rail transit in Los Angeles. He even designed the county flag and county seal.

In 1961, Hahn was the only politician who greeted Martin Luther King Jr. on his arrival in Los Angeles. He also was the first supervisor to appoint a black deputy, selecting the late Gilbert Lindsay, who went on to become a local legend in his own right as a member of the Los Angeles City Council.

A new era in county politics begins Monday, when Hahn’s successor, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, is sworn in as the first African-American elected to the five-member board.


But the memories of Hahn are not likely to fade soon.

“Wherever you go in this town, somebody has got a Kenny Hahn story,” said Doug Ring, a former aide to ex-Supervisor Baxter Ward. “He touched so many lives.”

Ward likes to tell about the time in the mid-1970s when Hahn persuaded his fellow supervisor to join him on a Santa Monica Freeway on-ramp, handing out flyers to draw attention to their opposition to the diamond lane. Later, after reading that a citizen was fined $5 for doing the same thing, Hahn and Ward turned themselves in. “And we notified the press, of course,” Ward said.

“The judge grilled us both, then said to Kenny: ‘Supervisor Hahn, you know the law. You know as a pedestrian you are supposed to stay on the curb, but the moment you set foot on the on-ramp, you violated the state Motor Vehicle Code. Why would you do that?’ Kenny looked up at the judge and said: ‘Your Honor, Baxter pushed me.’ ”

The Rev. Cecil Murray, senior pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South-Central Los Angeles, first met Hahn 16 years ago. But before he met the man, he met the voice.

Murray was at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, heading down the hall toward a gathering, when he heard a distinctive, gravelly voice over the loudspeaker system.

“I heard this brother not really preaching, but he had the preacher’s tone, the preacher’s hum, and he was talking about things biblical. And the people were going ‘Amen. Praise the Lord.’ . . . When I reach the auditorium, I see this gentleman talking. He is not black. . . . As I draw nearer, it is Kenny Hahn, the preacher’s preacher, the politician’s politician.”


Emily Williams, Hahn’s secretary, recounted that while accompanying her boss on a drive through the district, he pointed out the house where he had sought refuge during the Watts riots--and remembered the owner’s name 25 years later. And true to his reputation as the master politician, Hahn recently presented the woman with an honorary scroll.

Sheriff Sherman Block’s first meeting with Hahn came in 1956. “I was a deputy sheriff driving my patrol car down Hawthorne Boulevard when this gentleman flagged me down,” Block said. “He introduced himself as Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and wanted to know what was going on. When he found out I lived in his district, that enhanced the conversation.”

Gordon Hahn, the supervisor’s brother and a former Los Angeles city councilman, recalled his brother’s early exposure to politics.

“When we were little kids, Frank Shaw was a mayor of Los Angeles. He got all the little children in the area to pass out campaign literature and promised each of us an ice cream cone,” Gordon Hahn recalled. “When he was reelected, we went over to his house and said: ‘We’ve come for our ice cream cone.’ His wife said: ‘You did that for the good of the campaign,’ and I know Kenneth never forgot that. We said if we ever got into politics, if we made a promise, we’d carry it out.”

Hahn, one of seven boys raised by a widow during the Depression, was a humble man who used the same desk in his office and lived in the same modest house near Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue for 40 years.

His political career began in 1947, when at age 26, he became the youngest person elected to the Los Angeles City Council. Twice Hahn sought to become a U.S. senator, in 1958 and 1970, but was never able to win the Democratic nomination.


Hahn, who will receive a $126,442 annual pension, plans to remain politically active long enough to try to help another family member win political office. Janice K. Hahn, the supervisor’s daughter and sister of City Atty. James K. Hahn, is considering running for the Los Angeles City Council next year.

She might do well to heed some of the stories her father tells about himself.

Consider Hahn’s recollection of his failed battle to block the Harbor Freeway, whose construction meant the destruction of scores of houses in its path--including his mother’s home.

“I fought that freeway real hard. But once you’ve lost and the freeway’s built,” Hahn recalled, “you’d better be there to cut the ribbon.”

He cut the ribbon in 1957.