Touting His Past, Vowing to Mold City's Future


James K. Hahn, the affable and curiously bland city attorney who is running for mayor, is the closest thing Los Angeles has to a crown prince. For 16 years he has toiled as its No. 2 executive, piling up accomplishments but also sharp criticism, and as he aims for the top spot he can rely on a deep campaign treasury, a retinue of leading strategists and an ancestry that just won't quit.

His father, the late Kenneth Hahn, was one of the most beloved pols in Los Angeles history, serving five years as a city councilman and then a record 40 years as a county supervisor, retiring in 1992. James' uncle, Gordon Hahn, was on the City Council for 10 years.

James Hahn, a Democrat, won his first election in 1981, as city controller, largely on the strength of his name. He was only 30, and his success at the polls would be an extraordinary feat in just about any other family.

"My dad was 26 when he was elected to the City Council," he said, hinting at the length of the paternal shadow.

Hahn is 50, 6-foot-3, with lots of gray in his brown hair, soft-voiced, reserved to the point of being guarded. And though he glowingly talks about his father at campaign appearances, he says he is running on his plans for the future--such as 1,000 more police, 100 more schools, no taxes for new small businesses for two years--and on his decades of experience, which some see as a plus and others a minus.

Having spent 80% of his career since law school as an elected city executive, he knows L.A.'s workings as do few Angelenos, from interpreting lowly sewer ordinances to helping draft the City Charter. And the accomplishments touted by his campaign go on for pages. Injunctions against violent street gangs. A $312-million tobacco settlement. Slumlords busted. An agreement from a major handgun maker to improve safeguards. Polluters fined.

But Hahn's long toil at the levers of government also has a political downside. He has overseen the spending of more than $1 billion in administrative costs and liability payouts in the last 20 years, and voters may associate him too closely with L.A.'s problems.

Perhaps most important, opponents say, is what he did not achieve as the head of a municipal law practice that now has 470 lawyers and 500 staff members.

Environmentalists, for instance, say his record on land preservation and water pollution is mixed at best. No major environmental group has endorsed him.

Some critics of the Los Angeles Police Department have said the city attorney, who prosecutes as well as defends police officers accused of misdemeanors, failed to do his part to root out bad cops--including members of the now notorious Rampart Division.

Gary Wigodsky, a lawyer in the Los Angeles County alternate public defender's office, said Hahn has not stood up to the LAPD in several ways, such as failing for years to tell the Police Department about officers being sued for alleged misconduct.

"The city attorney has discretion to take the lead, and James Hahn has not done that," Wigodsky said.

Hahn said his office's recently created Police Division relays information about alleged police corruption to LAPD supervisors. "Whether they've done anything about it is another question," he said. "A lawyer can give advice all day long, but I can't make my client follow the advice."

Therein lies one of Hahn's biggest challenges, political analysts say, in connecting with voters who don't know him or his father's legacy: Can he shed his legalistic detachment and come fully into his own? In other words, is he a lawyer or a leader?

Hahn, who cannot run again for city attorney because of term limits, would by all accounts be a pragmatic mayor, an easygoing advocate of the small step, not a visionary or reformer or chairman of the board.

Supporters describe him as a consensus-finder and bridge-builder, quietly innovative, a hands-off manager with a deep knowledge of the city's governance and an abiding love of public service. Detractors say he's plodding, timid, reactive rather than assertive, a mediocre attorney coasting on a political sinecure.

Whether they support or oppose Hahn, people who know him agree on two things. Despite an often dull public persona, they say, he has sharp political skills, honed at his father's side. And, as a former Hahn aide who is backing a different candidate put it, "He's as honest a politician as you can get."

Enduring Appeal of Family Legacy

Hahn's relationship with his father and the man's towering reputation is not only crucial to his makeup. It anchors his mayoral bid.

His strongest voting base remains the largely African American communities of his father's old district, straddling the Harbor Freeway. In Central and South L.A., Crenshaw, West Adams and Watts, the legacy still rings.

"I'm going with the family name," said Frank Myles, a 33-year-old Watts resident, when asked at a campaign event why he'll vote for James. "The Hahns have done so much for the community." It doesn't matter that Hahn and his family now live in San Pedro, Myles said, "as long as he comes back and provides resources."

The same goes for Chuck Franklin, 68, a Crenshaw district resident. Though he could not cite an example of the younger Hahn's accomplishments, he said he'll vote for him because of a "feeling of comfort with the family name."

Kenneth Hahn, who died in 1997, seemingly never passed up a gathering if it meant shaking a few hands or getting a little ink. He reportedly kept a gold shovel in his trunk for ground-breakings.

He cleared the way for a park in the Baldwin Hills, now named after him; pioneered emergency call boxes on freeways as well as the paramedic system; put a public hospital in Willowbrook; designed the county seal; helped bring the Dodgers to Los Angeles.

Famed for the concrete gesture, he also embraced the symbolic. When Martin Luther King Jr. visited Los Angeles in 1961, Supervisor Hahn was the only elected official to greet him at the airport.

Kenneth and Ramona Hahn and their children, James and Janice, lived on West 89th Street in South Los Angeles. As a boy, the often-told story goes, Jimmy rode around with his father on Saturday mornings looking for potholes, which the supervisor promptly got filled.

James went to public schools, and got his bachelor's and law degrees at Pepperdine University, his parents' alma mater. After law school, he spent four years as a deputy city attorney and two in private practice before running for controller at his father's urging.

"Clearly the largest and most important figure in my life was my dad," Hahn said in a recent interview. "He is my hero. He is the person who sets the standard for public service. People loved him. I don't think you see politicians who are genuinely loved like he was loved by his constituents."

Regrettably, he said, he doesn't have his father's temperament. Kenneth Hahn was "much more outgoing, much more gregarious, more folksy, a better storyteller," he said. Janice, who is running for City Council, "is more like my dad. She got all his charm and personality, and I got his height," he quipped.

"Substance over style," he said, is the pattern of his career.

"His father was more of a glad-hander," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who supports the son's candidacy. "Jimmy is more subtle. . . . As a matter of fact, he's a bit understated."

Hahn, a devout member of the Church of Christ, guards his private life--perhaps, friends speculate, because of a childhood dominated by public life. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1979 after less than two years. He seldom appears at campaign events with his wife, Monica, and their children, Katrina, 11, and Jackson, 8, although they do appear in his campaign ads.

If the household he grew up in was a vibrant salon with the door always open to community folk and politicos, as others recall it, his current home--the tract house in which his wife was raised--is more of a retreat. Two of his top campaign aides, who are paid to know everything about him, couldn't say whether the Hahns had a dog. (They do, as of a few months ago.)

Asked about outside interests, Hahn is practically stumped. "If I have spare time, I like to be with my family, play with my kids. That's about it. . . . I'd like to be more of a homebody."

When Hahn talks about his father, which is frequently, it is with awe. But longtime friends of the candidate allude to other layers in the relationship.

"Jim once told me that as much as he loved his father, he wished he could have spent more time with him," said Chuck Fuentes, a former aide to Hahn and now chief of staff for Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk). "He was determined to spend as much quality time with his kids so they wouldn't resent him when they were older."

Robert Horner, who has known Hahn for 26 years and briefly teamed with him in private practice, said the two bonded because "both of us had extreme overachievers as fathers" and shared the "horror of sons growing up with these paths carved out for us."

Some observers describe Hahn's early career--his one term as controller and his first 12 years as city attorney--as low-key, even sleepy. But in 1997, he was goaded into a hard-fought city attorney race against Ted Stein, who accused Hahn of being soft on crime. (Stein now supports Hahn's candidacy.)

That same year, Hahn's father died, making the overshadowed son the head of the clan. And the Police Commission's inspector general released a report critical of the city attorney's dealings with the LAPD.

The city attorney's office "began to shake itself awake a few years ago and has been operating quite well," said one law expert who formerly disparaged Hahn's performance and did not want to be named.

Though there's reason to believe that Hahn has long eyed the mayor's job, he said he didn't seriously consider it until the Stein contest "showed me that I could be in a tough fight," he said. "It definitely woke me up as a candidate."

The first to declare for the 2001 election, he has been running hard for two years. More than 250 fund-raising events later, Hahn's campaign has amassed more money than any other mayoral bid, $3 million at last count.

Tension Between His Two Roles

The tension between Hahn's roles as the city's lawyer and its possible future leader is most evident in two areas, the environment and police.

Hahn says his environmental record surpasses that of any other candidate. He lists achievements such as fining companies for spilling oil into Los Angeles Harbor and prosecuting others for mishandling radioactive material.

But some environmentalists disagree with his self-assessment. Local chapters of the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters have endorsed former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa.

"We were looking for leadership on environmental issues, and it just wasn't there for Hahn," said Alan Aronson, political director of the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter.

Generally, environmentalists criticize Hahn because of positions that he has defended or supported on behalf of city executives or the City Council.

For example, the city attorney's office initially opposed efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency and advocacy groups to set required pollution limits for Santa Monica Bay and about 90 other bodies of water, said David Beckman, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"The city attorney's office has been working both publicly and behind the scenes to undermine a number of clean water programs," he said. However, he said the office may have been arguing on behalf of its client, the sanitation bureau.

"I'm getting beat up on environmental issues because we represent the Department of Public Works, the Bureau of Sanitation, trying to improve a very old sewer system," Hahn said. "Are we perfect yet? No. But as their lawyer, I have an obligation to . . . keep them out of hot water as much as possible."

Hahn's ambiguous role has played out in the case of a neglected rail yard in Chinatown called the "Cornfield." A developer, Majestic Realty, with the blessing of the mayor and Planning Commission, had proposed turning the 47-acre parcel into an industrial warehouse district.

But environmentalists and some community members, who wanted a park there, sued the developer and the city, saying the project was approved without required studies of its possible impact on air quality and other parts of the environment. Hahn's office has advised the planners and defended the city.

Two weeks ago, he said he still supported the developer's plans. Then, on Tuesday, Hahn and others announced at a news conference overlooking the property that the city and Majestic had settled the lawsuit by agreeing to sell the land for eventual conversion into a park.

Hahn said he was not free to "shoot my mouth off" before the agreement had been reached. But, he said, he agreed with the outcome and "would like to see more of this sort of thing happen."

Critics Fault Him on LAPD Issues

On the subject of the police, recent praise of Hahn's role in reforming the LAPD followed years of complaints that his office was disengaged.

Over the years, critics have faulted the city attorney's office for not telling the LAPD about lawsuits against police, blocking defense attorneys from obtaining information that could impeach officers' testimony, and not filing charges against officers accused of crimes--including officers referred by the LAPD itself. One case has a tie to crimes allegedly committed by officers of the Rampart Division.

In the spring of 1998, more than a year before the Rampart scandal surfaced, the LAPD asked the city attorney's office to review allegations of theft and unlawful search by Officers Rafael Perez and Nino Durden. A deputy city attorney did not file charges. But the now-disgraced Perez, the Rampart scandal's pivotal figure, later admitted that the allegations were true.

Wigodsky, the alternate public defender, says better handling of police cases by Hahn's office might have headed off some of the problems that dog the department today.

"There were complaints against Perez and colleagues that should have sent up red flags," he said.

That concern was echoed by USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who co-wrote a Rampart review that called for a study of how the city attorney's office might have prevented or better dealt with the corruption scandal.

"I wish Hahn had been more aggressive in pushing for reforms of [the] LAPD," he said.

Hahn, interviewed in his spacious corner office on the top floor of the 18-story City Hall East, said he was not aware that the LAPD had previously referred Perez to his office for possible charges. He said he couldn't specify how many police his office has prosecuted out of the 227 referred by the LAPD in the last five years. But he said his attorneys have "aggressively prosecuted LAPD officers for criminal conduct."

Defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., a supporter, said Hahn probably could have done more to foster police reform in the past, but "there's plenty of blame to go around."

Hahn impressed many, critics included, when he led negotiations last year on the so-called consent decree with the federal government. The Department of Justice had threatened to sue the city for the LAPD's allegedly illegal practices exposed in the Rampart scandal, and the decree, which Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks opposed, was the city's promise that the LAPD would improve.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who led the 1991 commission that called for reforming the LAPD, said Hahn's work on the consent decree is a prime reason he supports Hahn's candidacy.

Likewise for Gerald Chaleff, who as the Police Commission president worked on the decree alongside Hahn. Of the six major candidates, "Jim will do the best job of furthering the reforms that are necessary," Chaleff said.

Upbeat Assessment of City's Condition

At a mayoral debate last month in West Los Angeles that included Hahn and four other candidates, the moderator asked how they ranked the city's condition on a scale of one to 10, one being the best. The others said three, four or five.

Hahn said two.

Whether that off-the-cuff answer reflected his sunny outlook or what one detractor called his "go along, get along" philosophy, it jibed with his role in a political dynasty. He could hardly run on the premise that the city was in the pits, given that between him and his father a Hahn has been in high local elected office continuously since 1947.

Perhaps the closest he has come to defining his approach as mayor was in his brief campaign kickoff speech, in which he used the phrase "quality of life" three times.

So he proposes more buses, more police on the beat, schools kept open beyond classroom hours to keep kids out of trouble, an expanded Los Angeles International Airport, more left turn signals to ease congestion.

His two decades in office have been heavy on legal briefs and budgets and meetings, he said, and the mayor's job has a concrete element that appeals to him. Some observers may recognize that appeal as a sign of a family trait.

"I think it's the desire to have something to show for it, that you did make a positive difference that other people can see," he said.

Jim Hahn wants to fill potholes?

"I do."


About This Series

The Times today presents the fourth of six profiles of the major candidates for mayor. The articles will appear in the order in which the candidates will appear on the ballot.


James K. Hahn

* Born: July 3, 1950, in Los Angeles

* Education: Pepperdine University, bachelor's degree in English (1972); Pepperdine University Law School, law degree (1975).

* Personal: Married since 1984 to Monica Hahn, homemaker and part-time movie location scout. Two children: Katrina, 11, and Jackson, 8. A prior marriage ended in divorce.

* Party: Democratic

* Career: Los Angeles city attorney, 1985-present; Los Angeles city controller, 1981-85; private law practice, 1979-81; deputy city attorney, 1975-79.

* Strategy: Hahn's campaign, which has raised more money than any other, draws on his support in South and Central Los Angeles, which his father served for decades as a county supervisor. Campaign TV ads tout his long experience in city government, playing up actions against street gangs and a gun maker.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday March 22, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction Candidate Hahn--Recent articles on City Atty. James K. Hahn's campaign for mayor did not fully describe his education. Though he did attend public schools through eighth grade, he graduated from the private, church-based Lutheran High School. Also, a profile of Hahn misspelled the name of his daughter Karina.
Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World