Holden's Leaving Office the Same Way He Came In

If you didn't know he was born in Georgia, the son of a railroad brakeman and a hard-working housewife, you'd swear his parents must have been a traveling carnival barker and a brimstone Chautauqua preacher who left him swaddled on the doorstep of Los Angeles City Hall, and then hotfooted it out of town.

When he leaves the City Council chambers for the last time by noon next Monday, when he finally moves out of the choicest office on the premises, a 16-year franchise on outrageousness, showboating and chutzpah will go with him. And civility, decorum and orderly, efficient tedium will pull a U-Haul up to the door and move back in.

Nathan Nathaniel Holden, 74, has been politics' version of a car wreck alongside the Harbor Freeway: You may not like what you see, but you just can't stop yourself from looking.

Except to his face, when it was "Councilman" or "Senator" -- acknowledgment that a quarter-century ago he spent a term in Sacramento -- he was "Nate," a one-name one-of-a-kind. The most orthodox thing about him was his pinstriped suits. In his 16 years on Spring Street, he has:

* Had to testify in open court whether he was circumcised, in one of three sexual harassment lawsuits brought by former aides. Defending him, successfully, against the lawsuits cost L.A. taxpayers more than a million bucks.

* Cast the only vote against Bill Bratton as police chief. He stuck up for Willie Williams and Bernie Parks, but voted to reinstate the disgraced Daryl F. Gates -- merely for procedural reasons, he protested. He asked Gates to sign 100 copies of his autobiography -- merely for historical reasons, he protested. Some Angelenos, neither procedurally nor historically minded, phoned in death threats.

* Been the despair of colleagues who railed anonymously that Nate is more performer than public servant. I can't remember Nate being off the record about anything, including his colleagues. "Stupid," "phony," "lazy" and "Westside Ku Klux Klan" were his choice assessments of some. Four years ago, a few were so fed up they campaigned against him, including two fellow black council members.

* Nearly forced former Mayor Tom Bradley into a runoff election in 1989, gadflied him for years thereafter, then claimed that Bradley endorsed him on his deathbed. That goaded Bradley's daughter into writing a letter essentially declaring "when pigs fly."

* Made himself a contender for a Guinness Book of Records ethics violation listing, with 334 campaign contribution limits-busting donations totaling $164,789.

* Dogged and ragged bureaucrats to distraction. If an IRS attorney was on line 1 and Nate was on line 2, any city employee in his right mind would take line 1.

He slid and he skated and he dodged, and still the voters of the 10th District returned him to City Hall so often -- through two runoffs -- that you wondered whether they'd been Stockholm syndromed. His shield was not Teflon, but sheer "Yeah, so what?" brazenness. A jack-in-the-box, was what one campaign consultant said he was. Every time you thought some scandal or outrage would shut him in the box, up he sprang again, with that dazzling, triumphant, catch-me-if-you-can grin on his face.

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I like a contrarian as much as the next guy. No, I don't. Do so. As often as not, at the back end of a 13-1 or 14-1 vote, there was Nate. He alone voted for his own plan to test restaurant workers for AIDS. He alone voted against restoring the popular senior lead officer police program; he thought they spent their afternoons lounging in living rooms drinking coffee.

Sometimes, in a burst of common sense, or just by the odds, his contrariness landed him on the right side. He cast the only vote against the Playa Vista development, calling it a "welfare program for billionaires." He railed against selling the Central Library in a lease-back plan to nicotine peddler Philip Morris.

He got spray paint cans locked up. He kept little old ladies from getting evicted, offered cash for assault rifles. As a state senator, it was his idea to rename the Richard M. Nixon Freeway the Marina del Rey Freeway. He harangued his colleagues for wanting to put millions of tax money into a downtown sports complex -- and showed not a qualm about ordering up a $45,223 deluxe 2000 Lincoln Navigator for his city car.

The Grandstanding Nate would pop up again and again, crusading against more liquor stores in black and Latino neighborhoods, but blessing dozens of high-end booze joints in Koreatown.

Within weeks of taking office in 1987, he began keeping lists of which colleagues were voting against him. "They know" who they are, he said ominously, and "they know that I know."

He's going out the same way he came in -- splashy, contradictory. He wants a stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard renamed for his old rival, Tom Bradley. Najee Ali is at the forefront of the new young Turks of black activism, and, to him, this is classic Nate Holden. "He wants a legacy. He doesn't want to be remembered for sex harassment suits, the lap dancing, even the Tom Bradley deathbed endorsement."

The sunset glow of a departing Nate bathes the moment in buttery hindsight.

"We don't take Nate that seriously, we just don't. He's like your lovable goofball uncle. Even when he's on the wrong side of stuff you can't stay angry at him for very long." And yet, Ali can't help but think "how much more he could have accomplished had he not gotten in his own way."

A retiree of Nate's rank would, in the fullness of time, get a gold watch. There'd be little jokes about his congenital tardiness, which I always thought of as Nate making a big entrance.

But then, Nate already has a gold watch -- a gold Rolex worth 12 big ones. It was a gift from a Korean nightclub owner; he gave her a jeweled brooch, Nate said. She must have told her friends that that's the way everyone does business in Los Angeles.

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Patt Morrison's columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

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