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Brass Knuckles Don’t Fit Well on Hahn’s Hand

Xandra Kayden is a senior fellow at the School of Public Policy and Social Research at UCLA.

When James K. Hahn was elected mayor in 2001, a great sigh of relief went up in City Hall. A mayor who understood how government works and who respected its workers would be in charge. No more Richard Riordan, who viewed the City Council as the enemy from the day he took office and who tended to hold a low opinion of civil servants and their arcane rules and procedures. Cooperation, not unpredictability, would be the hallmark of the new administration.

The council and Hahn did stand side by side in the days after 9/11. They were unified in the city’s successful campaign to defeat secession. Yes, the mayor got into a fight when he fired Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, but it was principally with Hahn’s African American supporters, not with the council. Teamwork seemed indeed the new mayor’s bias.

Which makes Hahn’s current battle with the council over the hiring of more police officers all the more puzzling. Why did Hahn, known for his low-key approach to problem-solving and good relations with the city’s legislative body, try to bully council members into accepting his disputed version of fiscal reality? What does the mayor stand to gain by throwing away the reserve of goodwill he enjoys in City Hall?

The fight began when the mayor’s staff presented his proposed budget to the Council Budget Committee. When committee members asked how the city planned to pay for the additional 320 officers the mayor wanted, they were told the money would come out of the reserve fund. But when the staffers were asked to rebut projections of a large shortfall -- ranging from $180 million to $280 million by mid-2004 -- that might imperil reserves, they arrogantly refused to answer. That irritated some council members, because those estimates had come from the city controller and the chief legislative analyst. Saying “ ‘Trust me’ just doesn’t do it,” said one.

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Then Hahn went an uncharacteristic step further. He, along with Police Chief William J. Bratton, scolded the City Council, accusing it of playing fast and loose with the public’s safety at a time when the terrorist threat is escalating. Hahn adamantly refused to wait six months to see whether city finances and the state of the L.A. economy would improve enough to pay for the additional cops, as the council proposed. He wanted his money now. The council refused, raising the possibility of a mayoral veto.

Signs of a compromise and diminishing tensions are already evident, but the question remains: Why did Hahn go to such lengths to pick a fight with the council in the first place?

The issue wasn’t the size of the Los Angeles Police Department. Bratton knew from the beginning that the department was not going to dramatically grow, and Hahn reminded him of that fact in the last few months. Furthermore, the council agreed to the hiring of 400 new officers to replace those expected to be lost through attrition, enough to keep the Police Academy operating at full capacity. Just where the additional 320 recruits would be trained is anyone’s guess.

So, what was the fight really about?

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Some council members blame Hahn’s staff, which they see as too inexperienced to govern effectively. Almost everyone in the mayor’s office has been with Hahn since the days when he was city attorney, and that office doesn’t really offer preparation for the kind of management necessary to run a large government bureaucracy. Still, bad staff work and arrogance don’t explain why Hahn went on a tirade.

A few council members and City Hall observers believe that it is Bratton who is pushing Hahn to play in-your-face politics with the council, to be more New York City in his style of advocacy. As police commissioner, Bratton knew firsthand how New York’s strong mayoral system was aided by the sheer size of its city council -- 51 members. With so many “little” voices vying for attention, a strong-willed mayor can easily command the spotlight. But the smaller size of the L.A. council gives each member more power and more visibility, and it remains, under the new charter, responsible for policy. In L.A., the mayor can’t simply overcome opposition by monopolizing media attention.

In any case, this explanation seems weak. Hahn is a successful career politician precisely because he knows how to work the L.A. system. Why listen now to an outsider for advice?

A third explanation is political. Although he’s not up for reelection until 2005, Hahn wants to position himself early as fervently pro-cop and willing to fight for more of them.

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One of the mayor’s closest advisors calls his confrontation with the council a “win/win for Hahn.” The mayor stood up for the police, got a lot of press, reminded voters of his role in bringing Bratton to Los Angeles and is keeping the pipeline open for him. Remember, Hahn earned political respect for standing up to Parks when he could have let the Police Commission make the decision for him.

If it’s reelection politics, it’s risky. Why take on the council two years before the election, especially when there is a credible risk that tapping the city’s reserve fund now could make L.A. more vulnerable to a serious deficit in 2005? Using the council as a punching bag is not a definition of leadership for a man who seemed intent on working with it. Nor is the current council the former one of tired politicians too long on the job to trust their colleagues. It is filled with young, energetic individuals unafraid to form alliances and work together to solve problems.

For example, Janice Hahn, Wendy Greuel and Tom LaBonge jointly devised their own answer to secession. Demonstrating leadership is as urgent to them and their colleagues, because of term limits, as it is to Hahn. Antonio Villaraigosa, when he joins the council July 1, and Parks, who’s already there, are experienced pols with considerable standing and ability in their own right. And that’s only a start.

If Hahn’s fight with the council is a chapter in a broader political strategy, it runs another risk. Hahn the scold is so out of character with Hahn the team player that it smacks of political contrivance.

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During the mayoral campaign, I moderated the last debate before the primary. At one point, Hahn turned on Steve Soboroff and personally attacked him. Taken aback, I asked Hahn to stop screaming. After the debate, he complained to me that I’d put a chill on his response. His uncharacteristic behavior, it turned out, was calculated to show voters that he wouldn’t be pushed around, that he was his own man.

It’s an odd way to show leadership, yelling at people. When Hahn does it, it’s especially unnatural; it strikes a dissonant note with the man you think you know. Tirades are hard to square with his political appeal; nor is trying to be someone you aren’t a sign of maturity.

Los Angeles may escape dire economic times, and the projections of deficits down the road may prove false. Today, the city’s bond rating is the highest among major cities, and that’s partly because the City Council has traditionally been fiscally conservative, however willing it may be to experiment in some areas of public life. Risking this for transient political advantage is, at best, not the hallmark of leadership.


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