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First a dad, then a mayor

Times Staff Writer

If Jackson Hahn stood out among his fellow graduating fifth-graders at South Shores School for the Visual and Performing Arts Magnet, it had much more to do with his tie than his father. It was pink and, worn with a black shirt and suit, it made quite a statement. “Did you see Jackson’s tie?” said one girl to another as they stood shivering slightly in their gauzy summer dresses under a chilly gray San Pedro sky. “He’s the only boy I know who can wear pink.”

By comparison, the presence of the mayor of Los Angeles caused virtually no comment. James K. Hahn arrived with his mother, Ramona Hahn, his SUV met by staff only because there was a reporter and photographer present, and took his seat next to the parents of his son Jackson’s good friend on the cement bleachers that faced the school’s courtyard.

Eventually the mayor was joined by his sister, City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, and her son Mark, and, after the graduates filed in, his wife, Monica, from whom he separated more than a year ago.

But while Janice Hahn ducked out early, the mayor did not. Undoubtedly there were several other places he could have been, and with recent corruption charges roiling and the reelection campaign shaping up to be more bruising than previously anticipated, plenty of issues to distract him. Yet for the next several hours -- after the ceremony, Hahn and his wife took Jackson to lunch -- he was just another dad with his eye glued to the video camera.

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The L.A. mayor is famously private about his family; when he was elected, he made it clear that Monica would not be available for any sort of interviews. Likewise, their 15-year-old daughter, Karina, eschews media attention, though 12-year-old Jackson is a bit more gregarious. But recently the mayor agreed, for the first time, to sit down and talk about the effect the separation and political office has had on his family life.

Ever since he announced his intention to run for mayor five years ago, Hahn made it clear that he was a family man, and a family man he would stay, ensconced in the middle-class San Pedro neighborhood where Monica grew up. “I am on a personal quest to show that you can be the mayor of the second-largest city in America and still have a normal life,” he said during an interview the day after the graduation.

That life now includes two households; Monica lives elsewhere in San Pedro, while Hahn and the children remain in the family home. Last year, when the announcement was made that the two were separating after 20 years of marriage, there was little media fanfare. The couple is not divorced, and Hahn remains circumspect regarding his marriage and the separation; speaking of his wife, he is respectful but not forthcoming. Every working parent struggles with the balancing act of job and family, and the Hahns are no different. There is no nanny, no personal assistant assigned to the children. Monica still takes the children to and from school and fixes dinner, while the mayor tries to get home in time to oversee homework and bedtime.

Hahn is aware that some criticize his choices, claiming that he isn’t present at this or that event, and he finds the Catch-22 of political life -- we want our leaders to be good parents, but we don’t really give them time to be -- frustrating. He vows that he won’t let the reelection campaign keep him away from his family as much as the last campaign did.

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“My priority is to be Dad, not the mayor,” he said, adding, “I think some people who are full on with political ambition aren’t necessarily going to be making the best decisions on behalf of all the people they’re supposed to represent because they have no clue what people are going through in their ordinary lives, because they’re not living ordinary lives.”

During an hourlong conversation in his office, where pencils live in a holder constructed from silver macaroni and photos of his children beam from tables and shelves, the 53-year-old mayor talked about life as a working dad.

Your son’s graduation ceremony was quite festive.

It’s a nice little school, isn’t it? The magnet program is still the main component we have left of the integration program. It allows kids to be themselves. It’s hard to be yourself in today’s world. [When you’re an adult] you can’t be, but for a while kids are allowed to be themselves. Jackson’s still perfect; the world hasn’t started to modify him.

So how do you balance work and family, especially after the separation?

Monica and I, even though we aren’t living together, share parental responsibilities. She takes them to school. Obviously that works out for me because I have to leave before the kids and get home much later at night. She’s been very helpful when Jackson’s needing to go to practice for [his performances]. This year he said he wanted to take a year off from baseball. He’s been doing it since 5, but with school plays -- and he’s starting a band -- he said, “I’m just too busy for baseball.”

He’s starting a band? A rock band?

Yes.

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In your garage?

Not yet [grimaces, then laughs]. But I love it; his friends decide they’re going to start a band, who’s going to play what instruments, and then they got the instruments and are learning how to play. I like the way they think.

So Monica’s in charge of getting them to and fro?

Yeah, on weekends I have a little more time, though I’m busy on weekends too. The worst time is in the last weeks of the campaign; then you’re, like, out 7 in the morning to 11 at night, it’s just insane. Even if you didn’t have a family, that would be insane. I remember sometimes during that period of time, I’d be figuring out how to sneak away and see a couple of innings of his baseball games. I’m very jealous of so many of our neighbors who work around the port, longshoremen -- they have these jobs where they can go to the games or be the coaches.

Has the separation made things more difficult, logistically?

Just different. Our desire was to have the least impact on the kids that we could. We don’t think they should be inconvenienced by us living apart.

Do you do the alternate weekend arrangement? Do they do weekends where she’s living?

No, the goal was that they stay in the house. So they have that stability, this is where they hang out. We didn’t want them to change their lives. I mean, they’re not thrilled [by the separation], but our goal is that there be no real changes in their lives.

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Is Monica working?

She’s an artist, and she does some work at Harbor College.

Do you have a nanny or baby-sitters?

No, no nanny. When they were younger we had neighborhood kids baby-sit them. Now they go to a friend’s house.

You have a very close family, which was evident yesterday, and San Pedro has the reputation of being very tribal....

Tribal, I hadn’t heard that one. Close-knit, maybe ...

Do you have a group of parents who act as your village?

The folks I was sitting next to, Patrick and Cindy Bradley. They’re the founders of San Pedro [City] Ballet, and their son Wolf is a very good friend of Jackson, so certainly if Jackson wants to go to Wolf’s house after school, that’s fine.

Does your staff get involved?

Well, they certainly need to know what my personal schedule is. I have to let them know in advance. We get hundreds of invitations a week for me to be somewhere, staff thinking up hundreds of things for me to do and a whole bunch of people who want to meet with me, so I have to make sure I get my request in early -- “I need this morning off: It’s graduation.”

So many parents do alternate parenting these days....

I think that’s the way it is for most families in Los Angeles. The model I grew up with in the ‘50s, where Dad went to work and Mom stayed home and took care of the kids, that’s not a model anyone recognizes today. Most people have both parents working, and people have to juggle things. My job is a little different than others because of time commitment, but lots of people have to juggle.

A lot of people can go somewhere and sneak in late or sneak out early, which might be harder for you.

Oh, you haven’t seen me sneak. I have to be at three or four events in a night, so I can’t be sitting down and eating a whole dinner at one event. Sometimes I end up eating a salad at one event and dessert at another. The weird diet of the campaign trail.

You have kept your family almost completely out of the limelight. A lot of people say they want to do this, but you really have.

I’m on this great and grand quest to somehow prove you can be normal and be in public life. I’m not always as successful in that quest as I’d like to be, but that’s what I’m trying to do, show that an ordinary guy with a family can be the mayor of the second-largest city in America and still be a guy who lives in a middle-class neighborhood and has kids who ride their bikes over to their friends’ house. That they don’t have to be part of all this hoopla.

Since staying normal is so important to all of you, when you decided to run for mayor, how did that go?

We talked a lot about it -- although I had been in elected office, no one knew who city controller or city attorney was, that this would be different. If everybody had objected to it, I would have decided to do something else. I probably did underestimate the time during the campaign. That was hard on everybody. There were too many days I didn’t get to see the kids awake. I’m going to figure out a way for that not to happen this time.

Will the kids be involved in this campaign?

They might this time. They were a little young last time. Jackson thinks it’s fun to hand out literature. I did that for my dad in a lot of precincts; people are usually nice to kids too.

Karina doesn’t like the limelight. How do you decide which events the family will attend?

I’m a little too democratic in that. When I was growing up, my dad would just say, “Here’s where you’re going to go. Get in the car.” And I got to do a lot of great stuff that way. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said, “Why would I want to do that?” But I didn’t have the option.

I do let the kids decide what it is they want to do.

You describe this quest, but it seems that your dad had a different attitude. You grew up much more in the public eye.

He was even better at it than I am. He came home every night and had supper with us at 6 o’clock. Another thing most families can’t do anymore. We’d all have dinner and he’d ask, “How’s your day at school, Jimmy? How’s yours, Janice?” Then if he had to go out after, he would. But I have certainly not been able to keep to that. He was much more efficient than I am. He didn’t stay at work past 5:15, but he accomplished a lot. And he was home for dinner every night.

Do you get home for dinner?

It varies. Most time, Monica eats with the kids because I’m home so late. And it’s harder, because we live in San Pedro, for me to go home and then go out again.

How are the kids doing a year after?

I think they’re doing great. They’re great kids, bright, intelligent, good personalities, good senses of humor.

You talked about underestimating the time commitment. Has that extended when you got into office?

Well, last night was bad because I didn’t get home till 10. I’m still working 12 to 14 hours a day, five days a week, and putting in six to eight hours a day Saturday and Sunday.

So on weekends Monica is with the kids.

Sometimes, or they’re over at a friend’s house. We work that out.

The cousins seem very close as well.

Well, Janice and I are the only siblings. My kids worship Janice’s kids; they love each other very much. Janice lives about three blocks from us. [My mother] moved, now, a couple of miles from us.

You make it sound easy.

The hard part is not getting to all the stuff. Not getting to every Little League game or to everything at the kids’ school. That’s the stuff that never gets easier. But no one drafted me for this, I volunteered. People told me over and over again ... but trying to hit the right balance is important. And for me the priority is to be a dad, not the mayor. Our cellphones are programmed to show numbers, and if I see it’s Jackson or Karina, if I’m with the ambassador to France and see it’s them, I take the call, and they know that.

Sometimes working parents self-censor; they’re afraid if they miss too many mornings, or have too many interruptions, they’ll get in trouble.

Well, the downside of what I’m trying to do is what I see as an undercurrent, people whispering, “Well, he doesn’t work very hard” or “He doesn’t get around, we don’t see him at all these charity events.” I hear those murmurings out there all the time, and I’m like, it’s 9:45, I’m at some banquet in Beverly Hills, and I’m on my way home so I can see if the kids have done their homework and get them to bed. I don’t understand what the problem is.

Women have been fighting the Superwoman myth, and now maybe men are encountering it more. Especially our politicians. We want them to be family men, or women....

But we don’t give them time to do it. And then complain when they do. I could be at 20 events on every Saturday of the year. That means I’m not spending any time with my kids. They need time too so I can ride bikes on the beach or go to “Shrek 2.”

There always seems to be some maniac -- I don’t know who the person will be this time, and I use the term advisedly -- who’s running against you who doesn’t seem to have a life, who will go to every thing. And then you hear, “This person was there, and you weren’t there. Oh, why weren’t you there?”

But I think [it’s important] to know how much a loaf of bread costs or how hard it is to arrange the dental appointment for your kid -- six months in advance, and then the best you can get is 1 in the afternoon and you have to pull your kid out of school anyway. Everybody has to do that. I guess people in the entertainment industry, they have their personal assistant handle it, [but] I think it’s important to do that. You’ve got to stay grounded. That’s what I’m trying to do. Stay grounded.


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