Mayoral Contest Leaves City Hall a House Divided

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles City Council members have often congratulated themselves on just how collegial they are compared to the fractious body of years past.

They spoke too soon.

With a month left until a contentious mayoral election that pits Mayor James K. Hahn and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa against each other for the second time, tensions are running high in the ornate council chamber.

Tempers are flaring. Intemperate words are flying. And some City Hall observers say city business, including major policy initiatives, is taking a backseat to political theatrics.


“There’s some bad behavior down here,” said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the mayor’s devoted younger sister. “Politics has risen its ugly head here in the council chambers on more than one occasion.

“I’m not excluding myself,” added the councilwoman, who, in one of the more notable outbursts on the council floor, angrily told Villaraigosa earlier this spring to “keep your crappy speeches for the candidate debates.”

Hahn is not only the mayor’s sister, but also one of his most trusted confidantes and his staunchest defender on the council. But the mayor can also count on seven other members who have endorsed him, giving him a slim majority of the 15-member council: Tom LaBonge, Cindy Miscikowski, Jan Perry, Ed Reyes, Greig Smith, Eric Garcetti and Dennis Zine.

Villaraigosa, meanwhile, is backed by a feisty trio: Martin Ludlow, Jack Weiss and Bernard C. Parks, the former police chief and outspoken Hahn critic who was a candidate himself until he was eliminated in the March 8 election.

Three others -- Wendy Greuel, Alex Padilla and Tony Cardenas -- have so far stayed safely on the sidelines.

Hahn does not usually appear at council meetings. And, although their offices are one floor apart, he and Villaraigosa are rarely seen together in public in City Hall.

“There is no question that the mayor’s race has become the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who has repeatedly challenged the mayor.

Over the last few months, the mayor’s race appears to have influenced the outcome of several major issues that could affect the city for years to come.

A controversial proposal that would require developers to offer below-market units in new housing developments has been quietly shelved.

The mayor’s proposal to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to pay for more police officers in the May election was derailed by council members, including Villaraigosa and Weiss. Villaraigosa, who supported a countywide police tax that voters rejected, argued that the city needed to win back voter confidence by finding existing revenue to pay for more police before going back to voters for higher taxes.

Meanwhile, council members say there has been a dramatic uptick in motions designed to make a political point and news conferences called in the pressroom off council chambers.

Last month, Weiss, Villaraigosa and Parks called a news conference to accuse the mayor of sacrificing passenger safety and security at Los Angeles International Airport for political concerns. (Villaraigosa and his allies have opposed Hahn’s $11-billion modernization plan for LAX.) Moments later, Miscikowski scheduled her own news conference to rebut those charges.

After an audit criticized the city’s Department of Water and Power for failing to oversee a public relations contract, Weiss and Villaraigosa called on the City Council to take final control of major contacts away from commissioners appointed by the mayor. That proposal has gone nowhere.

Hahn, meanwhile, has proposed that the city ban campaign contributions and fundraising by city contractors, but the measure remains bogged down in a council committee, with little chance of emerging for a council vote before the May 17 runoff election.

Last week was a particularly fiery one in City Hall.

On Friday, council members split along mayoral election lines over whether to review two airport concessions contracts that Hahn-appointed airport commissioners approved.

Villaraigosa and his supporters, joined by Cardenas and Padilla, wanted to review them. One concessionaire, whose contract was extended without discussion, is a campaign contributor to the mayor and had hired influential lobbyists.

Five Hahn supporters refused to allow the review, and other council members left the room during the vote, blocking the move.

Villaraigosa seized the chance to point out the obvious: “All of the people who opposed ... are supporters of the mayor,” he told reporters after the vote.

He added: “This isn’t a made-up issue.”

During the debate, the tension was evident. At one point, Miscikowski, a Hahn supporter, insisted that Weiss’ motion to seize jurisdiction from the Airport Commission was “inappropriate.”

“I love getting lectured on propriety,” snapped Villaraigosa. On the campaign trail, he has repeatedly pointed out that the Hahn administration is under investigation for possible links between campaign contributions and city contracting decisions.

On Thursday, it was Villaraigosa supporters who were accused of political grandstanding. After the city’s bid to become the headquarters of the state’s $3-billion stem cell institute was rejected as incomplete, Weiss and Ludlow held an hourlong hearing on what the mayor’s office did wrong.

Janice Hahn compared it to a witch hunt.

Tim McOsker, the mayor’s chief of staff, called it shameful.

And Smith and Perry, both supporters of the mayor, boycotted the hearing after releasing a letter to the media that chastised their colleagues for calling the event. In a statement, Smith dismissed the hearing as “a political fishing expedition.”

“It is the essence of doing your job as a legislator to conduct critical oversight hearings on such occasions,” Weiss said unapologetically. “Not to do so would be political.”

Several of his colleagues disagreed that there was an immediate need for a hearing.

“They feel the need to seize every opportunity to maximize the impact for their candidate,” Perry said. “I find it kind of silly.”

Hahn himself vented frustration over his foes last week, when he was asked if Friday’s hearing on airport concessions could perpetuate the perception that city contracts are for sale to campaign contributors.

“The council is being turned into an arena of a political campaign,” he said. “I think that’s bad for the city.”

Hahn has made frequent use of his mayoralty to politick for a second term. He appeared twice this week at official events with the city’s popular police chief, William J. Bratton, and stressed his success at cutting crime throughout Los Angeles.

Business and labor leaders, as well as lobbyists, say that the mayor’s race has stymied their efforts at City Hall.

“It’s hard for council members to have a clear head right now, given the intense political dynamics affecting everyone in City Hall,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. “This is not the time anyone wants to talk about moving big policy or making big proposals.”

The City Hall pace usually slows before a mayoral election, but many longtime observers say this spring is unprecedented, in part because two council members -- Villaraigosa and Parks -- ran against an incumbent mayor.

“It’s very politically charged,” said Carol Schatz, who is president of the Central City Assn. and has been watching the council work for three decades. “You palpably feel the political tension when you enter the council chambers.”

Schatz said she is not expecting movement on major policy matters between now and election day.

“Things are being held in abeyance,” said Schatz, whose group endorsed Hahn in the first round of the election but has not yet taken a position in the runoff.

“When you are considering the timing of a hearing or a public policy issue, you have to factor in how it is impacted by the mayor’s race,” said Richard Lichtenstein, a lobbyist for one of the airport concessionaires whose contract might have been imperiled if the City Council had taken jurisdiction.

In a few cases, though, the mayor’s race has actually sped new policies along.

Last fall, when business groups, including the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, were pushing to alter the city’s business taxes, they set an October deadline, hoping to settle the issue before the race heated up.

“We didn’t want politics to get in the way of good policy,” said the chamber’s Brendan Huffman.

As it turned out, the tax proposal was floated early enough in the race that Hahn, Villaraigosa and Parks were eager to push it through to earn the support of the business community.

This week, when the race for mayor enters its final, frenzied four weeks, council members will launch their review of the mayor’s proposed city budget.

Several said they hoped to keep politics out of the deliberations, but few were hopeful.

“We’ll all be happy when this mayor’s race is over,” said Greuel.