The rap against Mayor Yawn

Times Staff Writer

They speak in code, using words like “vision” and “destiny” and “thinking small.” What opponents really mean is that Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, with his pothole obsession and gray-flannel personality, is simply too blah, too cardboard, too junior varsity to lead such a vibrant city.

It may be a conceit of people who spend too much time drinking bottled water, treating a reserved personality as if it were a capital offense. But the image of small feet trying to fill big shoes, deserved or not, has clearly hurt the incumbent as Hahn fights to make a runoff against rivals who advertise themselves as bigger (literally in the case of TV’s super-sized Bob Hertzberg) and bolder than the current chief executive.

“I don’t know if L.A. residents sit around and talk about this at the local Starbucks or Winchell’s,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who is backing Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor. But, he went on, “there is a general sense among Los Angelenos that the city government does not live up to the kind of dynamism that people find in the city as a whole.”


To which Hahn has a ready retort: “I think we have enough movie stars.”

With Tuesday’s vote nearing, the question -- which would you prefer, Technicolor or technocratic-- is both big and small, as trivial as individual tastes and as significant as the face that America’s second-biggest city wishes to show the world.

“I wouldn’t suggest that when a major manufacturing plant in the Far East is thinking of going to San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland or Vancouver they make a decision to come to L.A. because the mayor is exciting,” said Barry Munitz, the president of the Getty Museum, who is staying neutral in the mayor’s race. Still, he said, “Somebody has to be out there ... saying this is what we got.”

In many ways, the job of L.A.’s mayor -- less powerful and important than it sounds -- is whatever the occupant chooses to make of it. Hahn’s predecessor, Richard Riordan, sought to beef up the post by pushing through charter reforms giving the mayor greater authority vis-a-vis the fractious City Council and allowing him to pick his own department heads including, significantly, the police chief.

But much of the mayor’s heft still derives from the perception of power and the ability to draw public attention to City Hall. In that way, the job of L.A. mayor is to fill a vacuum; in a city lacking a center, in a region sprawling bigger than many states, being mayor offers a chance to create a focal point for action.

“Only a strong, driving, creative, exciting voice can lasso those disparate elements,” Munitz said. “Unlike other big, traditional cities, if someone doesn’t do it, the momentum will be to come apart.”

Of course, the task is far easier said than done given the minimal attention that most Californians -- and a great many Angelenos -- pay to government and politics. Kevin Starr, a USC professor who has written a seven-volume history of California, says the movies offer a perfect metaphor: People “go see [a film] when they’re interested.” The rest of the time, “when they drive by the theater, they’re not interested about what’s going on inside.”


So think of Los Angeles City Hall -- or just about any government building in the state -- as a multiplex filled with empty seats. Even an outsized personality like former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown seemed a bit diminished by the end of two terms as San Francisco mayor. (“Street lights, dog doo and parking meters are not my cup of tea,” he famously said, waving off talk of running for mayor before changing his mind and finding that, indeed, small-bore civic matters were not his metier.)

Locked in a three-way struggle for two slots in the May 17 runoff (unless one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote), it would seem Hahn has bigger worries these days than a lack of charisma. A criminal probe into city contracting has clearly taken a political toll; just half of likely voters say the incumbent has the honesty and integrity to serve as mayor, according to the most recent Los Angeles Times Poll. Worse, from Hahn’s perspective, likely voters cited honesty as the top characteristic they want in a mayor.

Still, a good part of the public discontent with Hahn seems to stem from more intimate factors. An earlier Times Poll asked the roughly 50% of dissatisfied voters why they were unhappy with his job performance; roughly 3 in 10 cited reasons relating to his personality -- too boring, no vision -- or a perceived lack of leadership skills.

City Controller Laura Chick gave voice to those sentiments in a recent interview. “This city has been treading water for many years in terms of pulling up and strutting our stuff and becoming the great cutting-edge, state-of-the-art ... 21st century city we could be,” said Chick, who endorsed Hahn for reelection before yanking her support last summer in a nasty row over ethics at City Hall.

Los Angeles “needs a very visible, a very strong visionary, action-oriented, proactive, problem-solving, persevering, hard- working mayor,” said Chick, who is not publicly backing any other candidate. “For me, that is not the description for Mayor Hahn.”

Hahn dismisses that as so much carping.

“Nobody has a bigger vision than I do to say I want Los Angeles to be America’s safest big city,” Hahn said, his voice rising as he leaned forward in an armchair in his cavernous City Hall office. “People say, ‘We need to have a bigger vision. We need to have a mayor who’s passionate.’ Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.”


“Hey” -- here his voice dropped to a near-whisper -- “I’m about specifics.”

On rare occasions, a Los Angeles mayor might have the opportunity to preside over some great character-defining crisis. It doesn’t have to come on an epic scale like 9/11, which turned New York City’s Rudy Giuliani from a term-limited crank into a national hero. Riordan shined during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, ensuring his easy reelection three years later.

“People are looking for someone who can manage things ... who can hold things together,” said Leo Braudy, a USC cultural historian who has written extensively about the nature of celebrity. “If you have that and you’re not charismatic you’ll still be fine. But if you have neither charisma nor the sense you’re really running things, then you’re really going to be in trouble.”

Happily and sadly for him, Hahn’s tenure has been a time of relative quiet and contentment in Los Angeles, notwithstanding the floods and mudslide damage from the recent rains.

Hence he has been largely ignored by local television stations, making him invisible to all but the most dedicated political audience. It hasn’t always been thus.

Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor in Los Angeles history, brought a path-breaking sense of excitement to the office, at least for his first two terms. His predecessor, Sam Yorty, was flamboyant enough to land repeat guest appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” playing the banjo no less.

Eventually, though, Yorty’s combative character and incendiary rhetoric wore on voters, who ushered him out of office after three terms -- demonstrating the political danger of having too much personality.


Andy Spahn, for one, sees the lethargy rap on Hahn as something manufactured by his political opponents, who would attack him even if he had a more captivating persona.

“Then you’d hear, ‘We need stability, a firmer hand, a more grounded approach to deal with the real problems facing Los Angeles,’ ” said Spahn, a longtime Democratic activist and executive at DreamWorks studio who supports Hahn’s reelection.


Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Faye Fiore contributed to this story.