Hahn’s Record Draws Yawns From Voters

Times Staff Writer

Mayor James K. Hahn projected confidence when talking about his reelection bid on a local radio talk show last April. “I’m going to run on my record,” he told listeners.

That record has proved a tough sell.

Two things Hahn touted as his primary achievements-- his successful fight against San Fernando Valley secession and his replacement of Police Chief Bernard C. Parks with William J. Bratton -- alienated many of the Valley and African American voters who had been crucial to his 2001 election.

More broadly, Hahn -- who, based on early returns, appeared likely to become the first incumbent mayor in 32 years not to win reelection without a runoff -- never established the sort of record Angelenos seemed to be looking for.


Likely voters polled by The Times last month said what they wanted most in a mayor was honesty and strong leadership.

While Hahn has insisted on his own integrity, his popularity has suffered as a result of criminal investigations into alleged influence peddling in city contracting.

And while he has tirelessly talked up his successful efforts to fight crime, build more housing and ease traffic, the unassuming mayor has not been able to shake the impression that he has been missing in action.

“It didn’t really seem like he was doing that much,” said Jack Norris, 77, a retired businessman from Porter Ranch in the northern San Fernando Valley. “I just wasn’t seeing someone who was leading.”

Norris, who said he voted for Hahn in 2001, said he was looking for a mayor who could fix the city’s crumbling streets, improve its schools and ease the region’s clogged freeways.

That is the mayor Hahn tried to convince Angelenos he has been.

Last month, he began filling the airwaves with television commercials in which he struck an energetic pose striding down the street and ticking off his accomplishments.

The mayor reminded voters that he held the city together. He highlighted a dramatic drop in crime after Bratton took charge of the police department. He touted new after-school programs, more affordable housing and a deal with Sacramento to keep more tax revenue in Los Angeles.

Here was a mayor, Hahn and his supporters said, who made up for his evident lack of star power with the determination and know-how to “get things done.”

“He’s not flamboyant. He’s not charismatic in a Hollywood kind of way,” said union leader Julie Butcher, the head of the Service Employees International Union Local 347, who has been among Hahn’s most loyal supporters. “But he’s solid and he’s real, and the way he is is the way he is.”

The accomplishments were real. But Hahn has not been able to convince Angelenos that they are reason enough to keep him in the mayor’s baronial office at City Hall.

The Times poll last month found that almost two-thirds of likely voters were unhappy with his policies and believed Los Angeles needed a new direction.

Hahn’s approval rating of 43% going into Tuesday’s election was far lower than other recent incumbent mayors. Richard Riordan ran for reelection in 1997 with approval ratings topping 60%. Tom Bradley’s was nearly 80% when he ran for a fourth term in 1985.

Perhaps most alarming, nearly two-thirds of poll respondents in an earlier Times poll said they couldn’t name an important Hahn accomplishment.

The mayor frequently blames the media for missing the story of his accomplishments. There may be some validity to the charge, said Arnold Steinberg, a Republican pollster who advised Riordan during his 1997 reelection campaign but has stayed out of this campaign.

“Any mayor of Los Angeles is going to have a tough time because it’s hard to get attention here,” Steinberg said. “People equate doing something with making news. And Hahn just doesn’t seem to make news.”

But Steinberg and others said that Hahn -- a naturally reserved man who often seems to shrink from television cameras -- has also neglected the mayoral imperative to communicate and connect.

“He projects a detachment,” Steinberg said.

That may have been particularly damaging in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which several political observers said changed the way many voters looked at their leaders.

“Voters have a different expectation of their leaders today,” said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. “Voters want someone who is going to be looking out for them. I don’t think he was able to demonstrate that.”

And although Hahn could claim credit for installing left-turn lanes and expanding the LA’s BEST after-school program, commuters remained stuck on the San Diego Freeway and parents scrounged to find money to get their children out of beleaguered public schools.

“I suppose if you’re selling a boxy four-door that has no lines, you say it’s reliable,” said urban historian Joel Kotkin, a fellow at the New America Foundation and supporter of former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg. “But the fact of the matter is that if people perceived that the city was working well, they’d vote for Hahn.”

Hertzberg -- who intoned it was time for a mayor “who thinks big for a change” -- repeatedly mocked the mayor’s claim that he was addressing the traffic problems by installing left-turn lanes at 25 intersections a year.

Other Los Angeles mayors have won elections as technocrats. Fletcher Bowron, who came to power in the wake of City Hall corruption scandals in the 1930s, won four elections largely on the strength of his managerial credentials.

But Hahn’s claim to that mantle was undermined over the past year by a steady drumbeat of criminal subpoenas, resignations and fundraising improprieties that tarnished the Boy Scout image that the former city prosecutor rode to victory four years ago.

Amid allegations that city contracts were being swapped for campaign contributions, city officials and mayoral aides were brought before grand juries. Hahn’s e-mails were subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney’s office.

At the same time, a public relations firm that did extensive work for Hahn while it held a multimillion-dollar contract with the Department of Water and Power was accused of overbilling the city by more than $4 million. Hahn had a close relationship with the firm’s top representatives in Los Angeles, one of whom has since been indicted.

Prosecutors have not charged any member of the Hahn administration with corruption. And Hahn has expressed increasing exasperation with the ongoing criminal probes, repeatedly insisting that he is bewildered by the suggestion that his administration might be corrupt.

“It’s very frustrating to me because my whole life has been about honesty and integrity in public service,” he said in one interview. “I don’t know what to attribute it to.” Hahn, the son of the late, revered county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, was elected four times as city attorney.

Yet the mayor has been unable to shed the perception that he has presided over corruption in City Hall.

For Charlie Brown, a real estate broker from Leimert Park who voted for Hahn four years ago, the news about contracting under the Hahn administration raised too many questions. “I’m sure all of us are fed up with this.”