When Harold Hofmann settles into something, he stays. He’s lived at the same address nearly all of his 77 years. He’s been married to the same woman going on 58 years. And last month he was elected to his 11th term as mayor of the South Bay city of Lawndale.
In an era of term limits, when the word incumbent is almost an obscenity, Hofmann’s 20-year tenure makes him one of the longest-serving mayors in the state.
“Honest to god, I thought he had been mayor since I got out of high school in 1970,” said former El Segundo Mayor Kelly McDowell, who just stepped down after six years as mayor and 12 on the council. “I didn’t serve as long as he did, but I’m not sure anyone could.”
Hofmann’s wife, Doris, a nurse, said her husband keeps the job because he wants to help the community. “I think City Hall confuses the citizens,” she said. “But they’re not afraid of Harold. He knows a lot of people, and they would rather talk to Harold than go to City Hall to solve a problem.”
Other mayors, who serve on councils where the job is rotated, say the position wears them down. “You’re the face of the city,” said Manhattan Beach Councilman Richard Montgomery. “There is no down time as mayor.”
Hofmann says the job takes two to three hours every day, representing the city at ceremonies, talking to citizens and serving on county commissions.
“I can’t go to a gas station or Spires [coffee shop] without someone saying I want to talk to you about something,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve sat down to dinner in the last 45 days without the phone ringing.”
Lawndale, with a population of about 32,000, is a piece of the Southern California urban sprawl. Until the end of the Cold War, many in the community worked for the military contractors that gathered in the South Bay. The city, which was incorporated in 1959, was named for a Chicago neighborhood by developer Charles B. Hopper, who subdivided the area in the early 1900s. Lots sold for $75, with $1 down.
The 2-square-mile city was once home to cowboy star Roy Rogers. But it may be best known for putting artificial grass on the median on Hawthorne Boulevard, the main drag, in the 1970s. These days, the street is still lined with small shops, but the AstroTurf has been replaced with plants and sycamore trees.
Regardless of what happens in Lawndale, the one constant is the tall, gray-haired man who gavels council meetings to order.
There aren’t many mayors in the state who have served longer stints than Hofmann, although Dave Smith in the Bay Area city of Newark, Victor Lopez of Orange Cove near Fresno and David Pendergrass in Sand City outside Monterey have each served 32 years. None, though, come close to Robert Linn of Beaver, Penn., who the Guinness Book of Records says was the longest-serving mayor. Linn was in office 58 years before dying in 2004.
There are other record-setting politicians, of course. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican., served 49 years in the U.S. Senate, and John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, has served 55 years in the House of Representatives.
Hofmann has seen Lawndale go from a city that was nearly all white to one that is majority Latino, although no Latinos serve on the council.
As a boy growing up in Lawndale, Hofmann recalled, there were no gutters, curbs or streetlights. No longer is he the boy who rode his horse to school, tying it up outside the classroom.
These days, he wears a hearing aid in each ear, has had both hips replaced, has three stents in his heart and a pacemaker, but he continues working as a utility contractor in the business he started in his early 20s. His son — he has two sons, a daughter and eight grandchildren — helps him run the business.
Hofmann is a teetotaler and ardent churchgoer who says he tithes more than 10%. He calls himself a Reagan Democrat, but Democrat is the confusing part. “I’m very conservative,” he said.
Hofmann says his long tenure has helped him cultivate valuable relationships with supervisors, state legislators and members of Congress, whom he can call on for favors, such as when Lawndale landed $15 million in federal money through the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority to improve Hawthorne Boulevard.
“It just so happened I knew quite a few people on the board,” he said, among them then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
Other mayors point to his longevity and his tenure on the county Library Board and Sanitation District. “He’s got a brand-new county library in Lawndale,” Montgomery said. “How do they do that? Harold knows every assemblyman, every supervisor. It pays off for them.”
Hofmann talks about the aid the city received from Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and his successor, Yvonne B. Burke. “Every time I needed help, there would be a couple hundred thousand dollars here, a couple hundred thousand dollars there,” he said.
Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said that although the city gains from a longtime office holders’ experience, it also can be hurt because younger, talented people are kept from moving up.
“It means he has core of voters who think he’s doing either a good job or he’s a familiar face among a sea of people not so well-known,” Regalado said.
One of his longtime opponents is Jim Ramsey, who lost his council seat in the April election. Ramsey says Hofmann plays favorites and treats city staff poorly. “He’s like a chameleon,” Ramsey said. “He shows one face to the voters and the other face to the staff.”
Hofmann ran unopposed in the last election. He says he’s never taken a campaign contribution because he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s beholden to them.
Will he run again? “People have told me in the last two weeks, don’t throw your signs away, don’t throw your stakes away,” he said.