From the Archives: People’s Politician Kenneth Hahn Dies

Times Staff Writers

Legendary former Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, the undisputed master of pothole politics who helped give the city he loved major league baseball, freeway call boxes and paramedics during a record 45 years in public office, died Sunday.

Hahn, 77, had been hospitalized numerous times in recent years and was admitted Wednesday to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, where he died of heart failure at 6:30 a.m.

First elected when City Hall was the tallest building in town, Hahn served through nine U.S. presidencies and played a key role in shaping the nation’s most populous county.


He helped lure the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, established the paramedic program and played a lead role in the creation of myriad civic edifices, from the Music Center to the seat of county government--renamed the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in his honor after he retired. He successfully led the fight for a sales tax hike that is helping to finance the county’s expanding transit system. On a smaller scale, he designed the county flag and seal.

With a folksy manner and the oratorical style of a country preacher, Hahn, who was white, was beloved in his heavily black South-Central Los Angeles district, where he was overwhelmingly reelected, even over black challengers. He retired in 1992, five years after suffering a stroke that confined him to a wheelchair.

“He was a universal spirit, completely in step with the universal environment of Southern California,” said the Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray, pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. “The door to his office was the door to his heart. His office was portable. It was wherever people were hurting. He was healing.”

Hahn’s political career began in 1947, when at age 26 he became what was then the youngest person elected to the Los Angeles City Council. In 1952, at 32, he became the youngest elected to the county Board of Supervisors.

“Even those who criticized him the most followed his style in how they represented their districts,” said Harry Hufford, former chief administrative officer of the county. “Some were quick to criticize, but they were even quicker to emulate.”

Hahn appealed to his black constituency in symbolic, as well as practical, ways.

He was famous for his attention to basic constituent services--building parks, keeping streets clean and filling potholes. And of course, he made sure that a sign bearing his name was posted at every public works project.


In 1952, he appointed the late Gilbert Lindsay, who later would go on to the City Council, as his deputy--the first black to hold such a position in the county. “The other supervisors came to me and said, ‘We don’t do that [appoint a black].’ ” It was, after all, the time when the police and fire departments were still not integrated.

Welcoming Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1961, Hahn was the only official--city, county or state--to greet the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to Los Angeles after confronting the police dogs and water hoses of Birmingham.

“He was very proud of that fact,” said Ted Goldstein, who worked with Hahn on the transit tax measure and is a spokesman for Hahn’s son, Los Angeles City Atty. James Hahn. “He would point to the chair where Dr. King sat in his office when Dr. King came to visit him.”

Later, after the Watts riots, Hahn fought for construction of a hospital in nearby Willowbrook, one of the key recommendations of the McCone Commission, which studied the riot’s causes.

After the assassination of King, Hahn led the campaign to rename the hospital after the civil rights leader. In later years, however, he was criticized by black leaders for his defense of Police Chief Daryl F. Gates after the Rodney King beating.


Japanese Americans were another key group in his district. In 1982, Hahn quietly and successfully lobbied the conservative board to follow the state Legislature’s lead and pay up to $5,000 to any county employee who had been fired in 1942 because of wartime anti-Japanese sentiment.

Although the visible monuments to Hahn’s career exist primarily in the South Los Angeles district he represented, his influence was countywide. That district runs like a jagged ribbon down the center of the county along the Harbor Freeway and includes much of South-Central Los Angeles as well as Carson, Gardena, Hawthorne, Lynwood, Lawndale, Inglewood and Culver City.

Over the years, it was Hahn who fought nurses, doctors and firefighters to bring paramedics to the county and persuaded then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to sign a bill establishing a two-year pilot program for the project. He always remembered what Reagan told him after signing the bill in 1970: “My father died in Beverly Hills when a [Los Angeles] Police Department ambulance wouldn’t cross the city line.”

It was Hahn who first conceived the idea of putting telephones alongside freeways “after I saw a woman stranded, with three or four or five kids in the back seat of her car, and she was climbing a bank of the Harbor Freeway.” He helped her get gas and then began his campaign. It ended four years later when, in the middle of Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr.’s reelection campaign in 1962, Hahn went to see him in Sacramento.

As Hahn often told the story, he warned Brown that he wouldn’t be his Los Angeles County chairman unless the governor endorsed the idea of freeway phones, which the county would pay for. But Hahn needed the state’s permission to get telephone men on the freeways to dig the pipes.

“That’s when my skill in politics came through,” said Hahn as he imitated the governor picking up the phone and telling his highway director to give Hahn whatever he wanted. “When a guy will respond is when he is up for election. I know.”


And it was Hahn who played a key role in helping bring the Dodgers to Los Angeles when he was still a relatively green supervisor.

“Kenny was the best of public officials,” said former Los Angeles City Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman, who worked with Hahn to get the Dodgers to switch coasts beginning with the 1958 season.

“He never changed from the day he went into office,” she added. “Honest, lived in the same house. And he knew every street corner, every store, every park. . . . He would go to every meeting when he was asked, year after year.”

The Power of Name Recognition

One yardstick of Hahn’s legacy was the sheer political power of his name. It lifted his young, political neophyte son, who campaigned as James Kenneth Hahn, into office as controller in Los Angeles in 1981 and then city attorney in 1985.

And it propelled an unrelated political novice--Kenneth P. Hahn--into the Los Angeles County assessor’s office in 1990.


Hahn also had a daughter, Janice, and five grandchildren, who survive him with his wife Ramona.

Even in retirement and failing health, Hahn retained his interest in politics. After Janice was elected to the city’s charter reform committee recently, Hahn would sometimes ask her to take out pen and paper so she could jot down his thoughts on the topic.

Former Mayor Tom Bradley, who worked closely with Hahn over many years, said in a statement that Hahn “brought an unprecedented level of sensitivity, responsiveness and commitment to his constituents and to the people of the city and the county of Los Angeles.”

“The initiatives and the programs he conceived and implemented to improve the quality of life for people made him a legend in his own time,” the statement said.

Hahn was born Aug. 19, 1920; he was the youngest of Hattie and John Henry Hahn’s seven sons. His father, who had a respiratory ailment, had emigrated from Canada in 1919 to live in a warm climate, but he died before Kenneth was born. The oldest boy was only 10, but his mother, whom Hahn would always remember for her strength of character and her discipline, raised them on her own. The family had little means and the Hahn brothers always held odd jobs.

The house he was born in at 5931 S. Flower St. was just three miles from the house on 78th Place where he and Ramona lived for most of their lives.


Hahn was convinced that a major source of his political strength was that he was a local boy who attended neighborhood schools--61st Street Elementary, John Muir Junior High and John C. Fremont High.

He was a devout member of the Church of Christ and later became a regular on the preaching circuit.

He enrolled at Pepperdine College when it was still in Los Angeles at 79th Street and Vermont Avenue. Hahn majored in political science and graduated in 1942. He had already enlisted in the Navy, signing up the day after Pearl Harbor.

He served nearly four years as a lieutenant and eventually commanded a small ship in the South Pacific. His war years, he recalled, were “dull, monotonous, routine,” hardly the stuff of a future politician, which he had resolved to become.

From Pepperdine to the City Council

As a child, he remembered Los Angeles Mayor Frank L. Shaw, “who had a big car and a police driver and a siren and waved to the kids in the neighborhood whenever he drove by.” In those days, the mayor lived at 59th and Main streets, just a few blocks from the Hahn household. Though Shaw eventually was recalled from office because of charges of corruption, Hahn’s perception of politics remained untarnished.


When he and an older brother opened a neighborhood gas station at Gage Avenue and Main Street in 1937, the station became a kind of neighborhood political headquarters for the youngest Hahn brother. In later years, Hahn reminisced that customers came in for gas and then emerged with bumper stickers reading “Hahn for City Council.”

After returning from the war, Hahn taught political science and American history at Pepperdine. It was there that he met Ramona. They were married in the summer of 1948; by then Hahn’s political career had already begun.

In his race for the City Council in 1947, Hahn courted the aid of his students--he insisted they had urged him to run--and he made campaigning especially attractive. The students had a choice: either write a term paper or work a precinct with the guarantee that if he won the precinct it was an automatic A.

Hahn initially came up 27 votes short but won on a recount by seven votes. In office, he concentrated on local issues. Two of his earliest efforts included toning down the bells on ice cream trucks and charging fees for dog and cat breeding.

Much later in his life, in 1989, he was reminiscing with a reporter and told about paying an election night visit to a precinct with maps on the wall. One was yellow and had a bull’s-eye on it.

“What’s that?” Hahn asked. “ ‘Oh Mr. Hahn, you got 100% of the vote here,’ ” he was told. “Another map had a bull’s-eye and two stars.”


He said to a precinct worker, “There’s something wrong there. That looks like I got more than 100%.”

Then, he related, “They told me I’d gotten 105% and explained that ‘We were so tired, and we wanted to make sure you won our precinct.’ ”

Hahn quickly added he would never have told the story had not the statute of limitations expired.

His roughest time--or so he feared at the time--came in 1968 in the midst of the Black Power movement. His opponent was Councilman Billy Mills, chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Central Committee and a black. Hahn was so discouraged that he considered dropping out. His wife urged him to stay and he won by a surprisingly hefty margin.

In the 1980s, even though outnumbered by a conservative-dominated Board of Supervisors, the liberal Hahn was able to spark the passage of Proposition A, which raised the county sales tax by one-half cent to fund transit projects and temporarily lowered bus fares from 85 cents to 50 cents. He also successfully lobbied to get the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach Blue Line trolley built through his district.

“Kenny was a very good friend,” said former board member Deane Dana, who was part of that conservative majority. “You had to like the guy. . . . I guess he was a liberal but in some ways he wasn’t. He always approached things a little differently. He often went down fighting. He expressed himself well and he didn’t just sit back and sulk.”


Always skilled at grabbing headlines, Hahn proposed statehood for Los Angeles County, pushed for construction of a pipeline to bring water from Alaska to Southern California and put the Fire Department on alert to watch out for falling Skylab debris.

It was probable at his death that he still felt as he did in 1982, when he said in an interview:

“I am like a person who would like to be a great artist and then is able to sell his paintings. I am like a person who would like to be a great violinist and is able to play in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.”

Government was his concert hall.

“There will never be another Kenny Hahn,” his son James said Sunday as he stood, red-eyed, at his parents’ home. “He was the absolute epitome of a local politician.”

“He had such fun being a supervisor. He would have paid them to do the job.”

A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. on Friday at the Faith Dome of Crenshaw Christian Church, 7901 S. Vermont Ave., said Vicki Pipkin, a former Hahn press secretary. The service will be open to the public.

Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this story.



Kenneth F. Hahn, 1920 - 1997

*Aug. 19, 1920-Kenneth F. Hahn is born in Los Angeles.

*1947--Elected to the Los Angeles City Council at age 26, making him the youngest person to serve on the council at the time.

*1948--Married Ramona.

*1952--Elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at age 32, becoming the youngest person to serve on the board.

*1955--Led the drive to finance construction of the Sports Arena through revenue bonds; the arena opened in 1959.

*1957--Designed the county seal.

*1958--Helped arrange the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles.

*1961--Was the only politician who greeted civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on a visit to Los Angeles. Initiates the first free Christmas music program sponsored by the Board of Supervisors.

*1962--Originated the idea for the freeway emergency call box system in Los Angeles County.

*1968--Unveiled the official county flag he designed.

*1970--Spearheaded development of the county’s paramedic program.

*1980--Authored Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax increase to finance mass transit. The tax later funds construction of the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach Blue Line, the county’s first modern-day rail line, which naturally runs though Hahn’s district.


*1982--Pushed for establishment of the Baldwin Hills State Recreation Area--later renamed Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.

*1987--Suffered a stroke that largely confined him to a wheelchair.

*1988--Reelected to a record 10th term with 84% of the vote.

*1990--Proposed construction of a 1,700-mile pipeline to bring water from Alaska to California.

*1992-Retired from political office.

*Oct. 12, 1997--Died of heart failure.



“He had such fun being a supervisor. He would have paid them to do the job.”

--His son, City Atty. James Hahn


“The initiatives and the programs he conceived and implemented to improve the quality of life for people made him a legend in his own time.”

--Former Mayor Tom Bradley, in a statement


“Oh, Lord, another soldier, another good soldier, going home.”

--”Sweet Alice” Harris, 40-year community activist and head of Parents of Watts


“I will miss his wisdom, dedication and unfailing compassion. We have all lost a true friend.”

--Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block


“The thing I admire the most is that he stayed the course, and when the neighborhood changed, he continued to live here.”

--The Rev. T.L. Lewis, pastor of the Zion Hill Baptist Church, across the street from the Hahn home



“He cared for the small people, the underdog. He always, always fought very hard for them.”

--Mas Fukai, Hahn’s chief deputy for about 10 years


“Even those who criticized him the most followed his style in how they represented their districts. Some were quick to criticize, but they were even quicker to emulate.”


Harry Hufford, former chief administrative officer for the county


“Kenny was the best of public officials...He never changed from the day he went into office.”

-- Former Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman, who worked with Hahn to bring the Dodgers to Los Angeles


“The door to his office was the door to his heart. His office was portable. It was wherever people were hurting. He was healing.”

--The Rev. Cecil L. (Chip) Murray, pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles