The last time there was nobody by the name of Hahn in L.A. politics, there was a man by the name of Truman in the White House. Now Janice Hahn moves her political game from the Los Angeles City Council to a place down the road from the executive mansion: Congress. Daughter of legendary county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, sister of former Mayor James Hahn, the Democrat won the special election to replace Jane Harman in the coastal/South Bay 36th Congressional District. I talked to her en route from the airport into Washington, less than 48 hours before her swearing-in. She’s been to Washington before, but she was seeing it with different eyes: “Mr. Smith” eyes. At one point, she exclaimed, “I’m looking at the Washington Monument right this second; oh, there’s the White House! Oh very cool!” Can she keep her cool in the overheated climate of Capitol Hill -- and keep her seat next year?
What an emotional roller-coaster for you: In eight days’ time, your mother dies, you’re elected to Congress, you resign from the City Council and get sworn in by House Speaker John Boehner.
It was a rough, rough week. She passed away totally unexpectedly Monday morning, and Tuesday, on election day, my brother and I were in the mortuary. For our dear, sweet mother.
They wanted to fly me [to Washington] last Wednesday [the day after the election] and get sworn in on Thursday. I said I had to lay my mother to rest. Emotionally, I could not even focus on what this meant, to go to Congress. Now it feels like a reality, and I’m ready.
President Obama’s grandmother died two days before he was elected president; did he call you?
He has not called me, although to be honest, I’ve given everybody a pass because my voice mail kept filling up every hour. I hope he wasn’t one of those who got “voice mail full.”
The City Council is nonpartisan; Congress is a two-party knife fight you’re getting into.
That’s true. On the City Council, it was not partisan, but I certainly was able to develop my style of governing, which is trying to find common ground with very competing interests. [At times] you had the Chamber of Commerce on one side, sometimes the environmentalists on another side, the unions and labor, community activists. I liked sitting everybody at the same table and saying, “Let’s see what we can find in common to solve this.” Hopefully, some of that will work this time as well.
There’s an 18-point Democratic-registration advantage in the 36th Congressional District, but you only won by nine points. What does this tell you?
First, that 18-point margin only works in a presidential, large-turnout election. That really shrank once you got to a special election.
It told me people are divided and this country’s divided. On one hand, many people were very concerned about Social Security and Medicare and wanted me to protect them, but I’ve got a lot of people who felt spending was out of control and we needed to get a handle on it and on the deficit. Clearly there are people who have competing interests, even in the 36th district.
Why did “tea party"-backed Republican Craig Huey do as well against you as he did?
Certainly his message of spending cuts resonated with people.
So will you be parting company with liberal Democrats and aligning more with Blue Dog Democrats? Have you mapped yourself out?
I haven’t really mapped myself out, but I was pretty clear in the campaign that one of my focuses is bringing our troops home and reinvesting that money in our local communities and helping [create] green energy technology jobs. I also talked about veterans and how they’ve been treated so poorly. Those are issues that I can stand firm on.
What about Medicare or Social Security -- changing, even cutting those programs?
There are so many other places that we can cut spending before we have to go after Social Security or Medicare. These programs could last until 2036 with absolutely no change. They’re not on life support by any means.
You have to run again in a primary less than a year from now -- in a district that probably won’t have the same boundaries, once the lines are redrawn. At least one draft map cut out the more Democratic Venice and included the more Republican Palos Verdes peninsula.
There’ve been about nine [draft] maps that I’ve seen, and each one changes pretty significantly from the one before.
How would you draw the district to include “communities of interest”?
I saw one map that had the harbor area with Malibu and Agoura Hills, and I certainly can’t see a community of interest there. I’d think communities of interest would be coastal. I think the harbors and ports, Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, San Pedro, Wilmington, would [have] a common agenda with trade and commerce. I see those communities as being more connected than San Pedro and Malibu.
Are people already sending you money for the next campaign?
More like I’m already asking! I went back to my friends and said, “What can I put you down for?”
What about committee assignments?
I’d like to be on transportation and infrastructure, and I’m going to make the case. I know about the ports, the airports, and could really push our L.A. County 30/10 [transportation] initiative. I think that’s how we get our economy back up and running in L.A. County: building our infrastructure. I hope to be the go-to person on international trade and industry. I think no one before me or after me will ever have so much knowledge about America’s ports. They’re such a key part of our economy. A lot of people don’t understand how cargo coming into our ports matters, not just to Southern California but to every single congressional district. I want to educate on that issue.
Except for going to Abilene Christian University in Texas, you’ve never lived outside of Los Angeles.
Yes, and I plan to come home as many weekends of possible, [to] keep me connected to my constituents. It’s not bad. This flight is just going to be my workday. [En route to the swearing-in] I sat in 31B and did my work.
Nearly 30 years ago your uncle, talking about your family’s political profile, said you were a “sleeping giant.”
My uncle Gordon ran for Congress and lost to Charlie Wilson from Torrance. I think my mom and dad knew from the very beginning that I was destined to go into public service. I think they probably wanted to keep me from it as long as possible, knowing the very difficult nature [of politics], but I’m sure they knew I was born to this.
When you told your parents you were going into politics, your mother cried and your dad wasn’t much happier. But your brother, Jim, served as mayor and city attorney, among other roles, and was cultivated for a political life.
I know, they groomed Jim! Now that I’ve gone through probably one of the nastiest campaigns I’ve ever gone through, I can see how if one of my children showed some interest, I would probably give them a very cautionary perception of this world.
You ran one ad labeling your opponent as “extreme.” One now-notorious YouTube ad, created by a conservative Republican, showed gangsta rappers and alleged that you had the city hire gang members to be gang intervention specialists. It even showed you as a pole dancer giving money to thugs.
[She laughs.] I never thought I would see myself dancing on a pole while running for Congress! Has to be a first.
You sought a cease-and-desist order about a Fox TV news story saying you intervened on behalf of a gang member who had been arrested, which became part of the story. In hindsight, was that the right move?
The Fox report was false. This guy was never on my payroll; I never got this guy out of jail; the whole thing was false. We were trying one more thing to keep them from airing that. But to have Fox News run [that] a couple of days before the election, a nine-minute story, it should have been declared an independent expenditure [on behalf of] my opponent.
Are your constituents satisfied that you didn’t do anything improper?
The fact that I won by almost 10 points proved that this was not an issue; voters were convinced that I had[n’t] done anything wrong. Every law enforcement agency was supporting my candidacy, so I don’t think it resonated with people at all.
Your father once said politics and the pulpit are the two noblest callings.
He sure did. In his day and age people allowed it to be a noble calling. Now being a politician, and God-forbid a career politician, is a dirty word. In my dad’s era, people were more respectful of those in politics.
Why has it changed?
There’s just a lot of anger out there, and we are the target of some of that anger when we’re not perceived as working fast enough on behalf of the people who elected us. You have people who absolutely don’t believe government has a role in people’s lives, and feel like slash[ing] and burn[ing] programs at the expense of seniors and those who really depend on government. I have seniors extremely upset at the thought of Social Security or Medicare being changed.
The economy is not good, people are out of work, people lost their homes, and I don’t believe the American people think this president or this Congress is doing enough.
Beginning in Congress must be like the first day of school; for starters, where’s your office?
I will be taking Jane Harman’s office until the next election. She has a good office, but [after] the next election cycle, I will get bumped to the basement. I don’t care -- put me in the basement. I’m in Congress! It’s pretty exciting to be here.
You went to a Christian university, and your parents were quite religious. On Capitol Hill, even faith is politicized.
We talked about [faith] at my mom’s service. She was the daughter of missionaries in Japan.
You’re right, even that gets convoluted back here, but maybe that’s an opportunity for me to find common ground with somebody who maybe wouldn’t think I would have a faith I could talk about.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.