In a city of big egos and bigger-than-life politicians, the accomplishments of a courageous and hardworking mayor who avoided the limelight tend to get lost. That makes it especially gratifying that the Los Angeles City Hall East building will soon be renamed in honor of former Mayor James K. Hahn.
Hahn served a single term as the city’s chief executive nearly a decade ago, and his was not a flashy administration. But two courageous actions he took during those four years made Los Angeles a much stronger city, and we are still reaping the benefits of his leadership today.
Jim Hahn became the 40th mayor of Los Angeles in 2001, after serving for 16 years as L.A.'s city attorney. The election pitted Hahn against a then-rising Antonio Villaraigosa, who was fresh off a stint as speaker of the California Assembly. Hahn won the election with 54% of the vote by cobbling together a coalition of moderate-to-conservative white voters from the San Fernando Valley along with some 80% of the city’s African American voters. That unlikely alliance was testament both to his “tough on crime” career as city attorney and to the remarkable goodwill the African American community held for the Hahn family, largely because of Hahn’s father, longtime Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who served South L.A. for decades.
The political honeymoon ended almost immediately following Hahn’s inauguration because of two tough issues that would define his term in office. The first was whether to retain then-LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks. The second was what stand to take on San Fernando Valley secession. In both cases, he chose what was best for the city even though his positions alienated his base and probably led to his defeat in seeking a second term as mayor.
When Hahn took office, the LAPD was in crisis. After nearly a decade of decline, violent crime in the city was again rising. Entire LAPD training classes had to be canceled because they didn’t draw enough recruits, and demoralized officers were leaving the force in droves. The specter of the 1992 civil unrest and subsequent Rampart scandal continued to weigh on the department, and by 2002 an astounding 93% of LAPD officers said they had “no confidence” in the LAPD’s leadership.
I am not unbiased in this matter, since Hahn appointed me president of his Police Commission. But that position gave me an excellent vantage point from which to observe how the mayor made his decision about whether to reappoint Parks, a lifetime LAPD officer, to another five-year term as chief. Like Hahn, Parks had strong backing from African Americans, many of whom lobbied hard as the decision neared.
But despite the pressure — and knowing it was likely to damage his support among African American voters — Hahn announced that he was against renewing Parks’ contract, and the Los Angeles Police Commission voted 4 to 1 to deny Parks a second term. Then, compounding the political backlash, Hahn directed the Police Commission to go beyond the tradition of simply hiring from within the LAPD and to instead “find the best police chief in America.” The commission identified William J. Bratton, Hahn chose to hire him, and the direction of the LAPD was dramatically altered.
Los Angeles continues to benefit from that decision. Crime has dropped to levels unseen since the 1950s, officer morale has skyrocketed and the LAPD has undergone a systemic reorganization that has finally brought the department closer to the communities it polices. Bratton went on to earn a second five-year term under Mayor Villaraigosa, and the leadership team Bratton put in place continues to shape public safety in the region. That team included Charlie Beck, who recently earned his own second-five year term as LAPD chief, and former Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, who is poised to become Los Angeles County’s next sheriff.
At around the same time he was selecting a police chief, Hahn announced he would spearhead the opposition to a ballot measure sponsored by a well-funded San Fernando Valley secession movement. This brought him into direct conflict with the other strong component of his base, white San Fernando Valley voters. The initiative to form a separate city in the Valley passed narrowly there, but it ultimately failed citywide. Despite Hahn’s efforts to address many of the Valley’s legitimate concerns, he came to be seen as the antagonist of Valley activists and permanently lost his other key political constituency.
It’s hard to imagine today how different L.A. would be if it no longer included the San Fernando Valley and if it had never had Bratton as its police chief. But in 2005, when Villaraigosa once again challenged Hahn in the mayoral election, feelings were still raw. Alienating his two key constituencies had dealt a fatal blow to Hahn’s political career. He lost the election, returned to practicing law and was ultimately appointed to the Superior Court bench.
Today, when my friends in public office ask me for advice, my answer is always the same: “Risk your job every single day.” That’s what defines great leadership and great leaders. When Mayor Hahn faced two critical decision points, he had the fortitude to base his decisions on what was best for Los Angeles, even though he understood the consequences his actions were likely to have on his political career. The city is far better off today because of his courage.
Rick J. Caruso is the founder and CEO of Caruso Affiliated and past president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. Twitter: @RickCarusoLA
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