By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
NONE OF THIS EXPLAINS WHY THE RACE HAS BEGUN SO damn early. The culprit here is term limits: Richard Riordan is barred from seeking re-election in 2001, and many of his would-be successors -- Villaraigosa, City Attorney James Hahn, City Councilman Joel Wachs -- are themselves bumping up against term limits that will force them out of their current positions.
So there was Villaraigosa in San Pedro -- Hahn's home turf -- unveiling programs and meeting with longshoremen and businessmen. For his part, Hahn was in the San Fernando Valley, speaking to senior citizens about elder abuse, while Wachs was glowering on the front page of the Times Metro section at the very prospect of the city's subsidizing any part of an NFL franchise. Businessman Steve Soboroff, Riordan's clear choice as his successor, was making the rounds of schoolrooms and parks all over town (he is chairman of the school construction Citizen's Oversight Committee and president of the city's Recreation and Parks Commission).
Other politicos, like Yaroslavsky, are still mulling it over. Congressman Xavier Becerra has emphatically stated he's considering the race; Supervisor Gloria Molina has acknowledged it rather tepidly. California State Controller Kathleen Connell hasn't publicly said anything herself, but her surrogates are getting her name around. And there remains the possibility that others -- Councilmen Mark Ridley-Thomas or Nate Holden, or former Assemblyman and current Army Secretary Louis Caldera -- could jump into the race as well. With term limits looming over so many local officeholders, the "Why not?" factor in the calculations of the political class has been magnified as never before.
Elections in L.A. are a two-stage process: The top two finishers in April's nonpartisan primary run off in June, unless one candidate can get a majority in April -- hardly likely in a crowded field without an incumbent. That means that if too many candidates compete for the same voter base in round one -- say, Villaraigosa and Becerra splitting the Latino vote; or Yaroslavsky, Wachs and Soboroff dividing the Valley -- it will be all the harder for those candidates to make it into round two.
Much of what's going on now could be described as base-jockeying: Becerra is trying to knock Villaraigosa out of the race by threatening to split his round-one vote; Soboroff and Wachs are trying to keep Yaroslavsky from entering by announcing early and trying to make inroads into his potential supporters. All this strengthens the hand of City Attorney Hahn, who does not yet face a challenge to his own primary base: the African-American community, whose entry into local politics was greatly aided by Hahn's father, the legendary Supervisor Kenny Hahn, and which has faithfully supported Hahn the Younger throughout his career. Add to that the fact that Hahn has been elected citywide five times -- once as controller, four times as city attorney (demolishing by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin a challenge from a Riordan protégé two years ago) -- and you understand why Hahn is widely regarded as a shoo-in to make the runoff. Hahn's own appraisal of the race is a good deal more upbeat than that. "How do you see the race shaping up?" I asked him late one afternoon in his City Hall East office. "Well," he answered immediately, "I see me winning -- though I'm not 100 percent positive I can win in the primary."
JIM HAHN IS NOT FAMED FOR HIS DRY WIT OR IRONIC sensibility, either in his assessments of his own prospects or his speeches. Like Al Gore, he is a lifelong pol who's the son of a lifelong pol, and shares with Gore a certain stiffness and absence of spontaneity in his public appearances. Unlike Gore, though, he's gotten the drop on the rest of his field. With the assistance of Bill Carrick, one of the nation's ablest campaign consultants, Hahn is already in full soundbite mode. Speaking to the Senior Shalom Club at the West Valley Jewish Community Center one early August morning (not the North Valley JCC that would become so terribly famous two weeks later), Hahn asks the seniors, "How many of you have trouble wrestling off the child-proof cap of an aspirin bottle at 3 a.m.?" -- thoughtfully raising his own hand to assure them there's no stigma attached to this. (Before a group of seniors, Hahn comes off as the respectful, dutiful son -- he'd do Kenny proud.) "Then why won't gun manufacturers child-proof their guns, which they could do for as little as $3 a gun?" he asks, to a burst of applause.
But Hahn is more than the sum of his soundbites. Outlining the city's needs one afternoon in his office atop City Hall East, Hahn focuses not just on public safety and schools (Riordan has made the condition of the schools the responsibility of any future mayor), but infrastructure. He talks of double-decking freeways, and of more mass transit. "Let's put everything on the table, eliminate no options," he says. "Heavy rail has got to be part of the mix. Buses are still the main piece of the system, but we need more light rail, and I'd like to see a subway used as a backbone for the system, with light rail feeding into it."