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Odd Man Out 

The odyssey of Tom Hayden

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
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Carrots, Jessica Boone; Ruben & Ramon, APWide World; Hayden, Debra Dipaolo

Tom Hayden was never really a perfect fit for Sacramento, as he himself was the first to admit. Most freshman legislators see a career in the capital as the way to shape their public political identities. When Hayden first entered the Assembly in 1982, however, he already had one of the most public, and distinctive, political identities in America: author of the Port Huron Statement, the magna carta of the ‘60s left; first president of Students for a Democratic Society; leader of the opposition to the war in Vietnam; major domo of the tumultuous demonstrations at the Democrats’ 1968 Chicago convention; a comparatively measured voice at the subsequent trial of the Chicago 7; U.S Senate candidate in 1976; not to mention Jane Fonda‘s husband. Hayden didn’t need Sacramento to get on the 6 o‘clock news, and he certainly never warmed to its distinctive political culture. And the feeling was mutual.

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The mutual estrangement wasn’t just a question of bad timing, though that was certainly part of it. Hayden took up his duties as a legislator at the same time George Deukmejian took up his duties as governor. Until Gray Davis took office last January, Hayden‘s entire tenure in office was spent under a Republican governor; the most he and his fellow Democrats could do was to try to contain the damage. Hayden, however, never quite fit in with his Democratic colleagues either. For their part, the Willie Brown Democrats were immersed in a world of fund-raising and committee assignments and local races. Hayden felt more at home nosing around Belfast or Watts, or writing a volume of neopantheistic meditations. In the last decade, at least, he had made himself into an accomplished legislator: “He knows how to play the game, though he doesn’t like it,” one colleague said earlier this year. But unlike other maverick liberal veteranos of the Legislature -- unlike a John Burton or a John Vasconcellos -- Hayden was in Sacramento but never of it. From allies as well as adversaries, he was distant, and sometimes disdainful.

So it should not have come as a huge surprise this Tuesday when Tom Hayden announced that he would end his legislative career, choosing not to run for an open Assembly seat in West L.A. But it did.

For the race to succeed the term-limited Wally Knox in the 42nd Assembly District was one that Hayden had fairly bulled his way into. Blocked by the same term-limits law from serving another term in the state Senate, Hayden had given every indication that he would stay in Sacramento by running for the Assembly in the seat next door -- Sheila Kuehl‘s coastline district, from which she too was term-limited. (Knox and Kuehl, meanwhile, are running for Hayden’s Senate seat.) Suddenly this summer, though, Hayden announced that it was Knox‘s district, not Kuehl’s, in which he‘d decided to run.

This did not clarify the situation. Prospective candidates had already begun lining up funding and support for their bids for the Knox seat, and some of them plowed ahead. Amanda Susskind, an activist in the Jewish community, had the support of various women’s organizations and continued to raise megabucks for her campaign. West Hollywood City Councilman Paul Koretz -- a leader in statewide initiatives for gun control, and in local efforts on behalf of living-wage ordinances, and of the food-service workers battling various hotels, and USC, for decent contracts -- was poised next week to win the endorsement of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, even with Hayden in the race. Worse yet, a hefty number of Hayden‘s current legislative colleagues had already endorsed either Susskind (17 endorsements) or Koretz (5) -- and none of them rescinded those endorsements when Hayden joined the field. Hayden had legislative accomplishments; he didn’t have legislative friends.

In short, Hayden had put himself into the unenviable position of really having to make a race against serious candidates, a generation younger than he, who could compete for some of the votes he‘d normally take for granted. Koretz in particular had a strong claim on progressive voters who were Hayden’s core constituency. I‘ve seen the polling and believe that Hayden would have won nonetheless. But it would not likely have been one of the more enjoyable campaign experiences of his career.

On Tuesday, after all the contortions induced by his plans first to run in one district and then in the other, Hayden stunned the political world with a letter announcing his intention not to run for the Legislature at all. “I was confident of winning reelection,” he wrote. “But was I running for the sake of running? Was I on a treadmill? The only to way to know was to get off, and let others in the bloom of their ambition have a try.”

(The coming battle of the bloomers is shaping up as one of the March primary’s more fascinating contests. For one thing, it reverses an L.A.-election dynamic of 20 years ago, when the Westside alliance of Henry Waxman and Howard Berman would back Latino candidates on the Eastside, often against candidates backed by other non-Latino Democratic pooh-bahs such as then-Congressman Tony Coelho. In the current campaign in the 42nd, Koretz is backed by union-oriented Latino elected officials such as Assembly members Gil Cedillo and Gloria Romero (with the County Fed likely to join in), while Susskind is backed by state Senator Richard Polanco and his more centrist and nationalist allies. In short, the Eastside factions are now picking favorites on the Westside, as once the Westside did on the East.)

But to return to the Hayden conundrum: Why did the senator turn the race in the 42nd upside-down by his surprise entry, only to turn it over again by his surprise withdrawal? The short answer, it seems, is Gray Davis. After serving 16 years under George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, Hayden told me on Tuesday afternoon, “I had a virtual infatuation with the idea of coming up to Sacramento with Gray as governor. There was this period, which lasted for months, of intense relief -- a chance to finally finish the legislative agenda and projects I‘d been working on for years.” Some of that agenda became law, and Davis signed the park bond measure, to appear on the March ballot, on which Hayden long had labored. But over the past few months, a number of Hayden bills that had passed both houses -- bills that put ex--gang members on crime-prevention panels, that required the state to monitor drop-out rates and the number of certified teachers and AP classes at both suburban and inner-city schools, that created children’s health standards at toxic school sites, that established a commission on the L.A. River -- were killed by Davis vetoes. “The bills he vetoed weren‘t designed to challenge him from the left,” Hayden told me. “They were designed for his signature. Both houses supported them, in some cases by a two-thirds margin. When those vetoes came, stuck under the door of my office by the hand of a messenger -- no phone call, no dialogue, no nothing -- it was more than disappointing. It was a nightmare.

”Now, I was already termed out of the Senate,“ Hayden continued. ”The only reason I’d thought of running for the Assembly was high expectation.“

Hayden‘s political disappointment abetted his personal misgivings. ”I’m turning 60 later this year,“ said the man who once said, ”Don‘t trust anybody over 30.“ (”Does that make me doubly untrustworthy?“ he wondered.) ”Do I want to spend five more years of my life commuting to Sacramento? Sacramento has to be very rewarding to justify that.“ Hayden and his wife, actor Barbara Williams, have been seeking to adopt a child, which made the Sacramento commute even less attractive.

In his letter, Hayden took pains to assure his supporters that he wasn’t abandoning electoral (much less, progressive) politics, writing that he‘ll consider ”running for political office in Los Angeles, where I can be closer to my family . . . “ Increasingly over the past few years, Hayden has focused his attention on L.A. issues -- from the MTA’s maladies to the Belmont boondoggle. ”There are [electoral] possibilities in L.A. city and L.A. County,“ he said on Tuesday. In a conversation last summer, Hayden disavowed an interest in the mayoral race if Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa made a serious run for it -- which Villaraigosa has now embarked upon. (Hayden waged a desultory campaign for mayor against Richard Riordan in 1997.) Now, Hayden says, he wants to ”beg the question“ of what, if any, city office he‘ll be looking at -- though those omnipresent term limits will create vacancies in 2001 in a couple of Westside and West Valley city council districts that overlap with Hayden’s Senate seat, and Zev Yaroslavsky‘s supervisorial seat could come open if Yaroslavsky ever decides he wants to run for mayor, and wins.

Or, says Hayden, he may opt just to write and speak. The odyssey here isn’t simply that of a progressive in a conservative time; it‘s more personal than that. For now, the outsider is wandering again.

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