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
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
A very dapper-looking and campaign-ready Mayor James Hahn opened the new year by announcing that he wants Los Angeles to snatch the former El Toro military air base for use as a commercial airport. If it happened — it won’t, but if it did — it would be the second time in a week that L.A. grabbed a chunk of the county to the south. First the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, now the Los Angeles Airport of Irvine.
While Hahn was discussing his plan with reporters, Ace Smith, campaign consultant for challenger Antonio Villaraigosa, passed out copies of a letter to county Democratic Party leaders reminding them of alleged outrages committed against them by the mayor.
Smith’s presence at a news conference in Hahn’s own City Hall briefing room was a reminder that pretty much anything that happens in L.A. government circles over the next four months is going to have at least as much to do with the mayor’s race as it does with whatever substance is being discussed. Challenger Richard Alarcón was at Hahn’s presentation last month to Valley VOTE, and Bernard Parks and Bob Hertzberg have not been shy about challenging the mayor either. It’s going to be an interesting winter.
Meanwhile, Hahn’s El Toro proposal served as a reminder all on its own — that the city of Los Angeles, which at the turn of the last century spearheaded Progressive good-government reforms to combat the corporate "octopus" that was the Southern Pacific railroad, has become the octopus itself. L.A. is so massive a presence that whatever it does in the region in transportation, housing, jobs or pretty much anything else affects millions of people outside the city. The mayor’s reach, in fact, extends across the nation. Who we elect is important.
At election time residents of one of the nation’s most powerful cities don’t generally pay much attention to their mayor, who he is or what he does. But Angelenos love the idea of reform, and like all Californians, we love the voter-empowering Progressive reform vestiges: the initiative (think Proposition 13, Three Strikes), the recall (remember Governor Davis?) and the referendum.
And there is no getting around the fact that this year’s mayoral election is a referendum on Hahn.
The reason is the perception of corruption in City Hall. The focus of Hahn’s four major challengers on corruption charges at the first December debate signaled that they had done polling and focus groups, and that the numbers showed Angelenos care about corruption in City Hall, whether or not they are steeped in the facts of just what a Los Angeles mayor does. The octopus continues to outrage, even if it is now City Hall instead of the Southern Pacific.
Thanks to those Progressives of a century ago, though, there are officially no parties on the ballot. That leaves the candidates themselves, all of the same party, most with the same positions. Left are personality, community — and trust. As for community, Villaraigosa and Alarcón are vying for support among Latinos, Parks has polled well among African-Americans, Hertzberg and Alarcón play well in the Valley, and Villaraigosa has tapped into long-standing Jewish support but can’t grab all of it away from Hertzberg.
Beyond community, though, and personality, the issue remains trust. Voters over the next two months — and then the two after that, assuming the mayor is in a runoff — must ask themselves whether they can trust Hahn. They must decide whether they can rely on his personal integrity, since it will likely be his last election and he has no political future at stake.
To persuade voters that Hahn is not worthy of their trust, his challengers have tried to capture the mantle of reform by offering their own proposals that spotlight the Hahn administration’s current scandals. Alarcón, for example, underscores the problem at the Department of Water and Power by proposing legislation to block a DWP rate increase and prevent city commissioners from campaign fund-raising. Villaraigosa was out early with a plan to suspend the rate increase. Parks’ public pronouncements on City Hall corruption sound as though they could be lifted from the Progressive-era playbook. Hertzberg has vowed to start his reform efforts with the failing school district, an area outside Hahn’s direct purview.
Hahn is also trying to paint himself as the candidate of reform by noting that he called for a ban on commissioner fund-raising and formed a blue-ribbon panel to study city contracting processes. The panel’s draft report received its final committee run-through this week and is expected to be sent, along with a report on contracting by the Rand corporation, to the mayor shortly.
Fernando Guerra of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola said he was surprised at the extent to which the "pay-to-play" scandal has caught on. The question, he said, is whether Hahn is able to deflect it.
"My instinct is that he is one of the least corruptible people I can think of," Guerra said. "There is nothing in his personal lifestyle, his history, that reflects [corruption]. He has none of the personality traits that would lead you to believe that the accusations are true. So that is helpful to the mayor."