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The Mayor Gets Squeezed 

Why Jim Hahn may not survive the primary, and other mayoral dynamics

Thursday, Feb 17 2005
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Don’t look now, but it’s even money that our mayor won’t even make it into the May runoff.

Jim Hahn’s in trouble, with voters rejecting him for his good deeds, his bad deeds and his paucity of deeds. The good deeds — dumping Bernie Parks as chief and defeating the Valley secession ballot measure — have cost him much of his 2001 election support in the African-American community and the Valley, respectively. The bad deeds — the pay-to-play scandals which loom over the Mayor’s Office — are widely known to likely voters all across town, according to the L.A. Times poll. And the same poll fairly screams out about the paucity of deeds. When voters were asked to identify Hahn’s “most important accomplishment,” 47 percent answered, “Nothing in particular.” Crime reduction ranked number two, but at a sickly 5 percent.

Hahn is being challenged by two candidates with better-defined constituencies than his own, and harried by a third candidate who hurts him deeply with his own base. Antonio Villaraigosa established himself four years ago as the standard bearer for L.A. liberals and the Latino working and middle class, and he’s retained enough of that support this year to be leading in most private polls. Valley boy Bob Hertzberg, a centrist Democrat who’s been endorsed by Richard Riordan and is close to Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the logical choice for the city’s more conservative voters. Four years ago, Republicans and centrist Valleyites split their primary vote between Steve Soboroff and Joel Wachs, and if Hertzberg achieves enough name recognition, he should pick up most of those votes this time around. With Parks cutting Hahn’s black support of four years ago at least in half, Hertzberg can probably pick up enough votes to push past Hahn and set up a runoff with Villaraigosa, his onetime Sacramento roommate (when they were both in the state Assembly) and more-or-less former friend.

For an incumbent mayor, particularly one who normally strives to be inoffensive, Hahn has numbers that are appalling. He had just 21 percent backing in the Times poll, and a favorability rating of 44 percent (against an unfavorability rating of 48 percent). Villaraigosa’s ratings, by contrast, are 55 percent positive, 21 percent negative. Hahn has labor’s backing this time around, having delivered to the unions — public-sector unions most especially — almost all that they asked for, but as of last week, the Hahn lawn signs stacked up at union headquarters remain largely untouched. Union members remain as cool to Hahn’s appeal as non-members — a fact that union leaders recognize only too well.

Four years ago, the unions waged large-scale independent expenditure campaigns on Villaraigosa’s behalf. This year, they may feel compelled to wage such a campaign for Hahn in the runoff, but Hahn has to make the runoff first. And that’s not going to be easy. Hahn’s consultants did an expert job of attacking Villaraigosa in the general election four years ago, but it’s harder to go negative in the primary. By singling out Hertzberg for attack — and it’s Hertzberg whom Hahn is dueling with for the second spot — they might well give him a boost.



The Old King’s Ghost

Bernie Parks is in but not of this campaign. He’s campaigning hard, to be sure, but not to win. His sole interest is in bringing Jim Hahn down.

Consider, for instance, Parks’ answer to a question about how to fix L.A.’s traffic mess that was posed at the debate sponsored by the city’s neighborhood councils last week. Rather than detail new rail routes or advocate stoplight synchronization, Parks simply noted that a mayor cannot miss 30 percent of the MTA board meetings, as Hahn has done, and be a plausible mayor. Parks has his plans, but they take a back seat to attacking the man who cast him into the wilderness.

The closest thing to a model for Parks as he stalks Hahn from debate to debate is an ancient and fictitious pol — old King Hamlet, the Prince’s father, who returns to his son in the form of a ghost and urges him to unmask and dispatch his murderer, the evil Claudius. Remember me, Parks says to his constituents — chiefly, the more elderly voters of black L.A. Avenge my foul and most unnatural firing!

Having set Shakespeare’s tragedy in motion, the ghost then disappears from the rest of the drama. Parks won’t disappear come March 8 so long as Hahn makes the runoff; he’s sure to campaign for Hahn’s opponent, whoever it be. And if Hahn is knocked off in Round One, Parks’ spirit will be at peace.

Richard Alarcón is even more of a bit player than Parks. Running to establish more of a citywide reputation with L.A. liberals, Alarcón is free to say everything that Villaraigosa, bent on winning 4 percent more of the vote than he did four years ago, cannot. Alarcón’s answer to the same traffic question that Parks used to attack Hahn was to attack the big-money guys who overdeveloped the city. “Developers ruined this city,” he says, accusing them of taking power away from neighborhood councils. That this answer doesn’t really address anything about the city’s traffic woes is a secondary concern, if that. No one is more neighborhood-friendly than Alarcón, who in two successive debates last week made it sound as if the dearth of neighborhood-council power was all that stood between us and a cure for cancer.



Korean Banks and Rubber Sidewalks

Bob Hertzberg, by contrast, answers every question, and then some. In a debate before the Studio City Residents Association last week, he responded to a query on how L.A. could improve its image with a quick disquisition on highlighting neighborhoods and on “co-locating” parks, schools and libraries in the same place, while noting in passing that, “Korean banks are deregulating in 2006!”

Then he was off to three other points, and it was a good thing, since I doubt more than a handful of the 300 or so Valleyites in attendance had any idea what he was talking about. As best I could piece it together, what Hertzberg meant was that Korean banks would be able to invest more in Korean-American and other local ventures next year, and that any conscientious mayor needed a plan to woo them, and that this was one of a near-infinite number of things a mayor should focus on to improve L.A.’s image. Not that Hertzberg explained any of that.

Whatever one thinks of Hertzberg himself, the spectacle of Hertzberg is an unalloyed hoot. He is a wonk on speed: Ideas tumble out of him, some good, some bad, some clarified, some not. If there’s a character in American political literature Hertzberg most resembles, it’s Charley Hennessey in Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, a novel about an aging Boston mayor seeking office one last time. Hennessey is the mayor’s contemporary, a pol whom many think could have become mayor himself had he been able to restrain himself on the stump from digressing into a myriad of innovative ideas of uneven merit.

Hertzberg’s campaign consultants have crafted a campaign that hews to a few simple themes, to which the candidate struggles to stick. Hertzberg calls for a commuters’ bill of rights that has simple-sounding solutions (no roadwork during rush hour), a reshuffling of city resources so that the hiring of new cops takes precedence over city-worker pay raises, and the breakup — details nowhere in evidence — of the L.A. Unified School District. His program is exquisitely calibrated to win over Valley moderates and conservatives. In the Times poll, 54 percent of respondents favored the breakup of the LAUSD, but among Republicans, the idea had 75 percent backing.

But set Hertzberg loose for a one-on-one chat, like the one we had at Art’s Deli last weekend, and all manner of ideas bubble to the surface. In just a few minutes’ time, Hertzberg extols transit-based mortgages, where banks loan more to people buying homes on transportation corridors. He calls for installing cell-phone antennas on street lamps (“What kind of city is it where you can’t use your cell phone?”) as a way to bring $10 million more in revenues to city coffers. And then there are the rubberized sidewalks.

“You have these millions of old tires stacked up in the Central Valley,” he begins. “We can’t easily get rid of them. And we have these terrible sidewalks here in L.A.” What follows is a proposal to set up a locally based industry to convert the tires to rubberized sidewalks. “If people trip and fall, there’s less risk of injury, less liability for the city.” If roots move upward, you can take them out without having to jackhammer. The jackhammer here is Hertzberg, with his constant pounding of urban fix-its.



Antonio Holds Back

Four years ago, the candidate on fast-forward was Antonio Villaraigosa. This time around, he’s slowed it down, cut back on the electricity that once lit up liberal L.A. “I am not as scary and not as exciting as I was last time,” he told me at a post-debate dinner last week.

Villaraigosa’s cautiousness is on abundant display this year. In Monday’s debate last week, he avoided taking a position on public funding of elections, while Hahn and Hertzberg endorsed the idea. “Last time we were trying to consolidate the liberal base,” says Parke Skelton, Villaraigosa’s longtime consultant. “Now we’re focusing on the targets we need in [the] May [runoff]: white Valley Democrats who vote for Hertzberg in the primary [assuming Hahn makes the runoff] and African-Americans who vote for Parks in the primary.” The clear model for Villaraigosa’s campaign is that of Tom Bradley in 1973. Four years previous, Bradley had waged a liberal crusade against incumbent Sam Yorty, and was soundly defeated. In 1973, Bradley was the moderate’s moderate — and beat Yorty handily.

How much of Villaraigosa’s reticence is a matter of strategy and how much is the result of his being shell-shocked by the vicious campaign Hahn waged against him four years ago is anybody’s guess. At Monday’s debate, he gave a somewhat stammering performance. At Tuesday’s, however, he was the Villaraigosa of old, endorsing inclusionary zoning for low-income housing, a community-development bank to spur the inner-city economy, and big-ticket, long-range rail-transit solutions to the problems of gridlock. “We can’t get solutions on the cheap,” he told the Studio City homeowners. “We want to fix the traffic, but we don’t want to invest money.” We need leadership, he insisted, that dreams big and knows how to bargain, as he did in the Assembly, for results. And he spoke with such conviction that the Studio Citizens ate it up.



Battle of Ideas

It may at times be hard to discern — and Villaraigosa’s reticence makes it all the harder — but this year’s mayoral contest pits contrasting visions of urbanism against one another. Hertzberg, for one, notes the influence of Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel — two business-oriented Democratic urban theorists — on his thinking. “Kotkin’s influence is to focus me on the middle class,” he says. “I’ve got to create an environment where I keep taxpayers in the city.”

What this means is that Hertzberg is critical of Jim Hahn’s generous contracts with city workers, and skeptical of some of the living-wage and low-income housing mandates that progressives would impose on business as a condition of development. “If you implant social policy in a way that upsets investors, they can leave,” Hertzberg says. “It’s a mayor’s job to attract capital.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, Villaraigosa is also critical of Hahn’s deals with public-sector unions. “He can’t say no,” Villaraigosa notes. “You need a mayor who’s an honest broker.” But Villaraigosa remains the pre-eminent champion of the city’s low-wage immigrant working class and its private-sector unions. No one would push harder for extending living-wage ordinances or for building more affordable housing.

A Hertzberg-Villaraigosa runoff, then, would pit one candidate whose chief focus is to hold on to the middle class against another whose chief focus is to build one out of the city’s underpaid retail and service-sector workers. That may not be as compelling a narrative as that of the battle between the two old roomies, but it’s surely a more important one for the future of Los Angeles.

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