Dancing for Dear Life 

Labor helps Jimmy survive a scandal at City Hall — for now

Thursday, Mar 10 2005
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
Jim Hahn is still with us, politically speaking, and that was enough to make the Conga Room rock. His sister, Councilwoman Janice Hahn, danced onstage, and his son, Jackson, shouted “Four more years!” into the microphone for an adoring crowd. They were naturals. Then Jim came up, and, well, he did his best, especially given that it was unclear at that point whether he would grab the second-place slot and a May 17 runoff against first-place finisher Antonio Villaraigosa.

Hahn just barely blocked the late onrush by Bob Hertzberg, the former Assembly speaker whose wacky mailers and TV commercials and flawless AM-radio appearances nearly put him in the final round.

The early hours were a bit muted at the club, packed with business-suited well-wishers. “We’ll see,” one Hahn supporter after another said when asked if their guy was going to make the runoff.

But things got more cheery after Councilman Tom LaBonge announced that Hahn was leading in the vote-by-mail count. By 11 p.m., when Hahn entered the room, about a dozen of his appointed city commissioners were dancing onstage with labor officials. Police Commissioner Dave Cunningham was boogying, as were fellow cop Commissioner Alan Skobin, Public Works Commissioner Janice Wood, Airport panelist Miguel Contreras and a handful of others. Water and Power Commissioner Dominick Rubalcava and his son, Animal Services Commissioner Alex Rubalcava, celebrated more quietly offstage. It was a wildly upbeat celebration for an incumbent who was merely hoping to come in second.

It was a tough campaign for Hahn, and an especially tough final few campaign days, with Hertzberg confronting him with, of all things, a kitchen sink he carried into, of all places, a delicatessen.

But even that moment of low political comedy didn’t compare with Hahn’s extraordinarily bad voting-day decision to march directly into Hertzberg territory: the AM-radio waves of KFI afternoon talk-radio kingpins John and Ken.

Just called in to remind everyone to vote, Hahn told John Kobylt. “It’s fast, it’s fun, and it’s free.”

Kobylt said thanks, he’d already voted for Hertzberg.

“So this guy flimflammed you, didn’t he?” Hahn demanded. He then took off after Hertzberg for Enron-related evils, while Kobylt talked over him about missing police officers and jammed traffic.

“You haven’t done crap!” Kobylt told Hahn. “You’re the local version of Gray Davis!”

The call ended with Hahn yelling at Kobylt and, finally, hanging up on him. It wasn’t pretty.

It also seemed like a sign of political desperation for a man who has never lost an election in 20 years of Los Angeles politics, and in fact never even had a tough election fight until Ted Stein mounted a city-attorney campaign against him in 1997. And, of course, Antonio Villaraigosa very nearly beat him for mayor four years ago.

Hertzberg was surging, especially on the strength of voters in the San Fernando Valley, a former Hahn stronghold — until the mayor led a fund-raising effort to block Valley secession in 2002.

In one sense, Hahn’s troubles seemed the result of vengeance, or at least comeuppance. His base in the African-American community was taken by Bernard Parks, who was elected to the City Council by angry black voters after Hahn ousted Parks as police chief. Valley voters flocked to Hertzberg in the wake of the anti-secession campaign. Villaraigosa is seeking payback for Hahn’s harsh and negative TV spots and mailers in the final days of the 2001 campaign.

Even Ted Stein, in a way, seemed to be exacting revenge, however unwittingly. Hahn and Stein made peace, and the mayor appointed his erstwhile foe to the airport commission — where Stein promptly drew the attention of county and federal criminal investigators for (allegedly) squeezing too much campaign money from would-be city contractors.

Those criminal probes made Hahn vulnerable, as did his own aloof and restrained personality. Vulnerability may be attractive in personal relationships, but in politics it is a sin.

On the TV monitor at the Hahn party, a news program showed video of Hahn voting in San Pedro in the early morning. His partisans cheered. They kept cheering when the scene changed to Michael Jackson walking into court, protesters waving Lebanese flags in Beirut, the January train wreck and the latest Fantasy 5 numbers from the lottery.

They might well have been cheering the low profile that the mayor’s race has had so far in Los Angeles, and the low turnout that usually favors incumbents. Or, perhaps, they were just having fun.

When Hahn left the Conga Room after his thank-you speech, so did pretty much everyone else. The place was nearly deserted by midnight, and security personnel were showing the stragglers the door by 12:30. And still no one knew who was going to be in the runoff with Villaraigosa.

Several miles to the east, the lights blared at the city’s Piper Technical Center as hundreds of people unloaded thousands of boxes of ballot-booth equipment from rented vans and sealed boxes of ballots from city cars, and hundreds more sat around tables and marked see-through blue stripes over questionable ink marks on the ballots.

Counting was slowed first by the fog, which grounded the two helicopters that usually bring in the ballots from far-flung regions like the west Valley and San Pedro, and then by City Clerk Frank Martinez’s careful program of hand-inspecting each ballot. He said he wanted to make sure that the city’s first use of the InkaVote system went off without a hitch (the county used InkaVote in November’s presidential election).

“Given the stakes of this race, the number of candidates and the potential closeness, we wanted to make sure [the count] is accurate,” Martinez said.

At about 1:30 a.m., in a small room at the other end of Piper Tech, former City Councilman Mike Hernandez sat at a table, tracking the numbers as they came in, marking a hand-drawn chart that showed what parts of town were voting for whom. At this point, Hahn had a fairly comfortable lead against Hertzberg for second place. But Hernandez, who was keeping an eye on things for Bernard Parks, noticed that the mayor’s lead kept slipping half a point every time a new report came in.

At this rate, Hertzberg would nose the mayor out of the runoff.

It very nearly happened. But, although it was close, Jim Hahn will get to run for mayor all over again in eight weeks, despite his call to John and Ken. How did he eke it out? Labor. Union phone banking went into overdrive for the mayor, showing the importance of the endorsements that Hahn won in December — endorsements that four years ago went to Villaraigosa.

Hahn backers insist labor is ready now to defeat Villaraigosa, the most labor-oriented mayoral candidate the city has seen.

Julie Butcher, general manager of SEIU Local 347, which represents blue-collar city workers, put it simply.

“Labor kicked ass for Hahn,” Butcher said.

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