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On a recent afternoon in West Hollywood, at a candidates' forum in a half-filled conference room at the Pacific Design Center, Janice Hahn, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and one of the most perky members of the Los Angeles City Council, faced what for her was a real dilemma — whether to remain standing, perhaps even trying to wave her arms a bit, or to gracefully sit down.
Gavin Newsom, the handsome, charismatic mayor of San Francisco and another Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, had just finished a roof-raising, arm-pumping performance at the forum, which was sponsored by Equality California, the politically connected gay-rights group.
Instead of taking his seat next to three Equality California panelists who were lobbing him soft-ball questions, Newsom stayed on his feet to work the room, repeatedly thrusting an arm in the air and yelling, "It's always the right time to do the right thing!" The crowd adored him — the mayor who, in 2004, made U.S. history by allowing gays and lesbians to obtain marriage licenses in San Francisco.
Hahn had been the frontrunner in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, riding almost entirely on her family name. But in March, when Newsom jumped into the game, her cakewalk to statewide office abruptly ended. Looking uncomfortable after Newsom's performance, Hahn went onstage and made an awkward effort to emulate the 42-year-old mayor, with his slicked-back hair, navy blazer and crisp white shirt. Uncharacteristically raising her voice and speaking fast, she came off somewhat forced, earning a subdued response from the audience. Then the folksy 58-year-old councilwoman with a blond bob, dressed in black high heels and a bright-pink jacket, murmured something about "Gavin" into her microphone and sat down for the rest of the panel's questions.
Reminding some of a good-natured aunt, Hahn is well-liked among her colleagues on the City Council, and by many residents of City Council District 15 — a disparate district that stretches south from Watts, narrows to a long strip that at times is less than 10 blocks wide and ends many miles away where it broadens dramatically to include the Port of Los Angeles and the far-flung community of San Pedro.
When Hahn was asked if it made her nervous to follow a flashy crowd-pleaser like Newsom, whom some critics describe as an opportunist lacking substance, her response said more about her own insubstantial record than it did about his:
"No, not really," she said. "I have my own thing to offer. I'm a woman."
Hahn wants to be the first female lieutenant governor of California, a job that carries little power but comes with the responsibility of taking over for the governor if he or she can't lead. It can also turn a fading city councilwoman or lame-duck mayor into a bona fide statewide name, with access to wealthy campaign donors and rich special-interest groups that can underwrite a lieutenant governor's jump to a more powerful office.
"Unless you're a millionaire and can buy statewide recognition, it's a good position to later run for governor or the U.S. Senate or Congress," says Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. "You don't have that exposure if you're the mayor somewhere or a state legislator."
Even so, without using a cheat sheet, few Californians could identify the man who just held the job for three years, despite the fact that the lieutenant governor sits on the powerful UC Board of Regents and serves on the sometimes environmentally influential State Lands Commission. His name was John Garamendi, a mainstream Northern California Democrat who used the mostly ceremonial post in part to achieve his real goal, and the goal of many who have sought the job: He leapfrogged to Congress seven months ago, showered with special-interest money he mined while lieutenant governor.
The seat Garamendi left was temporarily filled via appointment by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who infuriated liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans when he chose the affable, moderate Republican Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, pleasing neither of Sacramento's increasingly extreme major parties. Maldonado now faces conservative antitax GOP firebrand state Sen. Sam Aanestad of Grass Valley on June 8 in a primary fight for the Republican nomination. If Maldonado beats Aanestad, he'll face Newsom or Hahn in his bid to become only the second Latino from the GOP to be California's lieutenant governor.
If Hahn is elected in November, she will achieve something her legendary father, the late Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and well-known brother James Hahn, former mayor of Los Angeles and now Superior Court judge, never did — statewide office. Yet some City Hall watchers are astonished that the California Democratic Party bench is thin enough to have given Hahn — rarely a leader on crucial city issues, and a weak link in efforts to address the $529 million city budget deficit — a crack at a coveted position when Sacramento is desperate for accomplished leaders.
"The idea that she would preside over the state and be a heartbeat away from running the state is amazing," says former Los Angeles Daily News editor Ron Kaye, who keeps close tabs on the L.A. City Council as a blogger and activist. "I don't think she has the intellectual force and leadership ability to handle it. Even a City Council member should provide leadership in my book. She doesn't lead. She's a follower."