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Mayor Who?

Just how wide a swath does Jim Hahn cut in the world?

The question was posed, totally inadvertently, by a recent Sunday feature in the Washington Post. The Post’s pollster, Richard Morin, authors a Sunday column that looks at public-opinion surveys and other academic studies, and on the Sunday before last, he cast his eye on a recent study by four Stanford academics who sought to determine how much a candidate’s appearance affected voter preference.

In this particular study, the academics took a photograph of some anonymous figure — they called him “Tom Steele” and said he was a candidate for the state Legislature — and showed it to half their class of 70 Stanford undergrads. To the students in the other half of the class, they showed a morphed photo that combined, unbeknownst to the students, the “Tom Steele” photo with one of the individual students him- or herself. Then they told all the students some facts about “Tom Steele” and compared the reactions of those students who looked at the candidate straight up and those who looked at him as he’d been combined with themselves.

Morin reported on the study, and the Post printed a photo of “Steele,” one of one of the students, and a photo that morphed the two images.

None of this, I confess, is what caught my attention. Only one thing leaped out at me: “Tom Steele” was in reality Jim Hahn.

Not that Morin — the Post’s pollster for a number of years — pointed that out, or even noticed it. (He called Steele “a fictitious candidate.”) Morin’s an East Coast guy, but what about all those folks at Stanford? I e-mailed the professors, and it turned out that they did indeed know that they’d used a photo of Hahn (one of the professors had, until recently, taught at UCLA). But of the 70 Stanford students, the profs reported, only one recognized the mayor of Los Angeles, though surely a sizable number of them came from the L.A. area.

It’s not that we’ve lacked evidence that Hahn’s has been a do-little administration, or that Hahn himself approaches the Platonic Ideal of the Lackluster. The very fact that in the waning days of his campaign, trailing Antonio Villaraigosa in all the polls, Hahn has suddenly come up with major policy initiatives (chiefly, a partial mayoral takeover of the school district) is confirmation, if anyone needed it, of the desultory manner in which Hizzoner has conducted himself in office up to now.

That four academics, compelled to select a photo of an anonymous legislative candidate, settled on an image of Hahn — confident, rightly, that few if any of their Southern California students would actually identify him as anyone other than “Tom Steele” — speaks volumes about the vision, ambition, drive and achievements of the current mayor of Los Angeles. Of course, it says a good deal about our civic culture, too: More students in the environs of New York would certainly pick out Mayor Mike Bloomberg in a lineup, and those in Chicago could identify Richie Daley. But it’s hard to argue that more Stanford students wouldn’t have recognized Tom Bradley or even Dick Riordan during their tenures as mayor — or won’t be able to identify Antonio Villaraigosa should he be elected in a couple of weeks — than were able to recognize L.A.’s current chief executive.

Still, there are worse things in politics than anonymity. Since Hahn’s identity is so unformed and malleable, just now his consultants are morphing him into some reactionary Tom Steele to bring out whatever’s left of the old Sam Yorty vote. The only precincts in L.A. politics where Hahn could surge in the next two weeks are those filled with Republicans and elderly African-Americans. So Hahn has raised the issue of citywide gang injunctions, and even taken up the cause of restoring the cross on the county seal, as vehicles to bash Villaraigosa for once having headed the Southern California chapter of the ACLU.

Attend a Hahn event in the white enclaves of the San Fernando Valley just now and you might grow confused as to what decade this is. Hahn’s Valley supporters constitute a waxworks of the Valley’s conservative past: There’s Bobbi Fiedler, the anti-busing activist from the ’70s; George Deukmejian buddy Robert Philibosian, who was briefly D.A. in the ’80s; onetime electeds Hal Bernson and Paula Boland. Villaraigosa has the support of the Valley’s current centrist leadership: Bob Hertzberg, Republican Assembly Member Keith Richman and, in an endorsement last Sunday, the Daily News. He has the present; Hahn has the past.

Hahn’s coalition four years ago was one of those one-day wonders of electoral politics, linking the African-American community with the more conservative white Valley. Today, the Hahn alliance is becoming almost a parody of that, mixing some elderly, culturally conservative African-Americans who entered politics during the civil rights movement of the ’60s with elderly, right-wing whites who entered politics to oppose the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Nate Holden, meet Bobbi Fiedler. Jim Hahn may deserve you both, but Los Angeles deserves better than all three of you. Bring on Antonio Villaraigosa. Hell, bring on Tom Steele.


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