The Hahn Referendum

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."

But Hahn’s quiet personality also gives voters little to hang onto. He is, his detractors like to say, the mayor who wasn’t there.

Villaraigosa scores highest on name ID, but the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has backed Hahn this time, which means that the mayor, and not Villaraigosa, may claim the support of that other set of progressives — not the heirs to the good-government reformers of the last century, but the labor- and social-justice-oriented bloc that champions the ill-housed immigrant working class.

Villaraigosa’s frustrations at reclaiming his base became clear when he announced his candidacy. At a private forum for mayoral candidates hosted by African-American clergy last year, he made his best pitch for the support of progressive black voters.

"In many ways my candidacy represents the second coming of Tom Bradley," Villaraigosa told the preachers.

He meant, by that, that he had the background, the organizing and legislative track record and the coalition-building skills to make the best mayor for struggling families, in the same way that 20-year mayor Bradley did when he was first elected in 1973. Villaraigosa was rewarded with polite applause, but many of those present apparently brushed by the "my candidacy represents" part and focused in on the "second coming" remark. "He’s the second coming of Tom Bradley?" demanded one clergyman privately. "Excuse me?"

At another forum, on the Eastside, Villaraigosa acknowledged some unhappiness with his second run for mayor in light of his promise to serve out his term as councilman, but he predicted that his community would respond to his message and ultimately back him up with about 60 percent of their votes.

"Did you hear him?" asked one of the organizers of the group, which went on to endorse Richard Alarcón. "He said that no matter what we do he’s still going to get 60 percent of us. Can you imagine the nerve of this guy?"

Villaraigosa is continuing to try to reassemble the progressive coalition that launched him to the top spot in the mayoral primary four years ago, and he has raised campaign funds at an aggressive pace. But he’s been frustrated by a late start and, so far, the inability to recapture the magic that seemed to pervade his 2001 campaign.

So if the primary question for Hahn is "Can we trust you," there are two questions for Villaraigosa: Can you advance an agenda for Los Angeles that moves beyond the measures Hahn has taken that won him the endorsement of key labor unions that formerly backed you? And can we count on you, this time, to commit to a full term as mayor, after breaking your vow not to run?

For Parks, who continues to chide and to charm, voters will remind themselves that as police chief he opposed the LAPD consent decree and the shortened work week for officers, and railed against City Hall control over the police department. The question for him is, To what extent will you attempt to reverse the changes that have been made at the LAPD?

For Hertzberg, perhaps the top question at this point is, "Who are you?" Is he the Jewish candidate, the business candidate, the Valley candidate, the policy-wonk candidate? He may be all of that, or none of it, but he has yet to distinguish himself from the rest of the pack. And voters don’t always have a very long attention span.

Then there is Alarcón. Perhaps the best question for him is, "Are you for real?" He has excelled at the televised debates but has yet to be embraced by large numbers of backers with money and endorsements.

There will be questions for all of them — many of which will be asked at two debates sponsored by the city’s young neighborhood councils. These councils, born in the city’s last major reform effort, nurtured by Hahn (but not enough, the challengers contend), represent the city’s most likely voters, the people who take the time to become involved in city governance. It’s not yet clear whether these councils represent only the heirs of Progressivism, with a capital P, and will focus on crime, corruption, and preservation of the single-family homeowner lifestyle. Or whether they also represent that other, more recent, small-p progressive movement that embraces the needs of the struggling labor and immigrant class.


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