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The Sound of Silence

Here’s how good the acoustics are at the new Disney Concert Hall: Even from one of those seats behind the orchestra, you can hear, five blocks away, the sound of Jim Hahn doing nothing.

Two and a quarter years into his term as mayor, Hahn is barely a presence in his own city. He has no agenda to call his own. In the conflicts currently roiling the city, he takes no discernible role. Occupying the most hands-on job in politics, he is a hands-off kind of guy.

Save for fund-raising from folks doing business with the city, Hahn is not busy reaching out to his base. It’s not at all clear that he has a base. Nor is he busy wooing swing voters.

The mayor is not even insisting that he be allowed to do his job. Because he received campaign contributions from the transit unions currently striking the MTA, Hahn is one of four MTA board members whom the county counsel has enjoined from negotiating with the unions. The counsel’s is a bizarre and partisan ruling, but it was another one of the board members, Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who challenged it in court. You’d think that a mayor banned from resolving a conflict rocking his city might protest, but it was the man Hahn defeated in the 2001 mayoral runoff who kicked and screamed.

Or consider the supermarket strike and lockout that has closed down chains throughout Southern California and has taken 70,000 workers off their jobs. Los Angeles has a huge stake in the outcome of this conflict: If the markets succeed in instituting two-tier pay scales, the long-term economic consequence for the region will be to convert tens of thousands of middle-income jobs into just-scraping-by low-end positions.

The strike and lockout have dragged on for several weeks now, and negotiations have yet to commence. And though the strike covers nearly all of Southern California, the pre-eminent public official in the region is the mayor of Los Angeles. Yet Hahn has done nothing to urge the parties to the table, or to articulate the city’s stake in preserving middle-income jobs. “We’ve seen neither hide nor hair of Hahn,” one union official comments.

It’s hard to imagine another mayor who’d be so blissfully uninvolved in the turmoil racking his city. A Rudy Giuliani or Mike Bloomberg, a Tom Bradley or two generations of Richard Daleys — they’d be all over these strikes. The issue isn’t ideology: Here in L.A., it’s hard to imagine, for instance, that the liberal Antonio Villaraigosa or the centrist Bob Hertzberg, were either mayor, wouldn’t be working 20-hour days to resolve these conflicts.

What Hahn lacks is precisely the kind of passion for involvement in all manner of city doings that is the sine qua non for a successful mayor. That’s clear from watching him in the current conflicts; it’s clear as well from watching the major policies that come out of his office. There aren’t any.

That’s not to say that Hahn hasn’t promoted good policies, just that they haven’t originated with him. He backed the creation of the city’s affordable-housing trust fund, an idea that entered the civic discussion when Villaraigosa advocated it during his mayoral campaign. During the fight to beat back Valley secession, Hahn turned to the County Federation of Labor for assistance, and he has since supported some of labor’s agenda for tying the permitting of major projects to the developers’ agreeing to a range of worker- and community-backed conditions (on pay scales, local hiring and the like).

Unlike Richard Riordan, Hahn didn’t seek office with a notable policing agenda. (Riordan ran on expanding the force; Hahn, on giving police officers more flextime.) But in appointing William Bratton as chief, he did bring in a department head with a reform agenda of his own.

On the plus side, Hahn is secure enough to embrace other people’s ideas. On the downside, neither Hahn nor his operatives seem to have any ideas of their own.

Thus the initiative in city government today begins in the council, where there is now a critical mass of progressives — Villaraigosa, Eric Garcetti, Martin Ludlow, Ed Reyes, and other members depending on the issue — eager to push the city toward more-responsible policies in development and housing. The force behind these members and their initiatives is a powerful labor movement, while the business community — weakened by the exodus of one corporate headquarters after another, but still plenty strong enough to swing some votes — mobilizes the opposition. At some point in these conflicts, Hahn has to step in, but his imprint is far lighter than that of an activist mayor, or a mayor, like the senior Daley or Bradley at the height of his powers, with clout over the council.

 

If the mayor has limited clout on the council, it’s partly because he has little constituency support in the city. It’s hard to identify anyone who bleeds for Jim Hahn. His core support in the 2001 mayor’s race came from the black community, less because of anything in his own public record, more because he was the son of Kenny Hahn, the legendary county supervisor who’d championed the interests of black L.A. during his four decades in office. When Jim Hahn removed Bernie Parks as police chief (the most courageous and commendable decision that Hahn has made as mayor), however, the African-American community — both the political elite and the mass of voters — turned against him. Parks parlayed their indignation into a seat on the council earlier this year, and is likely to claim the lion’s share of black support when he challenges Hahn for the mayor’s seat in 2005.

If black L.A. was Hahn’s base, the white west Valley was his periphery. He polled poorly there during the mayoral primary, but in the showdown runoff against Villaraigosa, he was the lesser-evil choice of Valley conservatives over his staunchly liberal opponent. But the Hahn alliance was a one-day wonder, and just as he forfeited his base by dumping Parks, he forfeited whatever tenuous hold he had over his periphery by leading the fight against secession. Both decisions were right for the city, but they have left Hahn with no identifiable means of political
support.

Well, not no means at all. Since he agreed to further labor’s agenda in return for its help in fighting secession, Hahn can claim the backing of the powerful county AFL-CIO. But Hahn is clearly not the figure in city politics who can claim labor’s heart: That’s Villaraigosa, who — provisionally — claims no interest in running for mayor until Hahn is termed out in 2009.

So labor may go into the 2005 mayor’s race campaigning for a colorless incumbent toward whom its members feel no particular passion, affection or allegiance. In other words, stuck selling another lemon like Gray Davis. Indeed, Hahn is something of an affable version of our outgoing governor — not as bright, not as driven, but equally without agenda and equally without a base. In Davis’ case, the lack of agenda resulted from an absence of core principles. In Hahn’s case, it seems to stem more from an absence of ambition and ideas. In both cases, the absence of a base seems largely the result of deficiencies in each man’s political chemistry. The fiercely ambitious Davis could commit himself fully to no cause or ally, and ended his career with no allies, or people who fought for their causes by fighting for him. Hahn, for his part, seems stunningly devoid of the kind of drive that powers most political careers. He cultivates no causes or constituencies as his own, personifies no cosmic or parochial concerns.

And so it goes at Los Angeles’ newly enhanced civic center. The hill is alive with the sound of music, but in the valley below, down in the Mayor’s Office, the silence is deafening.

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