Against all odds, L.A. is going to have itself a bang-up mayoral election next year.
It’s not supposed to be this way. Once the city enacted term limits, restricting mayors to two four-year terms in office, the accepted wisdom was that there would be donnybrooks every eight years when the office came open, but that the incumbent, bolstered by an incumbent-sized bankroll, would get a free pass for his or her second term.
That’s how things worked under Richard Riordan, our first term-limited mayor. Riordan had to claw his way to the top of a crowded field when first elected in 1993. In 1997, though, Riordan had scant opposition and romped to a second term.
Jim Hahn, however, isn’t doing much romping these days. The election-day alliance that put him in power — an improbable partnership of black L.A., which loved Hahn’s father Kenny, with the white sections of the San Fernando Valley that were scared by reports of Antonio Villaraigosa’s liberalism — didn’t look at the time to be an enduring coalition. But I don’t think anyone expected it would vanish so completely in less than four years.
At one level, Hahn was punished for the two good deeds he performed in office: removing the martinet-like Bernie Parks as chief of police, and opposing, as any mayor would, the secession of the Valley. The first cost Hahn the support of his black base; the second, the backing of his Valley periphery.
More fundamentally, Hahn has given Angelenos small reason to support him. Since taking office, he has been without energy or agenda. Meanwhile, investigations proceed on a number of his commissioners, who’ve been alleged to have awarded city contracts in exchange for campaign contributions.
Not surprisingly, challengers have emerged. Bernie Parks, running on a platform of Vengeance-Is-Mine, is “exploring” a candidacy he will surely declare. Parks will do well within the black community, but he is no Tom Bradley, who’d spent years allied with a citywide coalition of liberals by the time he ran for mayor. It’s hard to see where Parks will win other support, particularly since more conservative voters, who might conceivably go for a former LAPD chief, have a more conservative alternative (a Valley boy, no less) in the race.
State Senator Richard Alarcon is a Valley boy, but no conservative (he’s espoused progressive positions on issues such as affordable housing and the living wage). Should Villaraigosa opt out of next year’s race, Alarcon is a good bet to pick up most of the Latino vote, but he lacks Villaraigosa’s years of involvement in and support from the city’s liberal power bases.
By themselves or together, Parks and Alarcon don’t really pose a mortal threat to Hahn: their political and financial bases are just too narrow. Such is not the case, however, for the candidate who jumped into the race last week: former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg. For three decades — ever since his first gig in L.A. politics as a teenage driver for then–State Senator Mervyn Dymally — the centrist Hertzberg has been neck-deep in the politics of all manner of L.A. communities. As a young lawyer in the ’80s, he became a kind of consigliere for a number of rising Latino pols, including Gloria Molina; he was, for some years back then, virtually the sole point of connection between Latino and Jewish L.A. He helped begin the electoral careers of Villaraigosa and Congressman Xavier Becerra, among others.
Hertzberg is a Valley boy with an excellent shot at carrying the Valley. He represented Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys in the Assembly, and responded to the threat of Valley secession by devising a borough system for devolving power to regions of the city (and by drawing up detailed borough maps that testify to his love of the nuts and bolts of politics). He is known for greeting people with a hug, but my definitive image of him is of his standing off to the side of a City Hall reception room where Tom Bradley had just announced he would not seek re-election after 20 years as mayor. Five minutes after Bradley had finished speaking, the room was abuzz with discussions of new candidates, coalitions and possibilities — and Hertzberg stretched his arms wide as if to embrace it all, the new political order that was just beginning to form.
On such things as city governance, Hertzberg is an unreformed wonk. He could, unless stopped, discourse on the city charter years before Dick Riordan sought to reform it. He’s devoted considerable time to what may become a state constitutional amendment to rededicate property tax revenues to cities and counties, giving them more financial stability and reducing their dependence on sales tax revenue — a dependence that often leads them to allow auto malls and big-box stores into their towns. When I interviewed him earlier this week, Hertzberg, who had a reputation in Sacramento as a business Democrat, said he didn’t know enough about Councilman Eric Garcetti’s pending ordinance to ban big-box stores (that is, Wal-Marts) from L.A. to take a position on it. But he did argue that the kind of constitutional amendment he’d proposed would end cities’ dependencies on such stores.
With Nancy Daly Riordan (Dick’s wife), mega-developer Richard Ziman, Kaufman and Broad CEO Bruce Karatz and Republican Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge among the co-chairs of his campaign, Hertzberg enters the fray well positioned to pick up Dick Riordan’s voters and substantial funding from L.A. business. His entry is a potential disaster for Hahn, and it also poses a challenge to Villaraigosa, who once shared a Sacramento apartment with Hertzberg when they served together in the Assembly. (The two had a falling-out when they squabbled over the date that Villaraigosa would pass the speakership to Hertzberg.)
Originally, Villaraigosa had planned to stay on the City Council until the end of Hahn’s second term, at which point he’d run again for mayor. Now, he faces the prospect that there won’t be a Hahn second term, that his best shot at reconstructing the East Side–West Side progressive alliance that brought him tantalizingly close to the mayor’s office in 2001 would come next year. If he jumps in, the run-off could come down to the battle of the onetime roomies, a contest between two of the most dynamic and creative figures in California politics, which Jim Hahn could watch quietly from home.