When county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn died in 1997, after five years of retirement preceded by 40 years in office, it was hard to imagine Los Angeles County carrying on without him. Hahn’s legendary populist touch brought a human dimension to an unwieldy county government presiding over an increasingly unwieldy urban sprawl of 10 million people and counting, with the supervisor’s post evolving over the last decade and a half into a political brass ring worth more power and visibility than a couple of state legislators put together. Yet when Hahn took the seat in 1952, his youth — he was 32 — and his folksy approach were right for the times. He was a small-town guy in a very big but unfinished place, proud of his reputation as a “pothole politician,” who first and foremost kept the streets clean, the graffiti at bay and the trees trimmed. For that alone he garnered the undying loyalty of his significantly black constituency (his district included greater L.A., as it was known before the days of South Central, and Inglewood), who had been conditioned by history to expect, at best, apathy from their local representatives and little in the way of resources brought to bear in their neighborhoods.
Hahn changed all that, chiefly because he was local, too — he’d grown up in Central L.A., living there and attending a local church almost until he died. And his vision went far beyond keeping things presentable; as the sociopolitical climate, population density and demographics of the county shifted radically over the years, Hahn shifted course with them. He pushed for call boxes on freeways, a county paramedic system, the establishment of the Music Center downtown and of the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine. He helped implement a sales tax to grow public transit and eventually championed the L.A.–to–Long Beach Blue Line. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made a stop in Los Angeles in 1961, Hahn was the only elected official in California who showed up on the tarmac to shake King’s hand in greeting. After the devastating Watts Riots in ’65, Hahn pushed to build a hospital in the community, a key recommendation of the famous blue-ribbon commission formed to examine the root causes of the unrest. And when that hospital got built in Willowbrook, just over the border from Watts, Hahn got it named after Martin Luther King himself. Small wonder that when Hahn died six years ago, Watts activist “Sweet Alice” Harris exclaimed, “Oh Lord, another soldier, another good soldier going home,” and it didn’t sound like ingratiation or hyperbole.
BUT PERHAPS HAHN’S GREATEST CONTRIBUTION to black folks was his willingness to put them on his payroll or under his wing. One of the first things he did after getting elected in 1952 was hire as his deputy Gil Lindsay, a former janitor and the first black to hold such a high position in local government. The liberal Hahn in fact cultivated a whole generation of black politicians, from Nate Holden to Maxine Waters, many of whom still hold sway.
Of course Hahn, whose penchant for control frequently matched his penchant for good deeds, was also accused by some of furthering a “plantation politics” mentality that, ironically, he passed on to his black protégés. But even more ironically, the protégés collectively failed to keep the faith and spread the wealth in the black community as much as Hahn did, or strove to do. They learned the art of self-promotion (Hahn never did a groundbreaking without a photo op or his name posted on a sign nearby), but missed the more obvious lesson of ultimately serving one’s constituency, practically and philosophically, with action instead of rhetoric. Hahn was a supreme doer, though he admittedly reigned during a time in which it was possible to be one; his successor, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, took office in ’92, the year that the deepening economic struggles in the hood and conservative political shifts of previous years exploded in the noxious moment of the riots and then congealed over time into something worse.
Burke may not be able to move mountains, but no one ever expected her to. People would have expected it of Kenny Hahn, a sentiment so enduring, even after his death, that it transferred to his son James and gave him the electoral edge he needed to become mayor in 2001. We quickly discovered that the son is not the father, that in many ways he is fundamentally opposite — cautious, low-key to the point of being invisible, decent but not exuberant. Worst of all, nobody sees what he does, which would have been a cardinal sin in his father’s book. So James is not Kenneth, but the standing question in these fiscally brutal and politically timid times is, who is? As I make my reporter rounds today from midtown to Compton, citizens of the 2nd Supervisorial District still say wistfully, and with a straight face, that Kenny Hahn was the best black politician L.A. ever had. They don’t talk like they expect that record to be broken anytime soon.