“Ladies and gentlemen, Mayor Jim Hahn!” The people stand and applaud. The cameras roll. The tape system cranks up a Sousa march, and into Fire Station 88 in Sherman Oaks strides the mayor of Los Angeles, slowly walking toward the podium, shaking hands along the way, trying to make his presence felt as he prepares to deliver his third annual State of the City address. At this time next year, an election will have taken place and he will know whether he’s in a runoff for a second term. Today, dogged by allegations of corruption among his commissioners and in his office, and facing a giant budget gap, he knows he will have to make a strong impression. This is important.
Now at the podium, backed by rows of firefighters and police officers in dress uniform, he gazes across the room to where his script is presented on a giant screen for all to see. The first line he is to read: “Looking out at the crowd assembled here today, I see a lot of faces I have had the pleasure of knowing as friends during my travels throughout this city.” But he muffs it. Maybe it’s overconfidence. Maybe it’s nerves. He looks out to the crowd and speaks:
“I see a lot of you here today.”
He tries to collect himself and looks back toward the screen. “Looking out at the crowd . . .” But something is wrong. He squints toward his aides, standing under the giant screen.
“What are we doing?” he asks into the microphone. “Oh, the Pledge? I thought we did that already.”
But no, the uniformed high school students with the flags are still at the door. Hahn sheepishly advises the crowd that he will get out of the way, and he does, ducking away from the podium, scrambling for a seat among the firefighters. Now comes the flag salute. Now the national anthem. Time to start over.
“Once again, Mayor Jim Hahn!”
He returns to the podium as the crowd of city employees, elected officials and Hahn appointees applaud, offer up a nervous chuckle and prepare to get down to business. He leans toward the microphone. He opens his mouth to speak. And then — what’s that noise? It sounds like an air hose, or maybe a giant vacuum cleaner. Air is venting so loudly through the fire station that Hahn’s speech is aborted, yet again.
“That’s exciting,” he says in the most unexcited voice imaginable. Station personnel try to figure out where the noise is coming from. Minutes pass. Hahn sits again.
The venting is turned off, and Hahn again walks toward the podium. Now?
“Welcome, everybody. Looking out at the crowd assembled here today . . .”
Finally, the State of the City speech. Challenging budget times, more afterschool programs, more firefighters, more affordable housing, no tolerance for unethical behavior, but — you have to wonder, as the first few notes of “I Love L.A.” are cranked up at what some staffer apparently thought was the end of the speech (Hahn had more to say, and the music was quickly shut off) — after three years, is this the best show Hahn’s people can put on? Amid all the allegations that his office was giving sweetheart deals to master public-relations firm Fleishman Hillard, is this the finest work that Fleishman could do for him?
The performance was, in a nutshell, Mayor Jim Hahn’s office in 2004. Experienced deputies gone, a bunch of young kids at the controls, lackluster statements from the podium, no one in the audience but nodding staffers, uniformed officers with fresh contracts and comfortable raises standing behind their mayor. Even Fleishman Hillard is now reportedly giving up and fleeing City Hall.
After the speech, Councilman Bernard Parks materialized, telling the cameras that Los Angeles is leaderless. Elsewhere on the floor, Controller Laura Chick was reminding all who would listen that the new City Charter explicitly makes the mayor accountable for the acts of his commissioners. In the minds of those 30 or so drafters who put their document before Los Angeles voters exactly five years ago, there was one clear avenue for dealing with corruption among city managers or commissioners — get rid of the mayor.
That evening, Parks was holding forth at Lawrence Tolliver’s Barbershop, on Florence a few blocks east of Normandie. The TV cameras were there, and Parks reminded the handful of men who came to hear him speak, or to get their hair cut, or both, that in 2001 their community gave Hahn seven and a half of every 10 votes cast for mayor. “And I don’t think you’ve seen the return on that investment,” he said. The patrons nodded, and asked a few polite questions about flight paths and Proposition A funding. Then the cameras left.
“This is barbershop now,” one man shouted, as the rest laughed and shouted in response. “Barbershop rules. You can say what you mean now.”
And Tolliver did, pausing with his razor over the man in his chair getting his beard trimmed.
“He’s like in a fog!” Tolliver said of Hahn. “He’s got no personality.”
“I told you!” came a retort from a man at the back of the shop, and the peals of laughter that followed hinted at a 3-year-old argument about whether Jim Hahn is truly the heir to his father, Kenny, the backslapping, flesh-pressing, hard-working county supervisor who was so loved in the black community.
A few miles to the west, and four days earlier, an astounding collection of political thinkers, activists and elected officials gathered to talk over the state of affairs in a city with an emerging Latino political dominance. At the table at Loyola Marymount were, at one point or another during the afternoonlong session, mayoral candidates or former candidates or potential candidates Richard Alarcon, Robert Hertzberg, Antonio Villaraigosa and Mike Woo (Parks was coming but had to be at a city budget meeting). Hahn, and his 2001 defeat of Villaraigosa in a tough and nasty campaign, was in the back of everyone’s mind.
Alarcon gave an impassioned stump speech, which drew no applause, leading Woo to remark that it would need some work before the campaign got serious.
Conference organizer Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, announced that the final exam for his political-science students was to write an essay describing whether Hertzberg, based on his cagey remarks from the table, would be running for mayor. “I need a really good grade,” Guerra read from a card passed up to the front. “So please say, as clearly as possible, whether or not you are running for mayor. Speak slowly.” Hertzberg, who at that point had yet to declare his intentions, only joked that he would announce before the students’ final-exam date.
The most obvious lesson of the Loyola conference was that when Guerra invites you to speak at a forum on politics in California, you show up, if you know what’s good for you.
But there were other lessons too. Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras vowed that labor would be the major player in the mayor’s race, and that he would endorse by mid-November. But he said the real test for Latinos lies elsewhere, in 2006, when 15 safely Democratic Los Angeles County seats in the state Legislature open up. Who will fill them? They will be Democrats, but will they be coalition-building progressives, like 47th Assembly District nominee Karen Bass — also on the panel — or Democrats with different motives and objectives?
Even sooner, Contreras reminded everyone, voters will likely pass a new open-primary law, meaning runoffs in Democratic districts will no longer be a free pass for whoever won in the primary. Instead of token Republican opposition in November, for example, Bass would be facing a tough runoff against Nate Holden.
As for Hahn, who appointed Contreras to the Airport Commission and is now counted as a “friend to labor,” the County Fed chief said it was a mistake to assume the Gray Davis recall meant the mayor is vulnerable.
“Are people excited about this mayor?” Contreras asked. “No. Are they angry at this mayor? I don’t think they’re angry at this mayor.”
But amid the predictions — and amid eye-opening observations from Cal State Fullerton political-science professor Raphael Sonenshein that in Los Angeles “where there were once Republicans there are now Latinos,” and that the city will probably never again have a Republican in a mayoral runoff — came a plea from former state Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco that it doesn’t matter if a Latino, or anyone else, is elected to an executive post like mayor if the candidate accomplishes nothing.
Pull out the report cards, said Polanco, who explained that he passed on supporting Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor against Hahn.
“It’s of no value if we are there in numbers without a strategic plan for economic revitalization and empowerment,” Polanco said. “It’s of no value if we cannot lessen the numbers of the uninsured. It’s of no value if we cannot create an educational system that we can all be proud of.”