On a recent afternoon in West Hollywood, at a candidates' forum in a half-filled conference room at the Pacific Design Center, Janice Hahn, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and one of the most perky members of the Los Angeles City Council, faced what for her was a real dilemma — whether to remain standing, perhaps even trying to wave her arms a bit, or to gracefully sit down.
Gavin Newsom, the handsome, charismatic mayor of San Francisco and another Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, had just finished a roof-raising, arm-pumping performance at the forum, which was sponsored by Equality California, the politically connected gay-rights group.
Instead of taking his seat next to three Equality California panelists who were lobbing him soft-ball questions, Newsom stayed on his feet to work the room, repeatedly thrusting an arm in the air and yelling, “It's always the right time to do the right thing!” The crowd adored him — the mayor who, in 2004, made U.S. history by allowing gays and lesbians to obtain marriage licenses in San Francisco.
Hahn had been the frontrunner in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, riding almost entirely on her family name. But in March, when Newsom jumped into the game, her cakewalk to statewide office abruptly ended. Looking uncomfortable after Newsom's performance, Hahn went onstage and made an awkward effort to emulate the 42-year-old mayor, with his slicked-back hair, navy blazer and crisp white shirt. Uncharacteristically raising her voice and speaking fast, she came off somewhat forced, earning a subdued response from the audience. Then the folksy 58-year-old councilwoman with a blond bob, dressed in black high heels and a bright-pink jacket, murmured something about “Gavin” into her microphone and sat down for the rest of the panel's questions.
Reminding some of a good-natured aunt, Hahn is well-liked among her colleagues on the City Council, and by many residents of City Council District 15 — a disparate district that stretches south from Watts, narrows to a long strip that at times is less than 10 blocks wide and ends many miles away where it broadens dramatically to include the Port of Los Angeles and the far-flung community of San Pedro.
When Hahn was asked if it made her nervous to follow a flashy crowd-pleaser like Newsom, whom some critics describe as an opportunist lacking substance, her response said more about her own insubstantial record than it did about his:
“No, not really,” she said. “I have my own thing to offer. I'm a woman.”
Hahn wants to be the first female lieutenant governor of California, a job that carries little power but comes with the responsibility of taking over for the governor if he or she can't lead. It can also turn a fading city councilwoman or lame-duck mayor into a bona fide statewide name, with access to wealthy campaign donors and rich special-interest groups that can underwrite a lieutenant governor's jump to a more powerful office.
“Unless you're a millionaire and can buy statewide recognition, it's a good position to later run for governor or the U.S. Senate or Congress,” says Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. “You don't have that exposure if you're the mayor somewhere or a state legislator.”
Even so, without using a cheat sheet, few Californians could identify the man who just held the job for three years, despite the fact that the lieutenant governor sits on the powerful UC Board of Regents and serves on the sometimes environmentally influential State Lands Commission. His name was John Garamendi, a mainstream Northern California Democrat who used the mostly ceremonial post in part to achieve his real goal, and the goal of many who have sought the job: He leapfrogged to Congress seven months ago, showered with special-interest money he mined while lieutenant governor.
The seat Garamendi left was temporarily filled via appointment by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who infuriated liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans when he chose the affable, moderate Republican Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, pleasing neither of Sacramento's increasingly extreme major parties. Maldonado now faces conservative antitax GOP firebrand state Sen. Sam Aanestad of Grass Valley on June 8 in a primary fight for the Republican nomination. If Maldonado beats Aanestad, he'll face Newsom or Hahn in his bid to become only the second Latino from the GOP to be California's lieutenant governor.
If Hahn is elected in November, she will achieve something her legendary father, the late Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and well-known brother James Hahn, former mayor of Los Angeles and now Superior Court judge, never did — statewide office. Yet some City Hall watchers are astonished that the California Democratic Party bench is thin enough to have given Hahn — rarely a leader on crucial city issues, and a weak link in efforts to address the $529 million city budget deficit — a crack at a coveted position when Sacramento is desperate for accomplished leaders.
“The idea that she would preside over the state and be a heartbeat away from running the state is amazing,” says former Los Angeles Daily News editor Ron Kaye, who keeps close tabs on the L.A. City Council as a blogger and activist. “I don't think she has the intellectual force and leadership ability to handle it. Even a City Council member should provide leadership in my book. She doesn't lead. She's a follower.”
The Los Angeles Times editorial board had so many doubts about Hahn's ability to step in as governor that it endorsed Newsom, writing that despite his cockiness, he “is a dynamic leader — one who is more suited than Hahn to guide the state, and one who in the meantime is more likely to use the platform of his position in a creative and constructive fashion.” After that slap at her nine years in City Hall, Hahn later told L.A. Weekly: “There were three males on the [L.A. Times] editorial board, and they have a hard time thinking a woman can lead.”
It is a mark of her strong desire to win that Hahn, seen as a wonderfully caring person by her fans but derided as intellectually incurious by her critics, hired the aggressive Garry South, a consultant for Newsom's failed gubernatorial run, as her chief strategist. The four-prong message crafted by South, which Hahn often repeats, is that she's the daughter of a beloved politician who was one of the first white California leaders to strongly back civil rights in the 1960s; that the Hahn name gives her political might in voter-rich Southern California; that a woman from Southern California running for lieutenant governor will help Attorney General Jerry Brown's gubernatorial bid because she will diversify his so-called “ticket”; and that Newsom doesn't really want the job.
“He's phoning it in,” Hahn recently told the Weekly, referring to Newsom's work on the campaign trail.
Hahn has chosen a jarring lament to explain the uneasiness she engenders from newspaper boards and some critics — she says it's because she's a woman. But many of those critics have for years strongly endorsed women for U.S. Senate and other top posts, and her outdated refrain places her politics closer to the 1980s than today. Democrat Dianne Feinstein has served as a U.S. senator for 18 years, Republican Meg Whitman is running for governor, and Republican Carly Fiorina is running for U.S. Senate. If successful on June 8, Fiorina will face longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in November.
Hahn's gender is not what bothers her critics. In the 15th District, some are hoping for a Hahn victory not because they expect great things, but because they see her as a seat-warmer politician in a city racked by 13.2 percent unemployment and decaying roads, water mains, sidewalks and bridges, and increasingly known for its neglected and partially shuttered business districts.
“There are going to be a lot of people voting for her,” says Watts Neighborhood Council's Henry Broomfield, who fondly remembers Kenneth Hahn, “but not for the reasons she thinks. If she wins, then we'll finally get her out of office.”
In Los Angeles, Hahn rarely takes the lead on tough citywide issues such as dealing with the ever-worsening surface-street traffic congestion, unwieldy business-taxation system and widespread lack of open space. Outside of her efforts on the Port of Los Angeles, she has been all but absent from the public discourse over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's and the City Council's failure to carry out the most basic of municipal duties, maintaining infrastructure.
She is not, in short, a player.
But that all changed, at least momentarily, two weeks ago. Hahn emerged as a key figure on radio and TV news locally and nationally, including an appearance on Fox News' On the Record With Greta Van Susteren, after co-sponsoring a City Council resolution to boycott Arizona for its approval of a tough law that cracks down on illegal immigrants.
On May 12, Hahn and Ed Reyes, who represents the Eastside's City Council District 1, led a carefully scripted presentation in council chambers, where the boycott was approved by a vote of 13-1 before a packed crowd and media throng (Councilman Paul Krekorian was absent; Councilman Greig Smith voted against the boycott). Although it is not clear how the resolution will be enacted, it aims to suspend city business with companies in Arizona as a way to punish that state's politicians for a law that has outraged many.
The boycott is a red-meat issue for liberal Democrats, Latinos and labor-union adherents, who will dominate the Democratic voter turnout in the June primary, and upon whom Hahn is relying to push ahead of Newsom. Largely unknown outside L.A., Hahn succeeded in gaining much-needed public exposure from her recent role as a boycott leader, which likely was prearranged with her City Council colleagues to help her statewide race. (South, her campaign consultant, admits Hahn lags some 20 points behind Newsom in name recognition.)
But except for Hahn's election-season grab for headlines, since 2001 she has expended most of her efforts playing it safe. Despite representing Watts, where businesses are boarded up, and Wilmington and Harbor City, whose neighborhoods are mired in air pollution from port activity, it appears that Hahn has done little homework on the hot-button issues beyond the borders of District 15.
This day, she sits in her City Hall office facing a painting-within-a-painting showing her relaxing on a sofa below a portrait of her bespectacled father. She has spent the hours since 5 a.m. appearing on TV and radio shows to talk about the Arizona boycott. Now, in an interview with the Weekly, Hahn speaks in platitudes and without great detail and frequently needs help from her aides to provide answers on issues such as the top environmental problems facing California.
Two aides sitting on Hahn's right discreetly help her, cuing her by quietly mentioning “high-speed rail” — a big favorite among labor unions underwriting her campaign. Hahn likes their suggestion and offers it up, reasoning, “It takes cars off the road, and it's probably less pollution than airplanes.” In truth, a debate is raging over how many personal vehicles the costly bullet trains, at $55 to $105 per ride, will really remove from roads, and the trains' land-gobbling routes are being attacked by environmental and community groups because they would wipe out open space and cut some communities in half.
In answer to a question about citywide environmental measures she's spearheaded in L.A. in the past nine years, Hahn provides a few examples focused on the port. Hahn then asks her aides: “Is there anything else?” The aides remind Hahn of the 2004 PierPass program, which attempts to ease peak-hour traffic and smog caused by a crush of trucks servicing the Port of L.A. The program encourages truckers to operate at night and on weekends. “There are 15 million trucks that are now traveling on off-peak hours,” she says.
The strain she sometimes exhibits to recall meaningful accomplishments is not uncommon on the City Council, whose members are the highest-paid in the United States at $178,789 per year — yet are best known for mishandling policies and key issues ranging from illegal billboards to medical pot to solar power, while other big cities approach such issues with far more sophisticated planning and substantially less drama.
Given that Hahn does not shine, even on the City Council, some question whether she has the intellectual heft to hold higher office. Noting that the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle endorsed Newsom, Republican political analyst Allan Hoffenblum suspects that Hahn bombed during her interviews with their editorial boards. “It's a sign that she may not fully understand the issues,” says Hoffenblum.
When the L.A. City Council recently clashed with the Department of Water and Power, Jack Humphreville, a longtime DWP watchdog and neighborhood-council representative, followed the proceedings closely. Hahn's contribution to the pitched battle — in which the DWP board and Villaraigosa sought stiff electricity rate hikes that would hit residents and small businesses unusually hard — was “not very smart,” says Humphreville. Although she claims kinship with the little guys, she “didn't stand up for the rate payer — not at all.”
Hahn's quirky suggestion to fix L.A.'s budget crisis was “Sunday Fun Day,” in which she proposed that Angelenos donate money to city coffers to prevent librarian layoffs and keep some public libraries open on Sundays. The councilwoman, along with much of the City Council, seems oblivious to the palpable anger in recession-smacked Los Angeles over the council's decisions during the past three years to jack up car-towing fees, parking-ticket fees, trash-collection fees, parking-meter fees, electricity rates, dog-license fees and many other fines and charges — all while failing to seriously trim their own spending on personal staffs, pet projects and noncritical services.
When asked about Hahn's track record, her colleagues tend to give vague descriptions. Councilman Jose Huizar, who sits next to her in City Council chambers, says Hahn is a “reliable progressive voice” and a leader on harbor issues. As to whether he looks to her for guidance on the budget crisis, he softly says, “No.”
L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti describes her as “very responsible” on budget issues and a “dependable grassroots vote. … She sees herself as a good old-fashioned populist,” Garcetti says. He points to her work as a champion of the Watts Gang Task Force, which fights gang violence, as well as her success in winning a living-wage increase for some 5,000 airport workers that now requires airport contractors that do not provide health insurance to pay wages of $14.80 per hour. “That's the most important thing she's done,” says Garcetti.
Hahn's biggest supporters — councilmen Bill Rosendahl and Tom LaBonge — praise her work on harbor issues, with Rosendahl saying, “She has taken an incredible interest in the port.”
Asked for a tally of her top 10 citywide achievements, Hahn, who was re-elected to a third and final four-year term in 2009, sent a list to the Weekly that shows she has focused largely on proposing policies and projects for the port and LAX as chairwoman of the City Council's Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee.
Hahn advocated for higher wages for airport workers, modernizing LAX, counterterrorism and disaster-response improvements at the port, the PierPass night-trucking program, redevelopment of the waterfront's cruise-ship and shopping facilities, the port's Clean Air Action Plan to reduce smog, and the Clean Trucks Program — a troubled initiative led by Villaraigosa and the Teamsters that landed the city in court after union allies Hahn and Villaraigosa tried to stop independent truckers from servicing the waterfront. (The case is winding down in federal court, with a judgment expected soon.)
Hahn's constituents in San Pedro, where she lives in a hilly, affluent neighborhood with harbor views, are pleased with her. “She's been very good and responsive,” says Soledad Garcia, a 40-year resident and board member of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council. John Stammreich, a former board member of the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council, says, “Overall, she's been good for San Pedro.”
Garcia says one of the councilwoman's “weaknesses” is that she too easily “goes along with the mainstream” sometimes, and Stammreich describes Hahn as someone who “looks to turn every issue into a press conference rather than just solving it.” But on the whole, the community activists don't have major beefs.
Others, however, aren't so thrilled with the daughter of Kenneth Hahn.
For the past several weeks, says Broomfield of the Watts Neighborhood Council, he and other activists in Watts, Harbor City and Wilmington have been meeting quietly, planning for the day when Hahn may become lieutenant governor — and hoping she'll no longer represent them on the City Council.
Hahn beat Hector Cepeda nine years ago to represent District 15, winning in part because she was especially popular in heavily black, but now increasingly Latino, southern areas of the city. But the Hahn name has lost much of that old luster.
“In my mother's household,” says Broomfield, who has lived in Watts and South Los Angeles for more than 50 years, Kenneth Hahn “was like a King or Kennedy. He was always a supporter of fairness. Not even her or her brother, with all respect, could compare to their dad. He was a people person. They're politicians.”
Broomfield complains that Hahn shows up for a quick press conference, then is rarely seen again. “When she walks in,” Broomfield says, “she likes to be praised and have people clap for her.”
While Broomfield believes Hahn's Watts Gang Task Force has done some good work, he says she hasn't addressed an “undercurrent” of racial tension between Latinos and the area's waning population of blacks. “She has done nothing,” says Broomfield.
Hahn's narrow focus on gangs feels more to him like a publicity stunt that lets her off the hook for failing on other counts.
Even before the recession, many businesses with decent-paying jobs had fled Los Angeles, considered among the least business-friendly major cities in the Western U.S., thanks in part to City Hall leaders who appear to confuse attracting good companies with cozying up to land developers. The City Council's long and ineffective efforts to fix the city's tangled business taxes have helped Glendale, Valencia, Thousand Oaks, Pasadena, Burbank and other better-run cities to land new jobs at L.A.'s expense.
When it comes to Watts, Broomfield says Hahn's entire focus is “all about gangs. Fear sells around here. If you stand up and say something against her, you'll have people with the Watts Gang Task Force upset with you because that's their bread and butter.”
A few years ago, Hahn made much over posing for the official installation of a glitzy “Welcome to Watts” sign. In the background of some photos is a tire-repair business whose bleak surroundings are typical of the impoverished area. “They were standing there like it was a new skyscraper,” Broomfield scoffs. After nine years of Hahn's “dog and pony show,” says Broomfield, some activists in Watts feel, “We have gotten accustomed to 'nothing.' Who do you complain to when you don't feel your city councilwoman is doing the job?”
“The Hahn name meant sincerity,” Broomfield continues. “Now it means politician. A very capable politician.”
When Janice Hahn hits the campaign trail in Southern California, she's very likely to mention her father, who, recalls former Los Angeles Times city editor Bill Boyarsky, was “highly informed.” Combined with his great rapport with residents, says Boyarsky, “he was very popular.”
Kenneth Hahn left office in 1992 and died in 1997, and many voters under 50 are unlikely to remember him. Hahn's camp says her father's name is a magical brand that will not only help her win votes in the primary but in the November general election against either Maldonado or Aanestad. By her camp's calculations, she can also somehow help Attorney General Brown get more votes for governor in the Southland.
But UC Berkeley's Cain says, “There's no evidence that voters link [the lieutenant-governor and governor] races in November.” Others believe the Hahn name has lost its shine. “There isn't a Hahn brand,” says Republican Hoffenblum. “No one really knows her outside of the city.” Jaime Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., says, “It does matter, but not as much as it used to, partly because of Jimmy.”
Former mayor James Hahn, Janice's brother, lost a bruising re-election campaign to Villaraigosa in 2005, when he was hit, some say unfairly, with a political-corruption scandal involving public-relations firm Fleishman-Hillard. Although coverage in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere implied that $4.2 million might have been lost from city coffers in an overbilling scheme, a 2006 trial showed the PR firm had overbilled the city by $529,000 for promotional work it performed for such agencies as the DWP.
The half-million dollars in Fleishman-Hillard overbillings, though sizable, would never have garnered the national headlines that implied millions were missing from City Hall, and which helped usher James Hahn's 2005 campaign rival, Villaraigosa, to power. Later, the trial made clear that former mayor Hahn had no role in the overbilling. But the ruling came too late for his re-election race, and James Hahn was later named a judge by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Darry Sragow, an experienced Democratic consultant based in Los Angeles, says that for good or ill, a familiar political name like Hahn is “not going to remarkably determine the outcome of an election.” But too much emphasis on Kenneth Hahn could be bad advice, he says, noting, “Politics is littered with failed campaigns of people talking about the past, of how things used to be.”
Looking to the future, Hahn says her biggest priorities are “education, the economy, the environment, and I'm one of those who's going to be championing local control of government's monies up and down the state. I think that cities and counties should be able to keep the monies that are coming to them instead of having the state take that money.”
Beyond that, things get more vague. Hahn, with her aides sitting nearby, says she will “look forward” to attending various commission and board meetings and wants to “bring people to the table.”
Would she work with a Republican governor, which would be either Whitman or Steve Poizner? “I'd have to wait and see,” Hahn replies.
Newsom says he wants to shake up the role of lieutenant governor, who only votes as the president of the state Senate, and then only when a tie needs to be broken. He plans, he says, to work closely with the next governor — Republican or Democrat. Even so, Newsom can't resist a dig, saying, “If Meg Whitman is there, God forbid,” but, he continues, “I want to work with her. I don't want to be partisan. I want to do what's right for the state.”
In the end, says Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University, the lieutenant-governor job — which comes with a $159,134 salary and a small staff — is not demanding unless, for the first time in years, the next officeholder is determined to make a difference. Neither Garamendi nor his legendarily inactive predecessor, Cruz Bustamante, tried very hard. “If a lieutenant governor attends a lot of meetings,” Hodson says, “he could have some influence. But typically that's not what the lieutenant governor does. He's usually seen as a tourist in political circles.”
Still, says Hodson, “Lieutenant governor could become governor. So you should really vote on whether or not you want this person to become governor.”
That advice is not going to change the mind of Henry Broomfield in Watts. “I'd hate to throw her on the state,” he says. “But the state's already so messed up, it can't be hurt any more.” He'll be voting for Hahn.