Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn waved thumbs up and bathed in an affectionate shower of public attention last August as he made his long-awaited return to the Board of Supervisors chambers after a disabling stroke.
The illness had taken its toll, but his aides assured the public that the partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound Hahn would start slowly and build himself back up.
However, four months and two emergency hospitalizations later, the record shows that the 67-year-old supervisor is struggling under the physical demands of his office as he prepares to seek an unprecedented 10th four-year term on the board.
Hahn denies that his health is inhibiting his effectiveness, saying, "There's improvement every day."
But he still is in a wheelchair, substantial paralysis remains on his left side and he is restricted to an extremely limited work schedule--about two hours a day at the office and two more at home.
Since his return, board records show, Hahn has missed 12, or about half, of the board's meetings.
When he does attend meetings, Hahn often leaves well before the the board finishes its business. Because he slips out early, Hahn also has missed most of the supervisors' recent end-of-meeting, closed-door sessions, where important and sensitive legal, personnel and labor positions are thrashed out.
"I have great concerns about the impact Kenny is having on the Board of Supervisors," Supervisor Deane Dana said. "We never know on any particular day whether Kenny is going to be there or not or for how long. Coming into a board meeting for an hour or so every day is not what it's all about."
Neurology experts interviewed by The Times said that, given Hahn's age and the fact that the one-year anniversary of Hahn's stroke last January is approaching, the chances are diminishing that Hahn will recover significantly more. While stressing that they were not familiar with the details of Hahn's medical condition, they discussed his case in terms of general stroke research, the record of the supervisor's attendance and news coverage of Hahn.
"In the majority of cases, the significant improvement is going to come in the first six months or year," said Dr. John Frazee, a stroke researcher and assistant professor of neurosurgery at UCLA. "Here we are 10 months down the line. He is still having difficulty staying the length of meetings. . . . You never count a patient down and out, but it gets harder to (see significant improvement) the farther away you get (from a stroke)."
Another local stroke expert, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of Hahn's case, agreed. "It is not likely that any significant improvement will ensue beyond what you see now . . . he is likely to have plateaued out," the researcher said.
Hahn and his aides insist that the supervisor continues to gain strength. But, calling it a private matter, Hahn declined to permit his doctors to respond to a reporter's questions.
Hahn's health--and whether he will be able to complete another full four-year term--is of increasing concern to some community leaders in his heavily minority and Democratic South-Central Los Angeles district. If Hahn were unable to finish another term, it would be up to Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, presumably in consultation with the conservative Republicans who make up a majority on the Board of Supervisors, to select a successor.
"I've had a number of conversations (with community leaders) along the lines (of), 'What if he does not make it through the (another) term?' " said Mark Ridley Thomas, executive director of the Crenshaw District-based Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "There is deep concern about that problem. Very deep."
Community leaders must have "some conversation with (Hahn) at some point" about his health, Thomas said.
Thomas Kilgore, a prominent retired South-Central church pastor and president of a community coalition called the Black Agenda, said, "If he has the physical stamina to make it through an election and serve, he should. But he must not do it just because he wants to run. He must listen to the medical advice."
Unions Also Concerned
Officials with some county employee unions now negotiating new contracts also are concerned because Hahn has been considered one of their champions. The fear is that he may not be the same strong voice of support in the aftermath of his stroke. "I think there is a feeling that his illness has taken a toll," said one union official, who declined to be identified.