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Local Elections : Even in a Wheelchair, Hahn Is the Man to Beat

May 31, 1988|VICTOR MERINA | Times Staff Writer

As his fellow board members slogged through an agenda of zoning cases and planning issues on a recent Thursday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn sat 6 miles away at a Baptist church listening to a group of black ministers pray for his reelection.

Still largely confined to a wheelchair 18 months after a debilitating stroke, Hahn beamed as one clergyman after another left the pews, squeezed his right hand and spoke out passionately for his recovery--both physically and politically.

"We had said we wanted a black man in his position," said the Rev. P. J. Jones, turning to smile at the white supervisor. "But I don't know of anyone downtown who is blacker than Kenny Hahn. Don't tell anyone I said this, but he's blacker than the mayor."

The portrayal of Hahn as a "black politician" who eclipses even Tom Bradley, Los Angeles' mayor and a longtime symbol of black political power, drew laughter and some applause from the 50 ministers. But no one challenged the statement, nor did anyone hesitate to endorse the 67-year-old man who sat with his paralyzed left hand strapped to his wheelchair and a tissue resting on his lap.

"Some people ask about Kenny Hahn's health," said another minister at the pulpit. "Well, let me tell you, he can do more from his wheelchair than other politicians can do from their limousines."

These are indeed extraordinary times for Hahn, who has represented the 2nd Supervisorial District--a heavily minority and largely black district that stretches from Culver City to Lynwood--for nearly 36 years.

Hahn, who is running for a record 10th term--40 years in office--has long enjoyed a political popularity that borders on the reverential. But despite a history of steamrollering election-year opponents, he faces eight challengers in the June 7 primary, including several former supporters who question his slow comeback from the stroke.

"I have voted for him in the past," said Roye Love, 52, a county welfare administrator who now opposes Hahn. "But his physical condition should not permit him to continue because the level of his representation is grossly inadequate."

Gil Smith, a former Carson mayor whose candidacy also has support from Baptists ministers, added that Hahn's illness has only magnified what had been signs of deteriorating leadership and a lack of effectiveness on the board.

"Kenny is a friend, but the district has been without adequate representation even before he suffered the stroke," said Smith, 53, who calls Hahn a part-time supervisor. "This is a job which requires new leadership, new thought, new involvement."

Although Hahn is considered a clear favorite to hang onto his $81,505-a-year job, his opponents hope to force him into a runoff by hammering away at his absences from board meetings and by reminding the district's 608,000 voters that their communities are still plagued by crime, poor economic conditions and high unemployment.

Richard Atkins, a 62-year-old Inglewood businessman who managed only 3% of the vote against Hahn in 1984, said he is back in the race because the incumbent is "an incapacitated politician" who is unwilling to give up control of "his official kingdom" while he attempts to battle back from a serious illness.

Missed Meetings

Hahn suffered his stroke in January, 1987, and missed several months of work. After returning in August, he was absent for about half the supervisorial meetings. And although his attendance has improved over the last few months, Hahn still routinely departs early for rest or physical therapy, and his staff closely regulates his public appearances.

What Hahn has not done, however, is curtail his penchant for the press conferences and publicity that have marked his political career and that he uses to enhance his reelection chances.

Hahn called reporters to push for "summit meetings' on gang violence and traffic congestion, and to unveil his plans to reorganize mass transit in Los Angeles. He also used the media to dare people to find things wrong in his district, offering a $1 reward for every pothole sighting and a $5 reward for finding a flooded intersection.

During the Southern California Rapid Transit District's deliberations over a new general manager, Hahn peppered the leading candidate with letters and telegrams urging him to accept the offer--he didn't--and then sent copies to reporters. And last week, Hahn distributed copies of a personalized "endorsement" letter from former President Richard M. Nixon that he said backs his candidacy--although he received the letter last October.

Chance to Speak

As he did before his stroke, Hahn unabashedly uses the board meetings as opportunities to speak out for county labor unions and push his own views--at one point angering fellow Supervisor Pete Schabarum, who denounced Hahn as a political demagogue. But Hahn refuses to apologize for his political nature.

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