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The Hahn Name Works Its Magic in a Long-Shot Run for Assessor

June 07, 1990|FREDERICK M. MUIR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He's a political novice, but one lucky enough to have a time-honored name in local politics.

And now, Kenneth P. Hahn--no relation to the prominent, and popular, Los Angeles County supervisor of the same name--suddenly finds himself solidly in a runoff with incumbent John J. Lynch to be the next county assessor.

"You're kidding?" Hahn asked when early election night results showed him running neck-and-neck with his boss at the sleepy assessor's office. But as the trend continued through the night, Hahn, a mid-level manager under Lynch, realized that the odds for what had started as a long-shot chance at victory were narrowing fast.

In a fluke of democracy--and on the strength of the Hahn name--he was squarely in the race for the $130,000 a year job, overseeing a staff of 1,600 that determines the tax bills for 2.2 million properties.

By Wednesday morning, the reality of his unusual showing was clear--even through Hahn's bleary eyes.

"It's a mess, a madhouse," groaned Hahn, 50, in an early morning phone call. "I haven't been to bed yet. People keep calling, TV's on the other line. . . . Damn, there goes the phone again."

So began the political baptism of Kenneth P. Hahn, possibly the next Los Angeles County assessor. His strong showing, which Hahn and a host of political observers acknowledge was due in large part to the name confusion, means that for the first time in recent history, a sitting assessor has been forced into a runoff for reelection.

In the primary election for the nonpartisan assessor's post, a candidate must draw 50% of the vote to win outright. If no candidate receives a majority, the top two finishers face off in November.

Lynch, with 29.6% of the vote, and Hahn, with 28.2%, dominated the field of seven competitors on Tuesday's ballot.

Tax attorney Jay Curtis, whom Lynch had figured to be his toughest competition, drew just 16.6% of the vote. The remaining candidates, most of whom are now backing Hahn, drew in single digits.

"The Hahn name was the wild card in this race," said Lynch in reviewing the election results.

But the assessor said he prefers to face Hahn in a runoff, because "the real Kenny Hahn endorsed me and once people know that, it will be easy."

"The name 'Hahn' is a good name, even after 43 years" in politics, said Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who has served on the board since 1952 and was earlier a member of the Los Angeles City Council. "I'm sure my son will love to hear about this."

Indeed, Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn, said: "There's magic in the Hahn name. . . . I know how I got elected city controller" in his first run at political office in 1981. "The Hahn name really carried me. It still carries a strong feeling in this town."

But sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't.

In 1986, Supervisor Hahn's older brother, Gordon, ran against Lynch for the assessor's post and was soundly defeated.

"I just can't figure why (the Hahn name) didn't help Gordon," said James Hahn.

Lynch, who has wrested with both Hahn candidates, has a theory on that. "The last name isn't operative in politics," said Lynch. "You need the whole handle. And my opponent this time is blessed with that name." Joe Gardner, a retired county administrator, has had the misfortune to lose to both Kenneth Hahns. Gardner lost to the supervisor in 1988 and to assessor's candidate Hahn on Tuesday.

"It's just too much name ID to overcome," he sighed.

"It's something you can't buy," City Atty. Hahn said about the vote-garnering ability of his father's name.

But if a politician could purchase the Hahn handle, it might carry a hefty price tag.

Lynch's campaign spent more than $160,000 leading up to Tuesday's balloting, while Hahn spent less than $5,000 to gather nearly the same number of votes.

Candidate Hahn acknowledges that name confusion did come up during the campaign.

"I went and spoke to one group . . . and a woman asked me, 'How is your father?' " he said. "I said he has been deceased for 10 years."

But the candidate also says that he deserves some credit for having run a tough, grass-roots campaign.

"I feel the people have been able to sort through the hoopla," he said.

Hahn, educated as a biologist, has been with the assessor's office for 10 years, after careers as a chemist, social worker and credit union executive.

Upon joining county government in 1980, Hahn nearly took a job in the animal control office, but at the last minute opted for an offer from the assessor's office.

Currently, Hahn is an appraiser specialist, a mid-management position paying $42,000. The post is just slightly senior to the deputy assessor position that Lynch held before his 1986 election.

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