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The Politician's Politician : Supervisor: Kenneth Hahn was the master at getting potholes fixed and not missing a photo opportunity. He is retiring after 40 years in office, leaving a legacy of achievement.

December 06, 1992|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He always traveled with a shovel in his car trunk--the better for impromptu groundbreakings--and his eyes open for any pothole bold enough to disfigure the streets of his beloved 2nd District.

His accomplishments range from the ballclub he helped lure from Brooklyn to the freeway call boxes he championed to the myriad civic edifices bearing his name.

But when Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, undisputed master of pothole politics and king of the photo opportunity, retires Monday after 40 years in office, he leaves behind more than mere monuments.

He leaves behind the Kenny Hahn Anecdote.

Every aficionado of Los Angeles political lore, it seems, has one.

"I remember when we used to meet planes of visiting dignitaries at the airport," Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus said. "I would always stand next to Kenny, who would say: 'Move here, Joy. Stand still, Joy.' He would direct me. He always knew better than anybody where to position himself. And I hoped that I learned his lessons well."

"Kenny's first rule of politics was to always make sure he got in the middle of the picture," said Bob Bush, a former Hahn press deputy, "so he couldn't get cropped off (in newspaper photos). . . . He also kept ribbon, a scissors and a shovel in his car trunk so that he could have instant ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings."

In fact, there were two shovels: one silver and one gold.

"If Boys Market is having a groundbreaking," said Victoria Pipkin, a Hahn aide, "they get the silver shovel. When he does a library or a hospital, those are gold shovel events because those are 'his projects.' "

The folksy 72-year-old Hahn made his mark as a backslapping, old-school politician who to this day is frequently seen wearing a weathered Stetson hat. When he first was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1952, Los Angeles had one freeway, Red Cars ruled the streets and City Hall was the tallest building in town.

As Los Angeles County grew larger, more sophisticated and more diverse, Hahn maintained his popularity while practicing the politics of a bygone political era.

Before he was slowed by a 1987 stroke, Hahn drove to work a different route each day with tape recorder in hand looking for chuckholes. He once offered $1 for every pothole sighting in his district. "I only had to pay $3," he boasted.

Such attention to basic constituent services is the reason most often cited for why Hahn, a white politician, was reelected by landslide margins in a South-Central district that has become predominantly Latino and black.

He was elected 10 times--a California record that is not likely to be broken in this era of term limits. Even in 1968, only three years after the Watts riots, Hahn received 69% of the vote against a respected black opponent, former councilman and current Judge Billy Mills. In 1988, a year after suffering the stroke, Hahn was reelected by 84% of the vote.

"He is as talented a local politician as I can imagine in American politics," said Morgan Kousser, a Caltech political history professor. "He did all the things that politicians are supposed to do."

No matter was beyond the scope of his official duties as a supervisor.

He sent letters to residents, generals and even Popes--with copies always going to the county press room. They are included in the more than 250 boxes of papers that Hahn has donated to the Huntington Library.

A 1953 letter to Henry Ford II demanded the auto maker's cooperation in fighting smog. A 1981 missive asked President Ronald Reagan to intervene in the baseball strike.

Hahn, a deeply religious man who often quotes Scripture, recently said: "There is a verse in the Bible: Pharaoh grew up and did not know Joseph, who saved the Egyptians. If they forgot him , I said, they're not going to forget Kenny Hahn. I used that verse to tell every department to put up a big sign every time I was building a new fire station, a new hospital, a swimming pool."

Many were named after him, enabling Hahn to boast that when he retires, "I'm going fishing at Kenny Hahn Park."

Other reminders of his legacy include the newly christened Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, which joins the Kenneth Hahn Shopping Plaza, the Kenneth Hahn Swimming Pool, the Kenneth Hahn Community Center and Kenneth Hahn Lake. The legendary supervisor even managed to get his name on the Hahn Trolley, a shuttle bus in Watts.

Always skilled at grabbing headlines, Hahn proposed statehood for Los Angeles County, pushed for construction of a pipeline to bring water from Alaska to drought-stricken Southern California, put the Fire Department on alert to watch out for falling Skylab debris, and dispatched the heads of warring transit agencies to a boat in Marina del Rey and ordered them not to return until they worked out their differences.

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