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Defining Tom Hayden

COVER STORY

Over the Decades, the '60s Rabble-Rouser Has Stayed True to His Ideals. But It Hasn't Always Made Him an Effective Politician. As He Runs for City Council, Will He Be Able to Put Aside Burmese Repression to Focus on L.A.'s Potholes?

December 10, 2000|MONA GABLE | Mona Gable is a Los Angeles writer whose work appears in Salon magazine's anthology "Mothers Who Think" (Villard)

In Sacramento, Hayden gets nowhere with another pet issue: labeling of genetically altered foods. In a packed hearing, he waxes indignant about the health risks and damage to crops. He may as well be talking to a herd of cows.

Then there is the afternoon in late June when he suddenly calls a staff meeting at 5:30. The U.S. Supreme Court has just struck down the right of Massachusetts to boycott products from Myanmar (formerly Burma), which is ruled by a brutal dictatorship. Hayden decides to announce a new Senate committee to study the issue of global trade and its effect on California. At the press conference the next day, only four reporters show. One of them wants to know: Why should the average person care about Burma? "Anyone with a conscience should care that their tax dollars are subsidizing torture," Hayden asserts.

Afterward, Hayden swings by a cafeteria in the capitol building, grabs a ham sandwich on wheat, an orange smoothie and a raisin salad. Doesn't he get frustrated being so progressive, and hence so out of step, I ask? He's grumpy. "I accepted that idea when I came here," he growls. "I would feel bad if I fell short of what's possible. But this is about trying to push the possible."

The problem is that even when people agree with Hayden on an issue, they often don't pay attention to him. Shortly before the Democratic convention this summer, he tried to persuade the party's platform committee to include a plank denouncing what he sees as exploitative practices by the World Trade Organization. Nothing happened. At the close of this year's session in Sacramento, Davis killed more than a dozen of the Democrat's bills, earning Hayden the honor of amassing more vetoes than any other lawmaker.

When you ask people to reflect on Hayden's political legacy, they stammer, hem and haw, toss out words such as "courage" and "'integrity" and point out his role as an all-important "conscience" or "agent of change." Perhaps the most striking response, though, is disinterest. Several people, including former U.S. Sen. George S. McGovern and Bobby Kennedy Jr., don't bother to return calls, while others beg off. "I'm afraid he's not going to be able to help you out," a woman in Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown's press office says in a message, even though Hayden served in Brown's administration when he was governor. Willie Brown, now mayor of San Francisco, is also disinclined to offer his perspective on Hayden. "I don't think he's given a whole lot of thought to Sen. Hayden's career," says Brown's press secretary.

Some say Hayden spent too much time penning op-eds and pontificating on talk shows and not enough doing the tedious work of politics. Others criticize him for being unfocused, for tackling too many issues without following through. "He's fighting for better schools, for a cleaner environment, he's fighting for immigrant rights, that's all great," says Kuwata. "But at the end of whatever period, you look back: have you seriously moved the ball forward? I think he is a public servant in need of a great editor." Says another influential Democrat: "I say, give me his legacy--he's been in office almost 20 years. What has he done?"

Defenders reply that Hayden has been a relentless, often behind-the-scenes force on many important bills. His Web site notes that he has been named "Legislator of the Year" by the California League of Conservation Voters, the California Public Interest Research Group and other organizations. Says Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica, who'll be filling Hayden's Senate seat, "I think he's been very successful in ways that a lot of people don't know about because his name isn't always associated with his big wins." Among his biggest wins are those that focus on Holocaust victims. One law enabled slave laborers to seek compensation from companies that benefited from their enslavement during World War II. A second law pressured insurance companies to pay up on survivors' insurance claims or face suspension.

As the legislative session winds down before summer recess, he scrambles to wrap up about 40 pieces of legislation, including a plan to create a Central American Studies Institute at Cal State Northridge, a bill to give parents facts about the quality of public schools in the state and a measure to reform sky-high prison phone rates, which Hayden characterizes as "Reach Out and Gouge Someone."

By most accounts, however, Hayden is less interested in making laws than in pursuing a higher cause--riveting attention on the issues that he feels really matter. His take: "I don't carry bills that are prearranged winners."

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Every month or so, a social worker takes the winding road through a Brentwood canyon to make sure Hayden and Williams are responsible parents. For various reasons, the couple decided to adopt. Though they're in close touch with the mother, the father, who wasn't keen on the adoption, doesn't know their identity.

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