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Defining Tom Hayden

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)

Williams, who grew up on a remote Canadian island, is a down-to-earth woman in her mid-40s. She and Hayden met at a Raymond Carver reading in Santa Monica, and were married in 1993 in a Canadian rain forest. She was first attracted to Hayden because of his ideas on religion and the environment, and enrolled in a course he taught on the topic at Santa Monica College. "I've always been somewhat of a political activist," she says. "But I didn't feel there was a spiritual basis to politics."

She and Hayden bought their house four years ago and promptly renovated it. They plan to keep it, even though, to qualify for the 5th District council seat being vacated by Michael Feuer, he is renting a home in Sherman Oaks. By neighborhood standards, the Brentwood home is practically a shack: a one-story ranch, with Japanese cabinets, Irish pine furniture, tile floors and framed prints of Native Americans that Williams picked up at a yard sale.

On a cool summer evening, Williams is back and forth from the kitchen, where she is whipping up fajitas, to the deck, where Hayden is perched, feeding Liam a bottle of milk. Every so often Williams returns to pour lemonade and lavish their son with kisses. "Look how she smothers you," Hayden says.

The baby has changed everything, including the nature of his ambition, Hayden says. As he faces another life change, he has thought hard about his future and his legacy. To clarify where he sees himself in life, he refers to a long Native American parable. As he puts it, there are four phases of life, each symbolized by an animal. The eagle stands for youth, the ability to see injustice, the way he was 40 years ago. The coyote stands for ambition, symbolizing the beginning of his career. "Then you're ready for stewardship, and the symbol of that phase of life is the bear, where you're looking up at the whole habitat." That's the perspective leaders should have, he says. Finally, at the end of the life cycle is the white buffalo, the symbol of wisdom. "So I'm past coyote, but I don't know if I'm past bear," he says.

Which raises the question: Is the Los Angeles City Council proper habitat for either a bear or buffalo? Is it the place for a man who seems more inclined to tackle Burmese brutality than potholes on Ventura Boulevard?

Hayden and his supporters point out that he began his career working on grass-roots issues and that most of his legislative battles naturally focused on Southern California. He was one of the first politicians, for instance, to promote a preventive approach with gangs. He hires former gang members as staff members, and two years ago he secured funding for a program for gangsters and at-risk kids to laser off their tattoos. (It has since been expanded.) After months of talks between L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and leaders of gang intervention groups, he recently shepherded a bill enabling at-risk kids to have their names removed from the state's controversial gang-member database if they finish an anti-violence program. Father Gregory Boyle, founder of the gang-intervention project Homeboy Industries, praises Hayden for understanding the complexity of gang violence. "But way beyond that, he is unwilling to write off this whole sector of the population, and every other politician is willing to do that."

In another local skirmish, he fought to save downtown's St. Vibiana Cathedral from the wrecking ball. Two of the city's most serious power brokers--Cardinal Roger Mahony and Mayor Riordan--were determined to erect a new cathedral on the site. To bring the earthquake-rattled structure down, they had to get past the environmental committee Hayden chaired. The concrete landmark still stands and, in July, the legislature approved $4 million to turn the building into a cultural center. "I had to put up with that pressure that says you are like, breaking all of the furniture here. It was the ultimate in not going along."

Hayden says he would have relished another run for higher office. But he acknowledges that the time is likely past. Which is why he is running with nine other candidates for the Feuer seat. Characteristically, he waxes philosophical on the subject. "I'm aware more than previously that each choice could be my last," he says. He says he looks at the City Council job as an opportunity and is content with the prospect of helping to make Los Angeles tick. "With all the race and ethnic problems and traffic jams, the idea of L.A. truly working has always interested me."

But at times he sounds ambivalent, as if he is still trying to convince himself. "I know that in all things, from journalism to academia to politics, there's a status ladder contest that guarantees people will feel frustrated if they are not at the top. The other way to look at it is everybody has a role to play."

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