When City Atty. James K. Hahn ascended the pulpit of First AME Church on Sunday, he was greeted with warm applause from the congregation and enthusiastic hugs from the assembled ministers. In one pew, an older man nodded and muttered: "Yes."
Hahn spoke briefly, without notes, over the quiet rhythm of an electric bass. He talked about AIDS and homelessness, community and understanding. And he delivered a memory that spoke to the intersection of the lives of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated Monday, and his own father, legendary Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. When King came to Los Angeles in 1961, just after his electrifying stand against racism in Birmingham, Ala., only one elected official, black or white, dared to greet him at the airport, Jim Hahn recalled. That person: "My dad."
That's a story only a Hahn can tell, and it goes a long way toward explaining why the conventional political wisdom, such as it is, makes Hahn the prohibitive favorite among African Americans in the campaign to become Los Angeles' next mayor--a race that won't be decided until 2001 but that already is well underway.
Believers cite five reasons for their faith in Hahn's standing among blacks:
* His father represented South-Central for decades, won 10 elections in that area and was a beloved figure in many of its neighborhoods, including the one where Jim Hahn grew up and where his mother still lives.
* Jim Hahn is a moderate to liberal Democrat whose politics are in tune with those of many in the city's black leadership.
* He has won five citywide elections, always with the support of African Americans.
* In 1997, he clobbered lawyer Ted Stein, a Mayor Richard Riordan-backed challenger, by particularly large margins in the city's most heavily black communities, where nearly 90% of those who voted cast ballots for Hahn.
* No African American candidate has emerged thus far, leaving him without an obvious challenger for that slice of the electorate.
Opponents See Vulnerability
All those facts point to Hahn's advantages, but the conventional wisdom is wrong almost as often as it's right. And as a result, even in the early stages of the long run for mayor, the rest of the field views Hahn as potentially vulnerable among African Americans, who make up 12% to 15% of the voters in a typical mayoral election.
Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa is challenging Hahn from the left, producing endorsements from his colleagues in the Legislature, school board President Genethia Hayes and other civic leaders.
Already, less than four months after entering the race, Villaraigosa has amassed the largest slate of endorsements from African American elected officials. Villaraigosa's appeal, so far, seems strongest among young, more liberal blacks; his challenge is that, historically, those people have not formed the bulk of the local black electorate.
Commercial real estate broker Steve Soboroff has the backing of a lower-profile group, including community fixture Sweet Alice Harris and a number of local ministers. He finds some support among those who feel Hahn is too brazenly attempting to cash in on his father's legacy. Activist Charlotte Austin-Jordan, for instance, remembers Kenny Hahn and his children checking in on her father when she was young.
"That family would come visit us," she said fondly. "But you don't deserve to become mayor because you inherited it. It's about who can do the job."
Finally, City Councilman Joel Wachs, the fourth announced candidate and the one with the least obvious connections to Los Angeles blacks, nevertheless has emerged as the council's leading champion of neighborhood councils. That, according to Wachs and some observers, could give him traction with African Americans and others who feel their connection to City Hall is strained. In addition, Wachs, like Hahn, grew up in South-Central.
As those candidates attempt to market themselves to African Americans, they encounter a community at a precarious and anxious moment. Many traditionally black neighborhoods have felt neglected by Riordan and have chafed at the influx of immigrants, most of them Latino.
Moreover, the city's African American voters and its African American population overall are different in important ways. African American voters tend to be older than the black population generally and they include more women than men. They tend to be politically liberal but culturally conservative, often tied to a strong network of churches and deeply rooted in family and traditional values.
The significance of those voters, generally older black women, has played out for years in Los Angeles politics. One sign of their influence: Even when the Los Angeles Police Department had deeply alienated many young blacks, older black voters turned out election after election to vote for police bonds.