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Hahn Tiptoes in Front of Buses, Is Flattened

POINTS WEST

July 27, 2001|STEVE LOPEZ

Now that we've had our first clue as to what kind of mayor Jim Hahn will be, there is only one thing to say.

When a fight breaks out, you do not want this guy on your side.

Sure, he's been in office only a month, and it could take a while for him to grow into the job. But his debut Thursday at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority meeting was almost painful to watch.

During his campaign, Hahn practically promised an Orthodox Jewish community in Valley Village that he'd throw himself in front of buses if that's what it would take to block the proposed Chandler Boulevard busway in the San Fernando Valley.

It was pure pandering, sure. But at least he did it with gusto.

And then Wednesday on KFWB radio's "Ask the Mayor," he talked a good game again, going on about how he was going to set the MTA board straight at Thursday's meeting.

"The communities are so vehemently opposed . . . we have to look at options," he said on the air. "I'm not convinced that spending money on just another lane for buses is the best way to spend money."

So what did he do on Thursday?

First, we need a pause. A dramatic pause, because the moment was charged with anticipation. It was almost like Hahn's first at-bat in the Big Leagues. The room was packed to the rafters, too, and nobody knew what to expect after weeks of mystery.

Some thought Hahn was going to rise to the occasion and somehow sink the Chandler busway, even though it appeared to have majority support. Or that he'd at least break a sweat trying.

Some were convinced he was going to push an alternative calling for more buses on existing routes.

So what grand vision did we get from the new leader of the city with world-famous traffic and smog?

Speaking without conviction or authority, and sounding as if he was making it up as he went, Hahn said he kinda thought MTA ought to take another look at the Oxnard/Lankershim option.

Oxnard/Lankershim?

Nobody was seriously pushing that. There's no median on that route, and buses would practically run through living rooms. Besides, there was just as much opposition there as with the Chandler/Burbank route, where the MTA has already bought the right-of-way.

I'm telling you as an eyewitness that the air went out of the room. I almost had an asthma attack.

Mercifully, Hahn was as brief as he was dispassionate.

Understandably, there were grunts and howls. It was as if Hahn had just started considering transit policy over breakfast and jotted down a few thoughts on a napkin.

Wasn't this the candidate who kept telling us that when it came to leadership, experience was the difference?

Hahn's motion got shot down so quickly it sounded like a blowout on the highway. Even one of his own appointments to the board, in her first vote, gave it thumbs down.

In another vote, the Chandler option carried easily. As the room emptied, it was apparent that Hahn had served no one's interests, least of all his own.

Now I happen to think, as I pointed out on Wednesday, that Chandler was definitely the way to go. Maybe, secretly, Hahn did as well, and found himself in a bind after all that pandering during his campaign.

If so, I'm going to offer him some free advice.

Even if it's a lost cause, or if you're taking a dive, you always go down swinging.

Turn red, shake a fist, get some spittle going. Above all, speak up for the people you made your promises to, and do not leave the room until you've laid somebody out.

It's the first rule of politics, for God's sake. If you can't make them respect you, at least make them fear you. Hahn was more impressive at the last meeting, which he missed.

What a disappointment, said a flabbergasted Marsha Roseman, who's with Citizens Organized for Smart Transit. She was pushing the no-busway option and said her group was led to believe, by Hahn's staff, that he favored their plan.

"It's like a double-cross," said her pal Diana Lipari, who hoped for something inspirational from the mayor-in-training, even if it wasn't the plan their group favored.

Afterward, Hahn complicated matters by explaining himself. He said he'd just found out from Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg that $145 million in state funding was "use it or lose it" money. It could be spent only on a busway.

Just found out?

I haven't even unpacked all my bags since moving here and I knew the money was "use it or lose it."

As frightening as this is, there's a bright side.

First, the smartest bus plan got the go-ahead despite obstruction by people with no concern for the greater good.

Second, a personal fear of mine, which began on election night, has been allayed.

I thought Hahn would be no fun to write about.

*

Steve Lopez can be reached at steve.lopez@latimes.com.

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