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Achieving Goals, but Keeping Profile Low

The L.A. leader's reticence is no surprise to those who know him, but they fear his accomplishments will go unheralded.


One year into his job, Mayor James K. Hahn doesn't think most Los Angeles residents know who he is--but that doesn't bother him. The mayor said he'd rather people focus on the state of Los Angeles than on him, preferring to be thought of like any other citizen.

"Who cares about me?" Hahn said in a wide-ranging interview with The Times last week to discuss his first year in office. "I'm not important," he added, banging his fist repeatedly against the arm of his chair. "The city is important. People who live in the city are important. Their future is important."

Hahn said he is not interested in seizing the limelight as he runs the city government and leads the campaign against secession. His indifference to his public image speaks to how he has spent his first 12 months as mayor--a year in which he operated largely behind the scenes.

In that time, the mayor was able to complete much of what he promised to do when he was inaugurated last July 1: He expanded the LA's BEST after-school program, created a $100-million housing trust fund and built up a citywide network of neighborhood councils. To improve public safety--his main platform in last spring's mayoral campaign--Hahn launched several initiatives to boost the recruitment and retention of police officers.

But Hahn's reluctance to engage with his job in a more visible way worries many city leaders, who fret that Hahn's reserved persona is a liability, especially as he leads the effort to prevent the breakup of Los Angeles.

Frustrated by his unwillingness to embrace the rhetorical power of his office, many local officials and political observers say Hahn needs to seek out a more dynamic public image.

"He's a seat warmer," said Shelly Mandell, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, who backed former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa in last year's election. "He lacks the imagination and the creativity and the drive, and he just doesn't excite people."

Although some praise him for doing an admirable job as the city's top administrator--balancing the budget in a tight year and taking steps to tighten security after Sept. 11--even those close to Hahn lament that he has done little to grab the attention of the city.

"I can't tell you the array of folks who have known Jim for 15 or 20 years and are startled by the absence of any leadership ability," said one longtime associate who did not wish to be identified.

Hahn bristled at these criticisms, blaming the media for ignoring what he has done, even as he rejected the notion that he must seek a higher public profile.

"I guess maybe what they're saying is I'm not a great orator or an inspirational speaker," he said. "Those people always annoyed me, so I try not to be like them, because to me it's so much of an act."

Avoiding the Limelight

The mayor dismissed officials who crave the limelight as inauthentic, saying they are often warped by their political ambition. "I think people want reality at the end of the day; they don't want a performance," he said. "And I think what they see with me is someone who's real, who's working hard, an ordinary person like them who just happens to be the mayor."

Hahn's supporters argue that the bulk of the mayor's work has been on issues such as police reform and governmental efficiency that do not lend themselves to fast and splashy results.

"Jim is someone who has always taken the long view," said John Emerson, a former Clinton White House official who served as top aide to Hahn when he was city attorney. "He's more a marathon runner than a sprinter."

After serving as city controller and city attorney for two decades, Hahn came to the job of mayor fluent in the workings of municipal government. He used that familiarity with City Hall to tackle what he saw as backlogs in the bureaucracy, centering his efforts on improving the delivery of city services, from pothole filling to alleviating gridlock.

Hahn streamlined the city's mechanism for using federal grant money, freeing up millions of dollars that Los Angeles was at risk of losing. He stripped down the application to form a neighborhood council from 22 pages to five, speeding up the process for certifying the new organizations, which were established three years ago to give residents more of a voice in local government.

To help stop the exodus of officers from the police force, Hahn implemented three- and four-day work weeks, fulfilling a campaign pledge to the police union. And he shortened the amount of time applicants to the Police Department had to wait to be hired, slashing the process from one year to several months.

And Hahn has announced his commitment to placing $100 million in a housing trust fund to pay for affordable housing in Los Angeles, a widely applauded move that he promised during the campaign.

Working With Council

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