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NEWS ANALYSIS

Mayor Shows a Bolder, Politically Savvy Side

October 03, 2002|BETH SHUSTER and HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

By selecting William J. Bratton to run the Los Angeles Police Department, Mayor James K. Hahn made a bold move that shows he is willing to share the limelight with a New York law-and-order cop--if that's what it takes to fight crime and turn around the LAPD.

It was a gutsy choice, many Los Angeles political observers said Wednesday, because of Bratton's stature and because Hahn rejected the advice of those who preferred safer alternatives.

In picking his chief, Hahn ignored City Council members who favored Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez and overruled some advisors who recommended former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney.

Hahn was criticized during his first year in office for being too low-key, uncomfortable in the ceremonial parts of his job and uneasy with the media attention. Appointing Bratton sends a different message, Hahn supporters and critics agree: It demonstrates a mayor willing to take risks.

If Bratton delivers crime reductions on the order of what New York experienced in the 1990s, it would strongly bolster Hahn's standing; if he fails to take command of the LAPD or to produce results, Hahn will suffer along with him.

"The person who will take the blame if this does not work out is not the [City] Council; it's Jim Hahn," said Rafael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton professor and author. "He's totally on the line."

Bratton's appointment immediately takes on importance in the debate over San Fernando Valley secession and could well figure in Hahn's expected bid for reelection in 2005.

Conservative Welcome?

Even before he begins work, Bratton's reputation as a crime fighter is likely to be welcomed in the same conservative quarters where support for secession is strongest and where voters helped Hahn beat former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa last year.

The choice of Bratton was Hahn's second high-profile move regarding the LAPD's leadership this year. His decision to oppose former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks' bid for a second term was an indication that the mayor was willing to offend in order to take control of the LAPD. That cost Hahn some support among African Americans and other Parks backers, but also helped dispel the notion that he was a cautious incrementalist.

'Bratton Is the One'

"I think the fact that Hahn was willing to oppose Parks for reappointment showed that Hahn was willing to be bold rather than cautious in this area," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at USC. "He concluded that the department really needs reform, and Bratton is the one to do it."

Jaime Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles, agreed.

"Hahn wants the perception out there that he is bolder than we thought," he said. "Hahn is signaling a bold move, picking the person with the strongest record of reform, and that he is not worried about Bratton answering to him or overshadowing him."

Bill Wardlaw, an attorney and close advisor to Hahn, said such reactions show that the best decision on the merits was also the best decision politically.

'A Real Tough Decision'

"It's going to slowly sink in: This guy made a real tough decision on doing what was right for the LAPD," Wardlaw said. "It is hard to criticize the selection of this guy."

Hahn was praised Wednesday by those who have run campaigns against him as well as by those who supported him.

"I think it shows a lot of self-confidence on his part," said Parke Skelton, a political consultant who ran Villaraigosa's mayoral campaign against Hahn. Bratton is "a high-profile man who likes the limelight and likes to take credit for things."

In another sense, the choice reflects something about both Hahn and the city that elected him.

Race Wasn't a Big Issue

For the first time in a decade, the debate over who was best suited to lead the LAPD did not revolve significantly around the race of the contenders. Some praised Hahn for ignoring those considerations.

"It shows a lot of courage because he didn't try to favor the black community or the Hispanic community," said former LAPD Chief Ed Davis, who went on to a career in elected office and remains a sought-after expert on policing and political issues.

"I think the mayor is surprising people. You wouldn't expect him to be a bold, dynamic mayor, but now he's beginning to look like a bold, dynamic mayor."

If Hahn can maintain his image as a decisive leader, particularly in the area of law enforcement, that could affect his expected bid for reelection in 2005, some political advisors say.

Like Richard Riordan before him, Hahn has identified public safety as an integral part of his platform, and success at the LAPD would bolster his chances at winning office again.

The debate over the chief already has damaged him in one part of his political coalition: the African American community, which voted for him overwhelmingly in 2001.

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