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Going but Not to Be Forgotten

Nate Holden leaves an interesting legacy after his 16 years of give and take on City Council.

June 27, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

When Councilman Nate Holden leaves office Monday, there will be one immediate effect on the Los Angeles City Council, his colleagues agree: The meetings will be shorter.

The loquacious councilman gained a reputation for dragging the morning council meetings well into the lunch hour by demanding discussion on a variety of items that other members were prepared to dispose of without debate. Week after week, as his council colleagues sighed heavily and sat back in their leather chairs, Holden has peppered city staff with questions about the worth of various programs.

"Sometimes I wanted to wring his neck," said county Supervisor Gloria Molina, who sat next to him when she was a councilwoman in the late 1980s. "I was one of those who would say, 'You're being impossible and raising nonsense issues.' "

Wily, irrepressible and often outrageous, Holden has established an enduring role during his 16 years on the council with his embrace of unpopular stances, his desire for the limelight and his penchant for controversies.

During his tenure, the onetime boxer and self-described bull in a china shop has accused the Police Commission of being a kangaroo court and once said two Jewish council members were acting like members of the Westside Ku Klux Klan. He racked up ethics violations for breaking fund-raising limits and fended off sexual harassment allegations by former employees. He was photographed with topless dancers during a 1991 city trip to South Korea. And he fought with mayors, most notably Richard Riordan, only to later campaign alongside them.

One Last Controversy

In his waning days as a councilman, Holden has kicked up one more debate, this time by proposing that the city rename Crenshaw Boulevard after the late Mayor Tom Bradley. The council will vote on the motion today.The 10th District seat "will be a lot more boring, a lot less entertaining and hopefully a lot more productive" without Holden, said a community activist, Madison Shockley, who unsuccessfully ran against Holden twice.

The 74-year-old councilman said every cause he has fought for has been on behalf of the mid-city residents he represents.

"I don't seek the attention," he said during a recent interview in his office, where boxes of mementos were stacked up in the halls. "It just happens to turn out that way."

Unfazed by the storms of his political career, Holden said he is leaving City Hall with no resentment and no regrets.

"It's been a good ride and I enjoyed every moment of it," he said.

Born Nathan Nathaniel Holden in Macon, Ga., in 1929, Holden said he grasped the power of politics at the age of 6 while listening to the radio commercials of segregationist candidates.

"I discovered that politicians could be cruel and harsh," he said, "and I didn't think they should be that way."

His parents separated when he was 10 and Holden moved with his mother to New Jersey, where he said he was forced to learn how to brawl.

"The name of the game was to fight your way out of the ghetto," he said.

Holden got so good at fighting that he took up amateur boxing, eventually beating all his opponents and going professional, only to be disqualified after his first fight because he was too young.

At 16, he lied about his age and joined the Army. After serving as a member of the military police in post-World War II Germany and Italy, Holden returned and tried to take drafting classes. He said he was discouraged by Army administrators, who told him an African American would not be able to get an engineering job.

Self-Made Engineer

Holden didn't listen to them. Eventually, he earned degrees in physics and engineering at night school and was hired by Hughes Aircraft. He ended up working in the aerospace industry for 17 years. Often he was the only black in the room.

"He's a fighter," said State Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), who worked as Holden's chief of staff during his first term at City Hall. "If I was ever in a bar fight, I would sure hope that Nate Holden was on a barstool next to me."

Holden's first foray into politics came as a leader of the California Democratic Council, a liberal reform group that protested the Vietnam War. In 1968, he made a bid for Congress as an antiwar candidate. When he gave his first political speech to a group of supporters packed into a stuffy living room, a case of the nerves and the heat caused him to faint.

"I went, ker-plonk!" Holden said.

He lost that race, along with another bid for Congress and a campaign for the Assembly before winning a seat in the state Senate in 1974. Instead of running for a second term, he tried again for Congress, and again failed.

Holden worked as a top deputy for then-county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, made a few more tries at public office and finally won a spot on the City Council in 1987, beating then-Mayor Bradley's handpicked candidate.

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