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Halfway Through Hahn

L.A.'s invisible mayor needs to stop focusing on raising funds for his reelection and start demonstrating big-picture leadership.

November 16, 2003

Striking mechanics shut down buses and subways for five long weeks, stranding nearly half a million people and gridlocking traffic already considered the worst in the nation. In any other major city, the mayor would be everywhere -- slapping backs, twisting arms or busting heads -- until the buses started running again.

Not Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn.

Midway through his four-year term, a year after what are widely considered the high points of his tenure so far, Hahn has reverted back to his old role of invisible mayor.

Missing is the mayor who surprised Los Angeles (and angered key backers) with his gutsy choice of outspoken reformer William J. Bratton as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. Gone is the energized Hahn who one year ago this month oversaw the citywide defeat of Hollywood and San Fernando Valley secession.

Instead:

* In the year since he appointed Bratton, Hahn's relationship with the City Council has frayed, and he has been unable to win backing for expanding the woefully understaffed police force.

* Even before the strike, Hahn's role on the intergovernmental Metropolitan Transportation Authority board had been marked by absences and inattention. Theoretically the most powerful member with more appointees than any other elected official, he has simply not been a player. He was barred from negotiations early in the strike by a misinterpretation of a state law on campaign contributions. But that didn't stop two City Council members, who were also barred, from speaking out -- and then going to court to get the ban lifted.

* Hahn's $9-billion plan for modernizing Los Angeles International Airport, with its widely disliked remote passenger check-in center, has been panned by pro-growth and no-growth supporters alike. Studies say the expensive redesign would not boost the region's long-term economy, leading critics to charge that it was designed to reward contributors in the short term. Fueling those suspicions, Troy Edwards, the deputy mayor spearheading the LAX plan, was Hahn's 2001 campaign finance director. Contractors likely to benefit from the massive public works project, including the engineering firm HNTB and public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, hosted campaign fund-raisers for the mayor shortly after he unveiled the plan.

Indeed, what has made news in recent weeks was not Hahn's leadership regarding the strike but his fund-raising. Plump with contributions from contractors and Hahn-appointed city commissioners, the Jim Hahn Legal Defense fund paid off a $53,522 city ethics fine for improper fund-raising in the 2001 campaign. This cynical, though legal, maneuver brought to mind a name no politician wants to be associated with these days: outgoing Gov. Gray Davis. Like Davis, Hahn can seem more focused on raising money to get elected than on leading once he's in office. With 15 months to go before the March 2005 primary, the mayor is already soliciting contributions to his campaign for reelection. The goal, his backers admit, is to have a big enough war chest to discourage challengers. What about having a big enough record of accomplishments?

The mayor deserves credit for backing a $100-million trust fund to support affordable housing and for taking steady, if incremental, steps toward meeting a secession-battle promise to bring government closer to the people by eventually opening seven neighborhood city halls. But the small projects he's chosen to champion -- filling potholes and installing left-turn signals (16 so far) -- haven't exactly set the city on fire.

And few of his hires have generated excitement along the lines of, say, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger's naming Terry Tamminen, a well-known Santa Monica conservationist, as his environmental protection secretary, or Hahn's own earlier appointment of Bratton.

Called upon to name a key economic development deputy this month, for example, Hahn chose Renata Simril, a 35-year-old one-time City Council redevelopment aide who worked for the nonprofit Genesis L.A. She may turn out to be a great hire -- it's just that business leaders were hoping for an economic superstar, a "Peter Ueberroth-type," one business leader told the Los Angeles Business Journal, referring to the former Major League Baseball commissioner and architect of the city's 1984 Olympics.

Hahn approaches his job as though he were the city manager of a South Bay burg. Los Angeles needs him -- or key members of his staff -- to think BIG. Hahn bristles at what he sees as criticism of his low-key style. But this is not about personality. Neither former Mayor Richard Riordan nor the late Mayor Tom Bradley were dynamic speakers or glad-handing politicians. But voters understood that Riordan was passionate about something, especially education. And for most of his tenure, Bradley was a powerful force to be reckoned with -- behind the scenes, if not at the podium.

Mayors don't need a noisy personality to lead. But they do need a gusto for taking on the issues of the day, real empathy for the people on all sides of a dispute and a steely determination to keep going until they come up with solutions that most can live with. Before Hahn looks toward winning reelection as mayor, he needs to show voters why he wants the job.

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