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Mayor Hahn Reaches Out Amid Signs of Vulnerability

March 27, 2004|Noam N. Levey and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

A day after a series of resignations depleted his office of key aides, the usually remote Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn was working City Hall on Friday, eagerly shaking hands and greeting other elected officials.

A year before he faces reelection, and at a time when criminal probes of his administration are underway, Hahn paid a rare visit to City Council chambers to reach out to the people he needs to achieve many of his goals.

Without their help, political observers caution, he is vulnerable to a host of potential challengers, who already are watching closely for signs that his administration may be stumbling.

"If I was advising a challenger or potential challenger, I'd say start gearing up, because there may be an opportunity here," said Democratic political strategist Darry Sragow.

Political observers and other city leaders say the mayor faces lingering questions about his leadership, with investigations into city contracting and doubts over his ability to deliver on such key initiatives as modernizing Los Angeles International Airport and preserving funding for the Police Department.

Several political consultants said Hahn needed to dispel the notion that his administration was in turmoil and prove that he could provide a grand vision of what he can bring to Los Angeles.

Hahn said Friday he remained confident he could rally support for his plans and win reelection.

"I'm still here," he said. "We have a great team. And we are still focused on our priorities." Then, referring to a drop in homicides last year of more than 20%, Hahn added, "This mayor ran on a pledge to make this city safer, and this mayor delivered."

Any challengers for Hahn's job, meanwhile, must grapple with the need to raise huge amounts of money in a short time, while also articulating alternative plans for the city's future.

Only state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) has formally entered the race.

Other potential challengers include Councilmen Bernard C. Parks and Antonio Villaraigosa, Hahn's opponent last time, along with former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and City Controller Laura Chick.

Parks, Villaraigosa and Chick are in excellent positions as city officeholders to challenge Hahn, said political consultant Rick Taylor.

"They absolutely should be using their positions to weaken him in every way possible," Taylor said.

But all may face difficulties raising the necessary funds, said political strategists. Three years ago, Hahn and Villaraigosa together spent more than $13 million on their campaigns.

Going into next year's election, Hahn already has a formidable war chest of more than $1.3 million. What's more, no incumbent mayor has lost in more than three decades.

"He is still the man to beat," political scientist Raphael Sonenshein said recently of Hahn. "But the ongoing investigation creates a wrinkle that could grow."

Los Angeles County District Atty. Steve Cooley has said he is looking into whether some members of Hahn's administration traded favorable treatment during contract negotiations for campaign contributions. Both a county grand jury and federal authorities are investigating city contracting.

Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards, who oversaw the airport and port and became a lightning rod for criticism after the inquiries became public, resigned this week, along with two other deputy mayors.

Hahn "needs to stabilize that administration," Taylor said. "I don't think any of us have seen a mass exodus like this."

Alarcon on Friday began making an issue of the turnover among Hahn's top staff.

"It's absolutely critical that the mayor's office have stability," he said.

Hahn needs to do more, others say.

"He needs to bring in some big thinkers who are going to create some vision for Los Angeles," said political consultant Harvey Englander. "That is his greatest potential success for reelection. And conversely, if he doesn't do that, therein lies his biggest failure."

Hahn is trying to rally support for the unpopular airport plan and has devoted much energy to putting together a budget that will preserve public safety, even as the city struggles with a $250-million shortfall.

Amid the investigations, he is also working to shore up confidence in his administration with an ambitious -- albeit poorly received -- proposal to drastically reform campaign finance and ethics rules.

And now, with the departure of four deputies in four weeks, the mayor is maintaining that he can carry on without nearly a third of his top staff, including Edwards, a friend and one of his closest aides.

Insisting that everything is fine may not be the best approach, said Republican strategist Dan Schnur.

"One of the most important rules of political communication is to hang a lantern on your problem," Schnur said.

"He needs to be upfront and give voters confidence that he is aware of the problems and is doing something to fix them. If he doesn't, he risks losing credibility."

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