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Hahn Looks Forward, and Back

Exhausted, unsure what awaits, the mayor sizes up his painful losses and notable achievements.

June 29, 2005|Tina Daunt and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

After a resounding defeat in his bid for a second mayoral term, there are many uncertainties in the life of reticent politician James K. Hahn, who ends 24 years of public service this week when Antonio Villaraigosa takes his office.

Hahn's marriage is broken, he's barely seen his two children in recent months, he's still exhausted from the campaign. Some close advisors wonder whether he really wanted to be mayor in the first place, but it is clear even for a man who betrays little emotion that he did. The loss has been tough.

"It's a tremendous experience to be able to change things for the better," said Hahn, who turns 55 on Sunday. "But there's a high admission fee to that experience."

On Tuesday, the City Council hailed him for his long service in an official send-off. As he stood at the podium in a crowded chamber, he appeared moved.

Privately, including during a recent interview at a downtown cafe, he acknowledged the toll the election had taken on him.

Dressed in a gray pinstriped suit, the outgoing mayor slumped into a booth, his red tie askew. He rubbed his eyes.

He said he needed time to relax and "start the next chapter" of his life. He wants to score tickets to the Rolling Stones concert at the Hollywood Bowl in November. And maybe he will work for a law firm and forget about public life for a while.

Hahn, the first incumbent mayor to lose in 32 years, said he was looking forward to a break.

"My father always told me not to go into politics," Hahn said of the widely revered county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who died in 1997. "He said, 'It's a different world now. They're out to get you.' He recommended at all costs not to do it. I decided to do it anyway."

As mayor, Hahn made costly political decisions that dramatically eroded his support: He successfully pressed for the ouster of Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and helped beat back San Fernando Valley secession.

He also struggled to balance the demands of his office with the needs of his children after his wife, who hated politics, left him two years ago. (He said he missed almost all of his son's Little League baseball games during the campaign as critics questioned whether he was working hard enough.)

And he found himself embroiled in one of the largest corruption scandals in city history amid allegations that donors could buy influence with his administration. He wearily reminded voters that no one in his administration had been charged.

In the end, all of Hahn's problems undermined his effort to beat Villaraigosa, who has the stamina of the Energizer Bunny and a natural political instinct.

Former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who lost his reelection bid amid controversy five years ago, called Hahn after his defeat to offer encouragement.

"He said, 'You're not going to believe the freedom,' " Hahn recalled. "There's a bit of the bird-in-the-cage stuff when you're in public life."

One question Hahn is constantly asked: Would he have done anything differently?

He thinks for a moment, then jokes: "Sure, just to see if it would have turned out differently."

*

Hahn said he realized early in his term that he would face a hard time being reelected. He said everyone on his staff urged him not to oust Parks, a respected figure in the African American community -- one of Hahn's strongest sources of support. "They knew the political damage," he said.

Determined "to do it my way," Hahn ignored the advice. He just didn't think Parks was up to the job. After he brought in William J. Bratton as chief, he hoped the public would recognize that he had made a wise decision.

As it turned out, he never recovered his support among black voters. (Parks was elected to the City Council and launched his own bid for mayor against Hahn. After he was knocked out of the race, he became one of Villaraigosa's strongest allies.)

Hahn said he was glad that his father, who had represented South Los Angeles for 40 years, was not alive to see the fallout.

"I think it would have been tough on him; he had such a strong relationship with the African American community," Hahn said. "This whole business with Bernard Parks would have been tough on him."

If given the choice, Hahn's allies said, he would have been happy to remain city attorney, a job he loved and held for 16 years. But term limits approved in 1993 forced him out.

"I had to ask myself: Do I go back and practice law or do I stay in the political world? I had gotten to the place where I said, 'You know, you really care about this public safety issue. You have the chance to take that to another level as mayor.' "

He believes that he has made the city safer. He is proud that he helped keep the city from fracturing. And he thinks those two accomplishments should have secured him a second term.

"If you do all this stuff, you should be rewarded and get to enjoy all that," Hahn said.

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