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For Rep. Janice Hahn, dad's legacy is a selling point

First-term congresswoman Janice Hahn embraces the connection. Will she measure up? 'You have to be somewhere for a while to make things happen,' she says.

July 20, 2013|By Richard Simon
  • Janice Hahn, left, and Wendy Greuel flank Sen. Barbara Boxer during a roundtable in April.
Janice Hahn, left, and Wendy Greuel flank Sen. Barbara Boxer during a roundtable… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

WASHINGTON — When Rep. Janice Hahn conducted a campaign poll last year, she didn't just want to know what voters thought about her. She asked what they thought about her father.

The poll showed that Kenny Hahn was fondly remembered, still a political legend almost 16 years after his death. And so came the mailer for the San Pedro Democrat: "like father, like daughter."

As she finishes her second year in Congress, Janice Hahn has echoed her father's approach.

Kenny was famous for such stunts as dispatching the heads of warring transit agencies to a boat in Marina del Rey and ordering them not to return until they worked out their differences.

Janice marched into the Navy congressional liaison's office on her first day in Congress to implore the Navy to send the battleship Iowa to San Pedro for a museum, which it later did.

Kenny was known as a master of pothole politics, once offering $1 to anyone who could find a pothole in his district. (The challenge cost him three bucks; the publicity was priceless.) Janice is pushing an ambitious $500-million program to fix the nation's bridges: "my version of going after potholes," she said.

Their greatest similarity may be their flair for the dramatic, camera-ready pitch. When Democratic congresswomen gathered recently for a photo with Nancy Pelosi, Janice Hahn edged close to the House Democratic leader.

"Stand in the middle of the picture, then they can't crop you out," she said in an interview, remembering one of her father's most important rules.

But if Janice Hahn's personality matches that of her folksy, backslapping father — more so than that of her reserved brother, former Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn — she has yet to achieve their level of accomplishment.

"I judge a politician on what they deliver," said Dermot Givens, a Los Angeles political consultant. "Did they bring home the bacon? You look at her district, where's the bacon?"

During 45 years in public office — 40 of them on the county Board of Supervisors — Kenny Hahn played a leading role in bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles, establishing the paramedic program, putting emergency call boxes on freeways, expanding the public transit system, creating civic edifices from the Music Center to the seat of county government now named after him.

When she was a child, she and older brother Jimmy were planted in the back seat of the car on Saturdays while the supervisor scoured his district for potholes in streets or weeds in parks. "I was born into public service," she said when she was sworn in to her House seat in July 2011. But inside the family, it was her brother who was groomed most obviously.

Her dad and brother can be seen in old photos, such as when Jimmy served as the first honorary batboy for the Dodgers after his father helped bring the team to Los Angeles. "Where was I?" she asked. "There were a lot of those early photos where little Janice was not there." James became city controller, city attorney and then mayor. Defeated by Antonio Villaraigosa in 2005, he is now a judge. And Janice Hahn is still in the arena.

"Jim would tell you he never loved it as much as I do," she said.

Memories of Hahn's father played a big role in his daughter's political successes — she served 10 years on the City Council and has two congressional victories, the first in a special election. Her districts have either overlapped with or been close to Kenny's old territory. Her victory last fall in a new, heavily minority district — against an African American congressional colleague — rested in part on her leaning on Kenny's reputation.

"When Janice invokes the name of her father, I'm sure that there is a very small group of folks who may roll their eyes and say, 'There she goes again,'" said Rudy Svorinich, a former Harbor-area councilman. "But let's remember that the vast majority of folks like to hear and be reminded of the good work that Kenny Hahn did."

Then, too, accomplishments such as her father's may be tougher to come by now. On the Board of Supervisors, Kenny was one of five members of a powerful group known as five little kings. Janice is a Democratic backbencher in a Republican-controlled House with 435 members, all as eager as she is to stand out in the crowd.

Her bridge bill, which seeks to focus public attention on the condition of the nation's infrastructure, has yet to make it out of a House committee. Nor have her proposals to create a summer jobs program for high school students at ports and provide $1,000 a month to 10,000 surviving World War II merchant mariners who she says were denied benefits afforded other veterans.

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