On Hold: Why Mayor Jim Hahn’s In Danger of Losing His Job, When He Should Be the Favorite

Sure he’s a nice guy, but does Mayor Hahn really have what it takes?
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Los Angeles, meet Jim Hahn. You know him better as James K. Hahn, the cardboard doofus of a mayor he sometimes plays on television. In that role, he assumes the guise of a generic American electable: tall and fit without being buff, conservative dark suits, gray-flecked hair, enough squint to his eyes to convince you he feels your pain, no sharp edges that might offend. Get Jim away from the cameras and he’s brighter and warmer, a regular guy who has more L.A. blood pulsing through his veins than just about anybody. Jim rode with his legendary dad in the parade that welcomed the Dodgers from Brooklyn. He surfed Playa del Rey, ordered two with everything at Art’s World Famous Chili Dogs (corner of Florence and Normandie), and attended college on South Vermont. These days he commutes 24 miles up and down the Harbor Freeway between City Hall and a gray stucco three-bedroom tract house above the docks in north San Pedro. Across the street is a bare dirt yard with carcasses of American muscle cars hogging the driveway. He walks the dog every morning, folds laundry in the garage, waters the garden, and runs to Home Depot in his parents’ old green Buick with Jet and Incubus on the CD player. Since he and his wife, Monica, separated last year, he devotes more time to 15 year-old Karina and 11-year-old Jackson, who live with him. That means the mayor of Los Angeles spends some weekends ripping up mountain trails on dirt bikes with his kids.

Lots of politicians try to make themselves seem more common. Hahn has the opposite problem: People think he’s nice but wonder if he’s mayoral enough. He has a knack for things like citing obscure code sections, not describing a vision for the city’s future, and his speaking style never leaves an audience wanting more. He gets no joy out of being escorted around in a black SUV and smiling for the crowds. Being Mr. Mayor is his job, not his life. He gives it more than 9 to 5 but never 24/7. “I’m kind of annoyed by some people—I’m not going to mention any names—who are in the same business I’m in who just don’t seem to be real people anymore,” he says. “You do need to know how much a loaf of bread costs [and] the time commitment in raising kids. The idea that seems to be dogging me is, you know, Jim Hahn, he’s just not exciting enough. He doesn’t sizzle enough. He’s not flashy enough. We want a mayor who’s a star.’ If that’s what people want,” he says, “they are free to choose somebody like that.”

Interesting offer. This is the choice that L.A. is pondering right now: Hahn’s ambivalent performance in office and a whiff of scandal he has failed to dispel have invited a surprise lineup of potent challengers—Antonio Villaraigosa among them—who threaten his reelection in March.

What a reversal. Hahn won in 2001 by coming from behind to whip the smoother Villaraigosa, making him the first person to win six citywide elections. He then showed political guts by dumping the police chief and hiring the nationally respected William Bratton from New York to clean up the mess at the LAPD. The new mayor also rallied the city’s financiers to defeat the Valley’s attempt at secession.

A stronger personality or deeper talent could have built on those early wins to scare away any competition. Instead, Hahn has kept finding ways to hurt himself and to encourage the doubters who say he is more plodder than leader. If he becomes the first mayor since Sam Yorty to be tossed from office, and he might, it will be because he couldn’t keep this question from getting asked: Is Average Jim up to the job?

Jim Hahn at 54 still projects enough boyish tics that people easily forget he has walked the dark Raymond Chandler-esque corridors of City Hall as long as anyone in the building. His staying power is impressive, given that he’s the scion of a famously political clan but didn’t inherit the gene for pressing the flesh. One senior official likes to crack up visitors with an imitation of Hahn entering a room: eyes down, feet tracing a route along the wall as he mumbles, “Hi, I’m the mayor.” Even at his own party his shy side shows. During last season’s NBA finals, he had journalists and some of his deputies over to watch the Lakers and Pistons on TV at Getty House, the mayor’s ceremonial residence. While his visitors noshed on walleye tacos and nursed mojitos, Hahn lurked in the back, quizzing celebrity chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (the pair who run Ciudad and Border Grill) on the nuances of salsa.

One on one, though, he’s more confident and funny. When discussing his favorite subject, he can become animated. Sitting at the coffee table in his third-floor office, Hahn hardens his soft, casual voice as he declares his love for Los Angeles. He does have a vision, he insists: to make this “the safest big city in America.” It’s his standard line, and in the wrong room it can fall flat, more platitude than call to arms. But give him a chance to unfurl the flag, and the idea catches wind. Usually the kind of speaker who flips through note cards, Hahn when excited can rival his late father, Kenneth, who won a dozen elections with his preacher’s gift for captivating an audience.

Hahn’s sermon is that this is a city divided, not purely by race or wealth. In one half people feel safe, like on the leafy, millionaires’ streets of Brentwood or in his workingman’s neighborhood in San Pedro. Then there is Unsafe L.A., where everyone is afraid: of stray bullets, of kids vanishing into gang madness, of casual encounters exploding into violent confrontations. Safe L.A. has no idea, Hahn says, punching his hands together as he describes a meeting with home-owners in the Valley. “Somebody would be pounding the table saying, ‘You’ve got to [smack] do something [smack] about these [smack] COMPUTER EXPO signs that are tacked to these telephone poles.’ I thought, Man, your lift must be pretty darn good that you have to look that hard for something to be mad about.” Hahn wants to bring Watts and Wilmington and Boyle Heights and Pacoima back into the safe city. That’s why he pushes enlarging and reforming the LAPD, improving after-school programs, cleaning up graffiti and other eyesores that drag a neighborhood down. His motivation is at least partly personal.

As a boy in the 1950s, Hahn lived on 89th Street when the vast flats south of the Coliseum still belonged to Safe L.A. His memories include playing cowboys and Indians in the front yard, swimming at the local park, and exchanging Nesbitt’s bottles for pennies at a Figueroa Street market. (Now the park is dicey and the market is a scary-looking liquor store.) When Hahn was in the fourth grade his family moved west to a Spanish style Steinkamp on 78th Place off Crenshaw in Morningside Park. Most whites soon left for the Valley or Westchester because blacks began to buy in. Hahn’s parents would not budge. Except for time spent in the navy during World War II, Kenny never lived more than four miles from his childhood home in South Los Angeles. He graduated from Pepperdine College, then a small Church of Christ-based school at Vermont and 79th, and with his oldest brother ran a service station near downtown that came to double as the family’s political headquarters. After returning from the Pacific, he became, at 26, the youngest elected member in the history of the Los Angeles City Council.

It was the opening page of a remarkable chapter in local politics. Kenny spent five years on the council, then joined the more powerful county Board of Supervisors as its youngest member ever and stayed for 40 years. One of his early acts was to hire an African American deputy, Gilbert Lindsay. In 1961, he was the only elected official to greet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at LAX. Kenny Hahn was the best at taking care of folks that the city has ever seen. His car trunk carried a shovel for ground breakings, scissors for ribbon cuttings, a fire extinguisher and battery cables for emergencies. On Saturday, father and son would visit, parks and stores, checking on how everyone was doing. Kenny would record his thoughts with a Dictaphone, and on Monday somebody who owed his job to the supervisor might get a note about a pothole or a burned-out streetlight. Even after a stroke: confined him to a wheelchair, Kenny—who remained more revered in African American churches and barbershops than most black politicians—won his final election with 84 percent of the vote.

Jim grew up immersed in this culture. He knew every, mayor in his lifetime, and they all knew little Jimmy, the supervisor’s son who served as the Dodgers’ first honorary batboy at the Coliseum. At home his mother, Ramona, sang hymns in the kitchen and served dinner every night at six. Jim and his sister, Janice (younger by 20 months), went to church three times a week. They endured ribbing for being Kenny’s offspring and milk drinkers in a milieu that turned increasingly rebellious. Jim remembers getting punched at Horace Mann Junior High for being white: “I wasn’t always six foot two. I was kind of a runt.” He retreated into books. “I was the athlete,” says Janice, “and he was much more studious. His report cards would go up on the bulletin board in the kitchen. Mine would go in the drawer.”

The Hahn kids were sent to private Lutheran High, where Jim ran track and played trumpet. In the summer of 1965, the year he turned 15, Watts exploded. On the first night of the riot Kenny went driving with an aide and took a brick through the windshield. Bleeding from his neck, he collapsed in the street and was helped by a black woman. On his dad’s way out of the riot zone, Jim remembers being told, another brick knocked out the driver and Kenny had to steer the car to safety from the backseat. In Morningside Park the Hahns were advised to hang something white from their front door as a sign that an African American family lived there, just in case. They didn’t. It was their neighborhood.

Angelenos his age were dropping acid and protesting the Vietnam War. Jim, however, avoided the temptations of the ’60s. The Hahns lived by Kenny’s first rule: Don’t do anything today you don’t want to read about in the papers tomorrow. Jim enrolled at Pepperdine and majored in English with a journalism minor, living with his parents all through school. Most of his classmates were Republican, chapel attendance was mandatory, and hymns were sung around the campus fountain. Jim was the resident liberal by Pepperdine standards, a good Democrat like his dad who volunteered at a legal aid clinic showing battered women how to obtain restraining orders. That experience helped persuade him to forgo a career as an English teacher.

There’s a photograph from the old Herald Examiner in which one-year-old Jim is cradled in his dad’s arms at Kenny’s swearing-in ceremony in the marble city council chambers. He always had a spot waiting in the family business if he wanted it. And how could he refuse? “My father gave it a sacred, noble calling—public service was one of the greatest things that either Jim or I could aspire to,” Janice says.

Her brother’s apprenticeship began deep in the city attorney’s office. As a junior prosecutor, Hahn won his share of misdemeanor trials. He became friends with another young lawyer, Robert Horner. They carpooled and socialized, and Horner’s wife called Jim “politeness Man” because of his unfailing straightness, it was Horner who lent Hahn a shoulder when his first marriage, to Joni Hawley, ended after less than two years. In 1979, the same year as the divorce, they set up a law practice in Mid Wilshire. Homer did the criminal defense work. Hahn preferred Democratic club meetings. “I don’t know that Jim ever did a trial,” Horner says. “He was basically running for office.”

Closing in on his 31st birthday, Jim filed for the seldom-mentioned office of city controller. It was a no-brainer that he would go on the ballot with his full name: James Kenneth Hahn. His dad raised money and made calls. Even so, the outcome was close. Jim was forced into a runoff an unknown and won by 32,000 votes out of 362,000. He later acknowledged that he was elected “because my middle name was Kenneth and my last name was Hahn,” but no matter. He was in the business. That was 1981. He hasn’t had a job outside City Hall since. Not that the Hahn name means a free ride. Often mislabeled a dynasty, the family was really more of a fixture—always around but never dominant, except perhaps in South L.A.

Four years into his apprenticeship, Jim got the chance to prove he belonged. Ira Reiner was giving up the city attorney’s post to become D.A. Hahn wanted to succeed him. However, the Westside’s powerful Berman-Waxman Democratic organization had a preferred candidate, Lisa Specht, a TV commentator and lawyer at Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg and Tunney She also held gilded endorsements from Reiner, the attorney general, and the Los Angeles Times. The Westside sent Mickey Kantor, a prominent Democrat, downtown to tell Kenny it was Specht’s time and that Jim should be satisfied as controller. The Hahns didn’t blink. They hired Walter Mondale’s strategy team of Joe Trippi and Pat Caddell and secured backing from the Police Protective League and the County Federation of Labor. The crucial point in the race came when a third candidate threw his support to Hahn (despite earlier calling him a “fraud … with a shameful prosecution record”) after a private powwow with Kenny Specht vented that “this is about Daddy Hahn and the bosses of big labor pulling out all the stops to save their boy Jimmy’s campaign.” She lobbed mailers into South Los Angeles, reminding voters that the son was not the father. It didn’t matter. Hahn trounced her.

In 16 unspectacular years as city attorney, Hahn went after neighborhood plagues like street gangs and prostitutes. Civil liberties activists were disappointed that he pioneered using injunctions to forbid gangs from congregating, fearing such measures gave the police too much power to harass innocent young men. His office’s pursuit of high-profile scandals such as the Rodney King beating and Rampart Division corruption were criticized as weak. But Hahn turned into an important advocate of LAPD reform, in part because of his dismay at the poor response to the outbreak of rioting in his old neighborhoods on April 29, 1992. That evening, after a jury acquitted four officers of mistreating King, Hahn went to check on his parents. Heading west on Florence, he heard a radio report that motorists were being attacked. He called an aide to get the location from TV, and it’s lucky he did. The city attorney turned off shortly before driving his official ear into the flash point at Florence and Normandie. “I would have beat Reginald Denny to the intersection by five minutes,” he says. He phoned the closest watch commander and urged him to seek the sheriff’s help to close off streets but was told the department had no authority Hahn worked his way up the chain of command and assured the brass—as the department’s attorney—that they could ask for aid. His advice was ignored. “I said, ‘It looks like LAPD has abandoned the city—you’ve got to do something.’ That was a very frustrating evening for me.”

In 1997, Hahn showed he had more grit than people had thought. Mayor Richard Riordan, who didn’t care for the young city attorney helped a San Fernando Valley developer with no electoral experience run against Hahn. Ted Stein raised more money and claimed his opponent was a bad prosecutor whose plea-bargain policies had led to the murders of innocent victims. Hahn won reelection handily, but friends say that the viciousness of the campaign woke up a warrior in the mellow ex-surfer. He became more openly ambitious and calculating. He completed a makeover of his core of advisers, a group that came to include Democratic campaign veterans Bill Carrick and Kam Kuwata, strategist Matt Middlebrook, and chief of staff Tim McOsker. Then, in October, Kenny died. Close to 5,000 people attended memorial services, an outpouring of love (and potential votes) that would catch anybody’s attention. Two years before Riordan would be forced out by term limits, Hahn let it be known that he intended to do his dad proud and run for mayor. “Kenny was my hero,” he said recently.

Riordan endorsed the more liberal Villaraigosa, but Hahn got the next best thing—maybe even the better deal: Bill Wardlaw, Riordan’s law partner and campaign chairman, agreed to lead Hahn’s effort, calling him the best hope for the city and its business community. Hahn’s new, bigger tent welcomed Lisa Specht and Ted Stein, who said only good things about their onetime foe and raised a lot of money for the campaign. In the primary, Hahn finished a weak second, closer to businessman Steven Soboroff below than to Villaraigosa above. Progressives acclaimed Villaraigosa as the future face of Los Angeles: smooth, suavely handsome, and Latino. A former assembly speaker and labor organizer, he had the backing of the governor, Hahn’s own Democratic Party, billionaire Eli Broad, and younger black leaders who felt the Hahn era in South L.A. had run its course.

Once again, Hahn perplexed the doubters. He kicked into warrior mode and ran to the right of Villaraigosa, promising to add 1,000 cops and touting his endorsement by prominent Valley conservatives. He already had the backing of the police union and the South Los Angeles elders who knew his dad, along with Magic Johnson and former secretary of state Warren Christopher. Hahn’s coalition was oddly composed but formidable. As the runoff neared, Villaraigosa led in the polls, but Hahn wasn’t finished. He became edgier and more combative. “He was going in for the kill—he was exciting people. It was a different Jim Hahn,” says Republican pollster and strategist Arnold Steinberg. Then Hahn threw his haymaker.

He aired ads blasting Villaraigosa for urging President Clinton to pardon drug dealer Carlos Vignali, whose father held some sway in the Latino community. “Los Angeles can’t trust Antonio Villaraigosa,” the ads blared. For many, the subtext read, Los Angeles was not ready for a brown mayor.

On election night Villaraigosa’s crowd at Center Studios downtown swelled to three times the size of Hahn’s in a ballroom at the Bonaventure. But it was Hahn who got to swing his hips to “I Love L.A.” as his happy family watched. The L.A. Weekly’s Harold Meyerson spoke for bitter Villaraigosa partisans, writing that “James Kenneth Hahn is not a race-baiting demagogue, but for the past ten days he’s played one on television.” He won, according to Time magazine, because to everyone’s surprise the milk drinker “turned out to be the better street fighter.”

“Fly, Jimmy, fly!” the Reverend Chip Murray of First AME Church exhorted at Hahn’s inauguration. Janice, her brother’s most reliable ally on the council, was elected at the same time he was. His closest confidant since their father’s death, she is aware that people wonder how much her brother relishes waking up every day as mayor, but she insists he’s in the right place. Voters chose Hahn’s substance over Villaraigosa’s telegenic style, she says. “He has an incredible work ethic. When you look at some of the previous mayors—I guess Riordan was never in City Hall after, you know, noon—I think Jim is going to go down in history as one of the best mayors Los Angeles ever had.”

Sisters are supposed to cover your back, but her view sounds sycophantic as Mayor Hahn stumbles toward the end of his first term and into the reelection campaign. There has been erosion in that quirky coalition he put together. That’s a big problem—possibly a fatal one—because in the nonpartisan elections for city offices, Los Angeles is a quilt of niche voting blocs (renters, Jews, labor, etc.). A whiner usually has to dominate a few of them and run decently in others. After seeing him in action for three years, “no constituency is wild about Hahn,” says author Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton politics professor. “He could be reelected, or he could lose. Both are very possible,” If the tenacious campaigner doesn’t rise to the occasion, or if his challengers run grade-A races, it’s conceivable that Hahn won’t make it out of the March primary. Joel Kotkin, who analyzes local politics, is more colorful: “This is a sitting mayor who people are cutting up like a carcass.”

What went so wrong so fast? Less than three months into Hahn’s tenure, the 9/11 attacks smacked him with a double whammy—throwing the city into a financial pinch and showing the nation how brightly a take-charge mayor in another city, New York, could shine. Hahn’s two best moves as mayor also dealt serious blows to the coalition of 2001. While crusading against secession, he angered many of the Valley leaders and conservatives who helped provide his victory margin. Some of them, including a couple of Hahn’s campaign cochairs, have defected to candidate Bob Hertzberg, the former Democratic assembly speaker from Sherman Oaks who threatens to peel off Hahn voters in the Valley, on the Westside, and among the Jews and Latinos who didn’t vote for Villaraigosa last time. The most painful loss for the mayor was Specht. She had been rewarded with a plum spot on the Coliseum Commission after helping Hahn win but resigned to join Hertzberg, saying of her ex-boss, “I don’t know what his plan is for the city.” Also running from the Valley is state senator Richard Alarcon, a former city councilman and the first contender to announce he would challenge the mayor.

Hahn’s other expensive success was his decision not to reappoint black police chief Bernard Parks and to replace him with Bratton. Parks had to go: He stood in the way of Hahn’s desire to revamp the LAPD into a fast-moving, community-supported institution. But the former chief—easily elected to the city council after his public humiliation—is running for mayor and is a major rival for the African American votes that the Hahns have always counted on. If even a third of Hahn’s black support switches loyalties, he’s in trouble. “It was a tough decision because I knew it was going to have tremendous political impact on me,” Hahn says. But he had to change the police leadership for Unsafe L.A. to stand a chance. Officers were leaving for other departments and morale was plummeting.

Fortunately for the mayor, Bratton has become his strongest argument for reelection. Crime is down, and many people feel safer and better about the LAPD. Hoping that the chief’s popularity will rub off on him, Hahn stands next to Bratton at every opportunity, scheduling a joint press appearance almost every week. Clinging tightly to Bratton doesn’t always help Hahn, however. After the June flashlight clubbing of car-theft suspect Stanley Miller by LAPD officers, Hahn and Bratton drove to Burbank at 4 a.m. to appear on The Today Show. Cohost Matt Lauer threw the first question not to the mayor but to the chief, asking for a comparison with the Rodney King incident that occurred a decade before Bratton had come to town. Hahn waited his turn, sleepy eyes fixed off-camera, before he jumped in. You can’t imagine Giuliani playing second fiddle in such a pivotal moment, but if Hahn complained about doing so, the public hasn’t heard him. The mayor knew that Bratton was a media darling, but he wanted him in Los Angeles anyway: “I’m thrilled that he is our police chief. Maybe somebody will remember that, hey, Hahn is the guy who hired him.”

On their list of top accomplishments, Hahn and his aides also point to a new trust fund for building low-income housing and the spread of neighborhood councils. Inevitably, his troubles attract more attention than his victories. Hahn has fallen way short of his campaign promise to acid 1,000 police officers. He proposed hiring 320 in his budget a year ago, but even his allies on the city council couldn’t see where the money would come from and tabled the idea in a public slap. This year he is quietly trying to hire 30 cops and calling it a success. An ambitious plan to modernize LAX stalled and moved ahead only after Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski rescued it with a compromise. Hahn’s clean image has also been tarnished by allegations that some commissioners he appointed—including Leland Wong and Ted Stein (who have both resigned)—became too zealous about raising money for the anti-secession campaign and other Hahn projects. Federal and local grand juries have subpoenaed members of the administration, among them Harbor Commissioner James Acevedo, and their e-mails amid accusations that commissioners required vendors to pay up to receive lucrative city contracts. One deputy mayor, Troy Edwards, resigned after his name surfaced publicly. Only then did Hahn push a package of reforms to insulate the commissioners from politics.

Hahn’s close ties to the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard and its former general manager in Los Angeles, ex-newsman Doug Dowie, also have smudged the mayor’s record. District Attorney Steve Cooley is looking into possible criminal charges after former Fleishman employees said they inflated PR bills paid by the city’s Department of Water and Power. Hahn put some distance between himself and the farm, but the candidates positioning to run are eager to see if anything comes of the probes in time to weaken the mayor before the election. If Hahn ends up being implicated, most will assume it’s because of incompetence, not corruption. “Jim is, I believe, a good man, an honest man,” says Alex Padilla, the city council president, who backed Hahn over Villaraigosa in 2001 and thinks the mayor is handling the job well. “Things are coming along fine,” Padilla says. “The Jim Hahn that people know through the media is different than the Jim Hahn you can talk to across a table over a sandwich at lunch.”

That disconnect between the private and the public Hahn is caused not just by his stiffness in front of crowds but may also result from his reliance on a younger, relatively inexperienced staff. Longtime communications adviser Middlebrook left last year for an executive position with Fleishman-Hillard in San Francisco, and a half dozen other senior deputies have gone, too. What should have been the image highlight of Hahn’s year, his annual State of the City Address, turned into a comedy of errors. The April event was held in a hangar at Fire Station 88 in Sherman Oaks with a stage full of uniformed police and fire officials as props and city council members and commissioners parked on folding chairs in the audience. The idea was to show off Hahn’s mastery before a dozen TV cameras. But not much about it went right. Hahn arrived late and stewed at the doorway waiting for his cue. Once onstage he started talking before the script prompter was ready He tripped on the first line, opening with a less than stirring “I see a lot of yon here today …,” and had to stop for the flag salute before being reintroduced with “Once again, Mayor Jim Hahn!” As he was about to begin, the roar of escaping compressed air rocked the hangar. Looking exasperated, Hahn reminded the assemblage that this was a working fire station and said, “Go back to what you were doing until we figure this out.” Finally he delivered his speech, promising the 30 more police officers and also a paramedic in every fire station. Before be was finished, an aide prematurely cranked up “I Love L.A.”

Later that week Hahn unveiled the $5.4 billion city budget for next year in a ceremonial gathering in the mayor’s conference room—but his office hadn’t printed enough copies for department heads and council members, many of whom were steaming. The mayor’s staff sent an apology via e-mail. Amateur hour continued in May when Hahn removed Airports Commissioner Alan Llorens ahead of a key vote on the mayor’s plan to modernize LAX. An intern was blamed for a flurry of contradictory press releases posted on the Web, prompting Miscikowski to call the confusion “unbelievable.” Hahn also missed a deadline last September for filling commission openings, a procedural wrinkle that let council president Padilla name 20 members of the Hahn administration.

City Controller Laura Chick, who backed Villaraigosa in 2001, launched audits that spurred the ethics probes of Hahn’s commissioners and Fleishman-Hillard. She endorsed Hahn’s reelection early but has been threatening to yank her support. Her most substantial complaint is that the new City Charter gave the mayor broad powers to shake up the bureaucracy, but except for removing Parks, Hahn hasn’t used the added clout. “He’s ducking his responsibilities,” she says. “He’s not interested.” She hasn’t withdrawn her formal endorsement and likely won’t until she sees who ultimately enters the race. The biggest question, for Chick and many others, was settled in August, when Villaraigosa, now a councilman, decided to risk his future on another run at Hahn. If he loses, his status as a rising star will be greatly dimmed. But Villaraigosa is betting that his nearly two years on the city council will have left voters more comfortable with him. He also figures that Hahn has lost standing since 2001. “He’s a decent guy,” he says. “You just get a sense that he doesn’t have the energy, the vision, or the work ethic that we need in the city right now. I don’t have any ill will toward him. I work well with him, as a matter of fact. But you just don’t get a sense that he understands this is a great job and it requires a leader with a vision and energy.”

Those are the talking points for what his challengers will turn into a referendum on Jim Hahn’s style. There are no wide policy gulfs between him and the major contenders. The city isn’t falling apart: Streets are still getting paved and swept, and the trash is being picked up. Hahn can keep L.A. running, but voters will be asked to decide whether he displays the leadership and stature to confront bigger issues like easing traffic and shaping the city of the future. Then there’s the sizzle question. The mayor of San Francisco owns a sharper national media profile because of his position on gay marriage. Richard Riordan and Tom Bradley—neither exactly charismatic—used the office to acquire enough heft to run for governor. (Of course, they got multiple terms to build a name. Hahn might not have that chance.)

In the hyperpluralism of Los Angeles elections, Hahn’s best asset is that no one detests him. He’s not the favorite of most voters, but he could be the No. 2 choice of enough niches to squeak by. In the primary free-for-all, support from leaders of the chamber of commerce and other downtown institutions—as well as from the police and fire unions—should ensure Hahn a place in the runoff. Then the race would start over. If it were another Hahn-Villaraigosa showdown, as many expect, the mayor would probably regain black voters who defected to Parks and Valley voters who went to Hertzberg.

In any scenario, Hahn in warrior mode is going to need to make a convincing case that he has the stuff to be mayor. His ho-hum performance put him in this fix, and he alone can quiet the doubts. Signs are already there that he is muscling up for a fight. Hahn is getting out in public and accepting invitations to appear on morning radio, and he seems to be hammering his points with more force. Job preservation can motivate almost anyone, but this feels like something more. It’s Jim Hahn’s last chance to answer the question, not just for the rest of us but for himself.

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