Aping the famous Army recruitment commercials, the mayoral candidates have all urged Los Angeles to "be all you can be." But City Attorney James Hahn, ostensibly the one shoo-in for the run-off election in June, has come up with a novel approach to realizing his own mayoral ambitions -- by being the people's second choice. Hahn knows that outside of his base constituency within the African American community, few people are genuinely fired up about his candidacy. But that's okay, he says, because only one of his rivals is going to win the primary in April. And the people who supported the others, often with great passion and fervor, will most likely transfer their allegiance to their second-choice candidate -- himself. It's a strange race, to be sure, and its Aesopian undertones may well inspire future tales of "The Tortoise and the Hahn." Still, at press time Hahn's lead over Steve Soboroff and Antonio Villaraigosa had narrowed -- and while Hahn shares the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times with Villaraigosa, the Valley-based Daily News has endorsed Soboroff.
We visited Hahn at his Crenshaw headquarters.
Sheldon Teitelbaum: You're often mistaken for your father. Are you also often mistaken, by virtue of your surname, for being Jewish?
James Hahn: Yes, there have been folks ... sometimes when I visit Christian churches. Sometimes people don't know I'm a Christian, and I try to explain it to them.
ST: Of course, your father was an honorary member of the tribe.
JH: Totally honorary -- he was beloved by the Jewish community. Dad was a mensch. He was somebody they really liked. They knew he was real. He really cared about people, he led an honorable life, and I think the values he stood for were ones that could be appreciated by the Jewish community.
ST: Are those values that you share intact and unadulterated?
JH: I think they're the same. My sister and I learned our values from our parents. We had strong family values, we believed in being ethical and honest. To be in public service means you need to be a public servant, which is kind of a humble title and don't forget it. We feel that we are our brother's keeper, that we have an obligation to each other, to see how we can improve peoples' lives.
ST: Which among your key issues and positions most resonate within the Jewish community?
JH: Honesty and integrity, the support for tolerance, my strong stand as a prosecutor against hate crimes -- those are some issues I think have resonated very strongly. I've sent all my prosecutors through training courses at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. I want people to understand that hate destroys the fabric of a community and that you have to stand up against it whenever you see it.
ST: Do you have a sense that the Jewish demographic has moved to the right since your father's day?
JH: I don't know if I've noticed that. A lot of people when they get older tend to be more conservative. I don't know if you can identify that with a particular community. The importance of your own personal safety, public safety, it all becomes very important; the feeling that you want to make sure people accept personal responsibility for their actions becomes more important as they get older.
ST: It's also a community that's enjoyed unprecedented success in establishing itself.
JH: What I've seen is that [in] the Jewish community, regardless of financial success, individuals still believe they have an obligation, that it's still about helping people who haven't got a break. I think the appreciation for discrimination, that some people are prevented from reaching their potential because of that discrimination, resounds quite strongly. They are very sensitive to that regardless of whether they made it and recognize that others are in the position they were in not too long ago.
ST: You're the front-runner. Does that take a burden off you?
JH: Being the front-runner simply means if you slow down or stumble they all run over you, so you have to stay ahead of the pack.
ST: At some of the debates I've seen you participate in, you've seemed tired and distracted.
JH: If you've heard one of your opponents tell the same dumb joke for the 15th time, it's hard to look interested. Hopefully I come out with something that expresses to people that I really know what I'm talking about, that I am genuinely concerned and committed on these issues and I'm not just looking to get a laugh.
ST: You've been described as the quintessential moderate. What can we expect from your leadership?
JH: I think we're going to see a city that works for more people than it does now. We're going to reach out to those communities that get left behind, like Watts or Pacoima or Wilmington or Boyle Heights. You're going to have a city that worked hard to build bridges to bring people together, a city that's more tolerant of differences, where community policing is no longer an on-again, off-again thing but becomes the culture of the LAPD. I hope you also see a city where neighborhoods feel they really have a voice in city government.
ST: Some of the candidates are worried about meltdowns, others about massive defections by police. Are we looking "Blade Runner" redux?
JH: A candidate who comes in and says doom and gloom, everything is on the verge of collapse and only I can save you is a little ridiculous. But if you say nothing's wrong with the way things are going and nothing needs to change, that's not realistic either. What I see is that L.A., of all the cities in the world, is best positioned to take advantage of the new economies, global trade, technology; that we have the most talented people of any city on earth. We just haven't had the commitment to meet our challenges in improving our schools and transportation system and housing that we need.
ST: With a recession on the way, will we be able to do that?
JH: Ain't here yet. So the market had a bad few weeks.... I think we came out of our last recession in the early '90s stronger than we were going into it. We were heavily dependent on one industry before. When aerospace collapsed, we became much more diversified. We have to be aggressive about attracting new industries and protecting our existing ones, like entertainment.
ST: We're coming on Passover, which reminds me that in the 15 years I've lived here, this city has gone through the 10 plagues and a few more to boot. Are they over yet?
JH: I think L.A. has had challenges that would have broken the spirit of a lesser city. But we always come back.
ST: Maybe that's because there's no center here to come apart?
JH: We're the new city. We're not a city where you have to have a center people feel [is] the hub of the city. We're a collection of neighborhoods. People feel strong ties to their neighborhood. If you feel good about your street you feel good about your city, and our challenge really is to have people take government for granted. We need to find it in ourselves to be able to say that we're glad to live in this place, it's a pretty nice place to live. But we allow others to define us.