The Mayor Pitches a Lob to His Critic

*Points West

By Steve Lopez

It doesn't quite rise to the level of fiddling while Rome burns. But as local and federal investigators chased suspected bagmen around Los Angeles and half the mayor's staff ran for cover in the midst of a corruption probe, Jim Hahn left a message this week offering to take me to a Dodger game.

Nice gesture, I suppose. But I wondered if the mayor had gone into full panic mode and was coming unraveled.

I know he's been friendly of late, uncharacteristically glad-handing his way around City Hall in search of new friends. But if you were on the hot seat, would you try making nice with a wiseguy who's been calling you Slim Jim for three years?

The heat at City Hall got turned up yet another notch today. The Times reports on claims by an engineering company's executives that they might have lost a multimillion-dollar LAX contract because they refused to play ball the L.A. way.

They say their own lobbyist told them Hahn's good buddy Ted Stein, president of the airport commission, was muscling them for a $100,000 donation to the mayor's anti-secession campaign. They claim they reported this to Hahn but still lost the contract.

"There has never, ever been a quid pro quo on any contract at the airport," Stein told The Times.

Hahn told me he doesn't recall such a complaint from the company that lost the contract. There simply is no pay-to-play politics, he insisted, "but the perception has become indelible."

Allow me to explain why.

Any time you put friends, yes men and other political hacks on port and airport commissions, doling out fat contracts in virtual secrecy to companies represented by lobbyists, you might as well seat the grand jury in advance.

In L.A., where literally billions of dollars are at stake, the temptation for shady deals is magnified. Until recently, Los Angeles allowed commissioners to solicit donations for the political bosses who appointed them, which was like an open invitation to corruption.

As for Hahn's claim that there's no pay-to-play politics, here's a question:

If the executives of private companies thought they could win contracts on merit and qualifications, how many of them would hire lobbyists and write six-figure checks to political causes?

True to form, Mayor Hahn didn't have much to say when questions about sleazy contract-awarding first popped up in February. In fact, he said he didn't understand all the fuss.

Then one day, an advisor apparently ducked into Hahn's bunker, interrupted his nap and managed to convince him the public generally frowns on corruption. And besides, he's up for reelection next year.

Next thing you knew, Hahn was skipping around City Hall as if he'd invented campaign finance reform.

His call for sweeping changes was so fabulously abrupt, city officials ran out of superlatives trying to describe his Lazarus-like awakening.

I told Hahn I once covered a Philadelphia mayor with a similar MO. Whatever crisis arose, he would underreact, underreact, underreact, and then suddenly overreact, making the situation worse.

Philly Mayor Wilson Goode's work reached its pinnacle when, in trying to serve an eviction notice on a family violating building and safety codes, he dropped a bomb from a helicopter, killing 11 people, destroying 61 homes and making up to 260 residents homeless.

Hahn, speaking in his own defense, reminded me he hadn't bombed anything yet.

Every time I talk to him, I come away with two impressions.

First, he's smart and funny.

Second, he is no more comfortable playing mayor than I would be dancing ballet.

It's particularly noticeable in a sprawling, stratified metropolis that cries out for a dynamic leader with a unifying notion of what Los Angeles can be.

Instead of bold imaginings, we get a mayoral task force that sits around for a year trying to figure out why L.A. has traffic problems. This week, the mayor appointed another "blue ribbon" panel to flap their gums about city contracting.


"He's the classic example of the guy who fell into the family business, and there he is," said Bill Boyarsky, the former Times' City Editor and columnist who's now on the L.A. Ethics Commission.

Boyarsky was referring to Hahn's late father, revered County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.

"The master local politician," Boyarsky called Jim's dad.

Well, you can't entirely dismiss Junior's political skills â€" calling up a critic and inviting him to a ballgame. He said he read that I was riding the bus after a bike accident and met a rabid Dodger fan, and he wants to take both of us to Chavez Ravine.

Sounds nice enough. Of course, it could be a shakedown.


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

See the article on Los Angeles Times website

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