Is It Safe?

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch famously used to greet fellow citizens with an enthusiastic handshake, shouting out, "How’m I doing?"

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, now into his third year in office and facing what is shaping up as a tough re-election bid, is not that kind of pol. He is friendly enough, but otherwise aloof and detached. When I’ve seen him at events, banquets and the like, he seems to prefer going only lightly noticed, a strange trait for the mayor of the second-largest city in the most populous state of the most powerful country on earth. Los Angeles, City of the Stars, has a mayor who shrugs off the spotlight.

Starting this week, it seems, he will have even more reason for discomfort. All week, rumors swirled that former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg will announce his candidacy for the mayor’s office. I called Hertzberg on Wednesday as we were going to press, and asked if the rumors were true. He said he’s making no announcements until next week, probably Wednesday.

Charismatic and well-known in Westside political circles and in the San Fernando Valley, Hertzberg, a Democrat, has been an adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. If Hertzberg runs and the popular Republican governor stumps for him, swing voters will start swinging and the free publicity will help neutralize Hahn’s considerable campaign war chest. City Councilman Bernard Parks — the former chief of police, whose ouster Hahn publicly sought — is also in the race, and is expected to siphon votes out of Hahn’s black base. State Sen. Richard Alarcón (D-Van Nuys) will cut into Latino support. The brutal competition could chew up the coalition of black and Valley suburbanite voters who put Hahn in office.

"Conventional wisdom says multiple candidates will split the anti-Hahn vote, ensuring at least a runoff," Sherry Bebitch Jaffe wrote in The Los Angeles Times. "But if Hahn’s base is nibbled away, he could find himself below the top two finishers."

What’s worse, the ballot is filling up as charges of untoward ethical practices over at the Airport Commission and the defection of top aides becloud the mayor’s administration and create the appearance, if not of impropriety, then certainly of fecklessness.

So it was no surprise when Hahn’s office called me to set up a private breakfast meeting with the mayor.

"That’s smart," a caustic observer of the downtown scene told me when I mentioned My Breakfast With Jim. "He needs friends."

We met a couple of weeks ago in a corner booth at the Denny’s on Sunset Boulevard near the 101.

Hahn takes hits — such as those I just leveled — for not being a more potent presence as mayor. But it seems that Hahn has done at least two muy macho things in his first term. He stood up to Valley secession. True, he could have opposed the movement more quickly and boldly — and if it succeeded, it’s not as if its supporters would be able to vote for him anyway — but the move alienated many of the white Valleyites who helped elect him.

He also came out against a second term for then-Police Chief Bernard Parks, working to insert William Bratton as the top cop. His popularity among his crucial black supporters plummeted after that.

"I knew going in this would not sit well with the political base that had supported me throughout my political career," he told me, "but on the other hand I realized I had gotten to this place where I was the chief executive officer of the city, and I had to do what needed to be done. People elected me to make tough decisions, and it was clear to me that we had to make a change of direction, and we had to make it no matter what the cost to me, or we risked having a police department continue to slide and shrink and continue to see crime go up."

Hahn is clearly proud of Bratton’s accomplishments, reducing the homicide rate 20 percent in the past year and adding 400 officers to the LAPD.

In fact, if Hahn were looking for his own Koch-like catchphrase, he might want to co-opt Lawrence Olivier’s question to Dustin Hoffman in "Marathon Man": "Is it safe?"

As we spoke, it became clear that his re-election campaign will present Hahn as the answer to that question, that security is job one for the mayor.

"We’re a lot safer than we were prior to Sept. 11," he said.

He pointed to coordinated security exercises and the purchase of Raytheon equipment that allows emergency responders to communicate with each other effectively in the field as examples of his work toward preparedness. He said he’d like to see the Bush administration carry through on its promise to send federal money for such measures to Los Angeles. Every time the Department of Homeland Security declares an orange alert, the city bleeds an extra $500,000 per day in preparedness expenses.

"Our airport has stayed at yellow-orange," Hahn said. "Thirty-five percent of all container cargo in America comes in through the Port of Los Angeles, and port security is way behind airports. We’re in a war against terrorism. This isn’t a public works project, it isn’t a pork barrel project, we should be trying to protect [ourselves from] the greatest threat."

The city has only received a fraction of the $12.4 million made available to it as part of the Urban Area Security Initiative.

"We’ve received $3 million in actual checks. We’re still almost getting as much as Houston," Hahn said, archly. "We don’t have leverage, we’re just trying to make our case."

The redesign of Los Angeles International Airport is another area that Hahn sees, or at least is selling, as primarily a security concern. The costly and controversial plans for expansion are, he said, a matter of urgent public safety.

"There’s a lot of people who are in the mindset of you can’t make it 100 percent safe, so why try to redesign the whole thing?" he said. "I’m trying to assess what the biggest threat is, and to my mind it’s the vehicle bomb. And we’re trying to design something that protects the central terminal area where all the gates are, which means taking private vehicles out."

Hahn said he would back any federal initiative that would make extra funds available for high-probability terror targets such as synagogues and Jewish institutions.

"I would be very supportive of that," he said.

As for what Bratton has called "domestic terrorism," the violence that wracks many neighborhoods in the city, Hahn said he wants to see the murder rate reduced even more. He supports peeling officers off other details to place them in areas of high gang activity, and he supports Sheriff Lee Baca’s proposal for a 1/2 cent sales tax increase on the November ballot that will fund (by some estimates) an additional 1,200 LAPD officers.

Hahn took office in the midst of fiscal crisis at every level of government, but decided that the conventional wisdom, which blames crime on poverty and a poor economy, is wrong.

"It’s exactly the opposite," he said. "Bratton proved this to me. New York’s economy was in shambles, but they concentrated on making the city safer. As they made the city safer, the economy improved. People wanted to invest, they wanted to come in to New York City."

The mayor has worked to increase affordable housing and for other economic gains, but his primary focus, he said, "is freedom from fear. If we can actually achieve that in neighborhoods that have been terrorized by fear, that’s better than a new library or park or swimming pool. I would like to get as far as we can toward that goal of making neighborhoods in this city that have been plagued by crime for years free from that. We make the city safer and other things start happening, but first things first."

The mayor’s critics fault him for not bringing back more money from Washington for homeland security funding; for not being more outspoken on issues ranging from the grocery workers strike to public transportation to education. The mayor’s actual power in these areas varies, but, say his critics, Hahn is not taking advantage of the bully pulpit his office offers.

"Public safety is really important," said one such critic, L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss. "It’s the most important function of local government, but the other part of the job ought to be vision and imagination and energy."

Whether Angelenos want a war mayor to match our self-described war president is an open question. But Hahn is clearly betting that hunkering down and focusing on crime and security is the way to keep the city — and his job — safe.