'Nice guy' may miss cut in L.A.

Mayor Hahn's best hope for reelection was to be seen as bland yet steady, but scandals and attack have taken a toll.

As evidenced by California's world-famous recall election for governor in 2003, voters here can be more than a little unkind to the politically dull.

Former Gov. Gray Davis was dispatched into the political twilight as much for his daft demeanor behind the dais as his bumbling lack of governing skills.

Now, in southern California, where image carries even more weight than substance, a repeat recall of sorts could be in the offing. The political crime of crimes? The milquetoast manner of current Mayor James Hahn.

Until just recently, it looked as if Mr. Hahn's public persona as a "soporific, risk-averse personality" (in the words of one of the state's leading political columnists) would provide him just enough benign notice to slide through to a March 8 reelection.

But today, embroiled in scandal and investigation, and with four political veterans hammering away at his shortcomings, "nice guy" Hahn appears headed for a dead end.

"Because Hahn was such a noncharismatic, almost invisible mayor, he didn't make much bond with the electorate in his first term," says political analyst Allan Hoffenbloom. The mayoral election is Tuesday, but unless one candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote the top two vote- getters will advance to a May 17 runoff.

"The scandals and investigations which might not have hurt a stronger leader have brought in four heavy-hitting candidates who have chiseled away [Hahn's] early leads. There is serious speculation now that Hahn may not even make the runoff," adds Mr. Hoffenbloom. His analysis comes on the heels of a Los Angeles Times poll last week showing Hahn in third place. Ahead of him in first place is Antonio Villaraigosa (with 24 percent), whom he narrowly defeated four years ago. Mr. Villaraigosa would make US history as the first Latino to lead the country's second-largest city in more than 100 years.

Second place (with 21 percent) is Robert Hertzberg, a former state Assembly speaker and pro-business Democrat from the San Fernando Valley. Hahn was third in the poll with 20 percent, enough to keep him in serious contention.

Mr. Hertzberg, who represented the San Fernando Valley in the state Assembly for six years, has been able to eat away at Hahn's crucial voting strength in the area's primarily white, affluent neighborhoods. He has made a late surge with a successful ad campaign positing himself as a larger-than-life figure who would do all the right things in bettering education, unclogging traffic, and increasing police.

At the same time, a fourth candidate has been whittling away at Hahn's former strength in African-American neighborhoods. City Councilman Bernard Parks - the African-American police chief that Hahn removed - has won the backing of crucial African-American ministers who had backed Hahn in the previous election.

"The coalition that got Hahn into office last time is being at least partially co-opted by opponents that may not have entered the race at all if it weren't for Hahn's own ethical stumbles," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

Political analysts say the key issues in voters' minds are education, crime, traffic, and integrity and leadership - the final category being Hahn's most vulnerable. A so-called "pay-to-play" scandal is being investigated in which companies which made political contributions to Hahn's election efforts are said to have been rewarded with key contracts for city business.

Yet Hahn's problems are far from insurmountable. Poll margin of error technically keeps him in a statistical tie with Villaraigosa and Hertzberg, and 19 percent of voters have said they are undecided, according to the LA Times.

An explosive ad campaign launched in the final five days of the campaign may help push them one way or the other.

Hahn has accused Villaraigosa and Hertzberg of working with Enron and accepting thousands in contributions while in Sacramento during the state's utility crisis. He has also lashed out at them for once writing letters to President Clinton to get a convicted crack dealer pardoned. Both challengers have expressed regret for sending the letters.

"Hahn went negative in the final days of his mayoral campaign against Villaraigosa four years ago," says Pitney. "It seemed to work then and it might have a chance now."

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