For most big city mayors, the response to last week's train wreck would have been a no-brainer.

Stand in front of the cameras, express appropriate outrage, console victims and their families election or no election, get out there and show your face.

Not Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn. He kept his distance, and when he did finally arrive, his comments lacked the emotion displayed hours earlier by L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, who blasted the driver of the sports utility vehicle and gave the public its first glimpse of what caused the accident.

It's an apt metaphor for the "charisma-challenged" Hahn, who was expected to coast to a second term as mayor but now finds himself in an unexpectedly tight fight to keep his job.

Hahn's reserved nature has led to one of the most persistent criticisms levied by his foes that he's disengaged, lacks a grand vision and doesn't display a sense of passion that can motivate.

"He often gives the impression of being aloof," acknowledges Hahn supporter Julie Butcher, general manager of Service Employees International Union Local 347, which represents some 9,000 city employees.

The 54-year-old Hahn, scion of a beloved political family, can count two major accomplishments in his first term: bringing in a police chief and keeping the city together when threatened with secession. But his administration has been bogged down by ongoing federal and county investigations into the way the city has doled out contracts.

"The irony is that this is a guy most people thought had some of the highest integrity in politics. Others may be more charismatic or energetic, but he had that perception of honesty," said George Kieffer, former chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and Hahn's policy and economic adviser during the early days of his administration.

All four of his major challengers have pounded him on the theme of corruption at City Hall. A runoff is virtually assured, and if he loses it would mark the first time an incumbent L.A. mayor has been ousted since Sam Yorty lost to Tom Bradley 32 years ago.

For now, however, Hahn still remains the man to beat. He learned the art of politics at the side of his father, the ever-popular county supervisor from L.A.'s south side, Kenneth Hahn. And he's seemed particularly vigorous even feisty in recent weeks as the campaign has come alive.

The fact that he's won six straight citywide elections, more than any politician in recent history, is also part of the equation.

'Politically Savvy'

"Jim has always been a little more reserved and maybe even shy," said Janice Hahn, the mayor's sister and a city councilwoman from San Pedro. "He seemed to take after his mother, while people say I'm more like my dad in personality. But he's very politically savvy he got that from his father."

Still, this is a race for mayor, not chief of staff, and his opponents have been quick to pounce on Hahn's seeming detachment.

Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who ran against the mayor in 2001 and lost, said that in the fall of 2003, Hahn declined to join him in helping to settle a bus mechanics' strike that was snarling traffic throughout the region.

"He said, 'You go do it,'" Villaraigosa said. "I said back, 'You're the mayor. You should be the one out there.'"

Hahn bristles at such suggestions, saying he displayed leadership in changing the guard at the police department, in keeping the city together and in going up to Sacramento to prevent the state from taking more local dollars to balance its books.

His chief of staff, Tim McOsker, said Hahn will often take action behind the scenes. "What constantly surprises me is that he's less focused on getting credit and more focused on completing the project," McOsker said.

Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said this side of Hahn comes from his years in government.

"He understands that government is often a slow and painful process," Guerra said. "Because he knows the limitations of government, it works against having a grand vision or being charismatic. He knows you just can't wave a wand and get something done."

Many inside and outside City Hall say that Hahn can be charming, passionate and even funny.

"When he feels something really emotionally and passionately, he's really amazing," said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who has endorsed the mayor. "During his City Attorney days, he once came over to the City Council to seek extra funds for a domestic violence unit in his office. He gave one of the most impassioned speeches I've ever heard from any politician and that speech turned a skeptical council around."

Other longtime friends and colleagues say Hahn appears most at ease among small groups of people, especially in one-on-one situations. He often makes self-deprecating jokes and will chat up friends about the latest movies or sporting events he's attended.

"If only he would display these things more often and in front of more people," Butcher said.

Run for mayor

Hahn has spent nearly 30 years in public service. He joined the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office after a brief stint in private practice, then served a term as city controller before becoming city attorney for four terms. In 2001 he turned his attention to the mayor's office being vacated by a termed-out Richard Riordan.

Hahn barely survived the primary, placing second behind Villaraigosa and fending off a late surge from Republican businessman Steve Soboroff.

In the runoff, Villaraigosa's volunteers and major endorsements gave him the early momentum. Hahn, with his strongest support among blacks in South L.A., seemed to be losing steam until two weeks before the vote, when a devastating TV ad attacked Villaraigosa for seeking a presidential pardon for a convicted cocaine dealer. The ad pushed conservative voters in the San Fernando Valley into Hahn's camp, providing the winning margin.

Hahn was in office barely 10 weeks when he faced his first major test: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. All three hijacked planes that crashed in New York and Washington were bound for Los Angeles, and L.A. International Airport had been previously targeted in a terrorist plot. (The fourth plane, headed for San Francisco, crashed near Pittsburgh.)

Hahn, stranded in Washington because air traffic had been suspended, didn't get back to Los Angeles for three days to reassure a shaky citizenry. By that time, the city was reeling from the closure of the airport.

Unlike New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who repeatedly took to the airwaves to calm people, Hahn convened a panel to address the economic consequences. The move reflected his style of decision-making: seeking input in a methodical manner and then relying on staff to sort through the alternatives.

(Hahn later proposed a controversial $11 billion upgrade of Los Angeles International Airport, with security measures among the most expensive and objectionable aspects of the plan.)

The next major decision was the boldest one he's made to date. With reports of low morale and officers leaving in droves, Hahn chose not to renew the contract of Bernard Parks as police chief. The decision enraged many of his black supporters, some of whom still harbor resentment on the matter. A year later Parks handily won election to the City Council and is now one of Hahn's challengers.

Hahn contends he is remaking the L.A. Police Department and fulfilling a campaign pledge to make Los Angeles "the safest big city in America." He insists that once safety is assured, business investment will follow. He turned to New York for his model and chose the flamboyant former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton as his new police chief.

While Bratton can outshine the mayor at times, the rest of Hahn's staff and department appointments have been unassuming and low-key. Business leaders frequently complain that Hahn has never appointed a high-profile personality to be his economic development czar.

"His staff has not really lit anybody on fire," said one advocate with frequent City Hall dealings.

Nonetheless, Hahn has relied on his staff more than Riordan, who made use of a cadre of outside advisors. Some say it's the staff particularly McOsker that runs the administration, with Hahn rarely intervening. McOsker says Hahn consults with an inner circle, as well as a variety of outside advisers depending on the issue.

Budget fight

Style points aside, Hahn faced the very tangible impact from ballooning state budget deficits. Los Angeles lost $150 million in property taxes to Sacramento in 2002, a figure that jumped to $175 million in both 2003 and 2004.

The state budget fiasco prompted Hahn's first confrontation with the City Council. He had proposed hiking trash collection fees to raise revenues for the hiring of 300 police officers. But the City Council, led by council president Alex Padilla, rejected his request, saying it was not fiscally prudent.

"Hahn's relationship with the council has been a bit rockier than expected," Miscikowski said.

While the dust was still settling from those challenges, Hahn's administration was caught off-guard by a secession measure in the San Fernando Valley that made the 2002 ballot and for a brief time was showing surprisingly high support in the polls.

Hahn jumped into the anti-secession battle, leading a furious scramble to raise funds and convince voters to keep the city together. "He was on a mission," Kieffer said of Hahn. "It was a total focus."

Pay-to-play scandal

The campaign was effective but bitter, leaving the Valley split and endangering the support that propelled Hahn in 2001.

It also carried another steep price. To raise funds quickly, his lieutenants went to the easiest targets they could find: contractors seeking to do business with the city. Allegations would later emerge about then-deputy mayor Troy Edwards and then-Airport Commissioner Ted Stein pressuring contractors to give to the anti-secession effort or find themselves blackballed. Other allegations surfaced of contributors receiving favorable treatment in the awarding of contracts.

Those stories became the seeds for what City Controller Laura Chick concluded was a pattern of "pay-to-play" practices. In late 2003, Chick turned over her audit findings to county and federal investigators, who are still conducting multiple probes.

While nothing has been proven, news of the inquiries transformed the climate at City Hall. Suddenly, the one aspect of Hahn's character that seemed unassailable his reputation for honesty was at risk.

Once the story broke, Hahn was slow to respond. He vigorously defended Edwards and Stein for months, even when both were summoned to give grand jury testimony.

"He has a very high sense of loyalty," Miscikowski said. "But here, there was a question of where to draw the line between loyalty and maintaining a high ethical standard."

Another supporter put it more bluntly: "I admire him tremendously for this old-fashioned sense of loyalty, but if he has a fault, it's keeping loyal friends around too long."

It wasn't until April of 2004, six months after the pay-to-play inquiries broke, that Hahn finally asked for the resignations of Edwards and Stein.

Meanwhile, allegations surfaced that public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard was systematically overbilling the L.A. Department of Water & Power. The allegations were especially biting because Fleishman's top L.A. executive, Doug Dowie, had been a contributor to Hahn's campaigns, and it was apparent that a revolving door existed between Hahn's staff and the P.R. firm.

Family troubles

On the home front, his wife, Monica, who was never comfortable in the public eye, separated from Hahn, leaving him to care for his two children. While the very private mayor was loath to let the separation become a public event, the strain was obvious to some.

"There were days when he just wasn't all there, while on other days he was very moody," said one longtime friend and advisor. "It was very painful to watch."

The breakup forced Hahn to spend more time at home with his children in San Pedro and less at various events. "He found himself a single dad whose kids live with him. It's a lot to deal with when you have a normal job, let alone being mayor of a major city," Janice Hahn said.

One casualty of the new schedule: his cherished tradition of carpooling to work with McOsker.

"There just isn't time anymore," McOsker said. "I miss those commutes together: I learned so much about the city from him on those rides."

While his challengers are trying to turn the race into a referendum on Hahn, the mayor himself is trying to make the race a referendum on a far more popular figure: Police Chief Bratton. In his campaign speeches and responses, he often mentions Bratton or the "successful war on crime."

Whether Hahn is successful may depend on how the pay-to-pay probe plays out. Earlier this month, the first set of indictments was handed down in the contracting scandals, against former Fleishman executive John Stodder. Other indictments handed down in the midst of the primary or runoff could further puncture Hahn's image and give even more ammunition to his challengers.

"It's troublesome to him that this is overshadowing everything he has been trying to accomplish," Janice Hahn said.

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