Inside the Mayor’s Inner Circle
Group of Loyal Followers Helps
By HOWARD FINE and MICHAEL STREMFEL
Five months after James Hahn took office, a small group of behind-the-scenes players outside elected circles is shaping the mayor’s policies and helping chart the course of the nation’s second largest city.
Led by corporate attorney George Kieffer and political strategist William Wardlaw, the group boasts substantial experience in government and an intense loyalty to Hahn as demonstrated during last spring’s long and bruising campaign.
Besides Kieffer and Wardlaw, others in the inner circle include real estate developer Rick Caruso, attorney and developer Ted Stein, business executive Ken Lombard and labor leader Julie Butcher.
“You will see the imprint of these advisors on each of the four major issues looming throughout Hahn’s first term,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
Guerra cited the economy, Los Angeles International Airport, San Fernando Valley secession and the Los Angeles Police Department.
As a group, the six are distinctly different than Hahn’s paid staff members, a few of whom also are gaining in power and influence. Members of the kitchen cabinet are not dependent on Hahn or the city for their livelihoods. not dependent on Hahn or the city for their livelihoods. Several serve on city commissions, but their power extends beyond their official capacities. While he does seek advice from his inner circle, Hahn primarily uses them to carry out some of his most important tasks.
Unlike former Mayor Richard Riordan, who tended to draw upon his friends in the business world, Hahn’s lieutenants are facile in local government. This in large part reflects the two opposing philosophies of the two men.
Riordan, the outsider, often saw government as the problem. Hahn, who has spent most of his career as an elected official, believes in the power of government to solve problems. So his first instinct has been to turn to those who have been in government themselves.
Big-city power structure
“Hahn represents a return to the more traditional political big-city mayor power structure,” said Raphe Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University Fullerton who served as executive director of the city’s Appointed Charter Reform Commission.
One component of that approach is a heavier reliance on staff. Timothy McOsker, Hahn’s chief of staff, wields as much power, if not more, than the informal advisors. He even commutes with Hahn to City Hall every day from their respective homes in San Pedro.
“Hahn and Tim have a very strong bond,” Wardlaw said.
Hahn also relies heavily on two other top staff members, Matt Middlebrook and Troy Edwards. That’s a contrast with Riordan, who often went around his paid staff to seek counsel from outside advisors such as Eli Broad.
Hahn also has close relationships with city councilmembers, notably Council President Alex Padilla and Councilwoman Janice Hahn, his sister. He consults with both of them regularly on a broad range of issues, including secession and neighborhood councils.
But outside his staff, he typically calls on his cadre of advisors, most notably Kieffer and Wardlaw.
Hahn officials bristle at the idea that the mayor turns to such a small group for advice, though Hahn himself declined to be interviewed for this story (and, unlike Riordan, has scrupulously avoided media scrutiny that goes beyond tightly controlled public appearances).
“The mayor has been in public life for 20 years and confers with hundreds of people on all types of city issues,” said Middlebrook. “Any effort to characterize his advisors as some sort of small intimate group would be inaccurate.”
Such a testy response is not surprising. Those who have worked with Hahn over the years say he is reluctant to show that he might play favorites.
“I would be very surprised if Hahn were to admit that he has a tight group of close advisors,” said one City Hall lobbyist. “Remember, this is a man who goes to great lengths to show that he is inclusive as he tries to build consensus.”
Nonetheless, the role of the kitchen cabinet has become clearer in recent weeks. Last month, Hahn turned to Wardlaw to lead the campaign against secession. In October, he turned to Kieffer to get a handle on the local economic fallout of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Kieffer-led task force came up with what is essentially a blueprint for short- and long-term economic policy.
Kieffer encouraged Hahn
Kieffer, a partner at the Westside law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips who also is vice chairman of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, has been friends with Hahn almost since the day the mayor first became City Attorney in 1985. He ran Hahn’s 1997 campaign for City Attorney ironically against another current Hahn power broker, Ted Stein. Then as chairman of the Appointed Charter Reform Commission, he worked closely with Hahn in crafting the city charter.
At the same time, Kieffer encouraged Hahn to run for mayor. When Hahn formally announced in 1999, he named Kieffer as his policy chairman.
Since the election, Kieffer has been Hahn’s closest business advisor. But his advice extends beyond business; he has helped shape the mayor’s education policy and gives occasional counsel on transportation, neighborhood councils and technical questions on the city charter.
“The mayor talks to so many people that almost any list would be incomplete,” said Kieffer. “He consults who he wants to consult when he wants to consult them.”
While Kieffer has helped steer Hahn through policy shoals, Wardlaw, a partner in the investment firm Freeman Spogli & Co., has guided Hahn politically. Unlike Kieffer, Wardlaw is a recent convert. Five years ago, while acting as advisor to Riordan, Wardlaw chaired Stein’s campaign for city attorney against Hahn.
It was only after Wardlaw concluded that Riordan’s chosen successor, Steve Soboroff, would not be a suitable mayor that he broke with Riordan and joined the campaign of his former opponent. Wardlaw, along with consultant Bill Carrick and campaign co-chair Kam Kuwata, formed the political triangle that engineered Hahn’s mayoral victory.
Some suggest that Wardlaw’s role will be more narrowly defined than it was under Riordan, where many regarded his political power as equal to that of the mayor. Wardlaw himself acknowledges the lesser role. “Hahn’s political judgment is about as good as anybody’s around,” Wardlaw said. “The need for him to go outside for political advice is not as necessary as it was for Riordan.”
Nonetheless, when Hahn decided that it was time to launch an anti-secession campaign, he turned to the same players who brought him into office, especially Wardlaw.
Hahn’s kitchen cabinet includes other players with a long history in city government: Caruso and Stein, for example, each served on commissions in both the Bradley and Riordan administrations.
Caruso said he meets with Hahn at least once a week, mostly on LAPD matters like the just-approved 3-12 workweek policy. But as a prominent developer, he also has consulted with Hahn on land use, planning and permitting matters.
Ken Lombard carries out Hahn’s policies as president of the L.A. Department of Water & Power Board of Commissioners. But he also serves as one of Hahn’s important liaisons to the African-American community, which overwhelmingly supported Hahn for mayor.
The kitchen cabinet extends beyond the business world, taking in local union leaders like Julie Butcher who represents 9,000 city employees as general manager of Service Employees International Union, Local 347 and William Luddy, political director of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.
Both unions supported Hahn during the campaign, helping to neutralize other labor support for opponent Antonio Villaraigosa. While Hahn is close with both union leaders, Butcher has the more prominent role by virtue of the daily contact Hahn has with city workers. Also, Butcher has campaigned vigorously against secession.