LOS ANGELES – In the nation's capital of celebrity, Mayor James Hahn (search) is not exactly part of the People magazine set. He is shy. Dry. And sometimes — his campaign consultant admits with a gulp — boring.
As Hahn asks voters for a return trip to City Hall this year, prosecutors are investigating whether his administration traded contracts for campaign donations. But the Democrat faces a challenge just reminding voters of who he is, what he has done and why they should care.
To some, he is the invisible mayor.
"You don't hear much about him or from him. I don't know what he's doing," said Lindsey Nutter, 24, a Texas transplant who manages the rock band Coheed and Cambria.
The March 8 primary election comes with the city at a crossroads. Hahn is taking credit for a sharply falling crime rate and boasting about the revitalization in Hollywood and his planned $11 billion renovation of Los Angeles International Airport (search). But Los Angeles also struggles with gridlock, homelessness, smog, a shortage of affordable housing, and a City Hall that some say is inhospitable to business.
Some observers contend the ethnically diverse city of 3.7 million lacks a grand blueprint for the 21st century. New York City transformed Times Square (search). Baltimore turned its Inner Harbor into a tourist magnet. What about Los Angeles?
"Is it a bridge to the East? Are we going to be the creative capital of the world? The smog capital?" asked Tracy Westen of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan research group in Los Angeles. "People need to have an image of where they are going. We don't have that."
Hahn defends his integrity in the face of ethics allegations involving his administration, and the 54-year-old career politician scoffs at the notion that running City Hall takes a showman. He says those who claim he has no vision are not paying attention.
"I want to make Los Angeles the safest big city in America," Hahn said, predicting that safer streets will attract jobs and investment — the bedrock of greatness for any city.
Hahn has four major challengers in the nonpartisan election, all Democrats. They include the man he beat in a runoff in 2001, Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who could become the city's first Hispanic mayor since 1872.
The mayor has lined up important labor support and leads in fund-raising, tapping unions, developers and entertainment industry executives.
But Hahn may have trouble holding together the coalition of voters that put him in office four years ago — blacks in South Los Angeles and conservative-leaning residents in the suburban San Fernando Valley.
The mayor's opposition to a failed secession movement in the Valley is likely to cost him votes in that section of the city, where two other candidates are based, former state Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg and state Sen. Richard Alarcon.
Hahn's support among minorities is threatened by another rival for mayor, Councilman Bernard Parks, a black man who was ousted as Los Angeles police chief with Hahn's blessing — a move that angered black leaders. Hahn refused to endorse Parks for a second term after crime increased and morale dropped in the department.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors are looking into the awarding of contracts by the water and power, airport and harbor departments. And the district attorney is looking into whether city contracts were tied to political contributions. One prominent lawyer has been charged with asking associates to donate to Hahn four years ago, then reimbursing them.
Hahn has denied any knowledge of wrongdoing in his administration.
Hahn's late father, Kenneth Hahn, was a revered political figure who bridged racial divides as a Los Angeles County supervisor and was known for his Irish charm. His son inherited the name — in fact, he is listed on the ballot as James Kenneth Hahn — but little of his father's personality.
The job has never had the visibility — or power — of mayors in cities like Chicago or New York. Moreover, the media tend to showcase crime and entertainment news rather than City Hall.
But Hahn's advisers suggest that his stiffness can be an asset in this era of blow-dried politicians.
"Would people rather have someone who gets results or TV time?" campaign consultant Kam Kuwata asked.