50 Years After the Watts Rebellion
By Danny Simon, RLn Contributor
Few family names in Los Angeles politics evoke a tradition of public service like Hahn. Kenneth’s older brother, Gordon, represented the 66th District of the California State Assembly from 1947 to 1953, after which he filled Kenneth Hahn’s vacant seat on the city council until 1963. Kenneth was a Democrat, while Gordon was a Republican, but the politics of both brothers, and the family in general, echo the idealism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though plainly infused with more plebeian sensibilities.
Kenneth’s lasting popularity can be explained by his diligent awareness of the wants and needs of his community and his diligent attempts to bring them to fruition.
The national Civil Rights Movement inspired a generation of black politicos to fight social and political inequality, and many cut their teeth on John F. Kennedy’s California campaign for the presidency in 1959. Hahn worked both openly and behind the scenes to help empower black politicians and to help their constituents achieve racial representation on the Los Angeles City Council. On Kenneth’s advice, Gordon stepped aside to make way for Billy G. Mills. He served, along with Tom Bradley and Gilbert Lindsay, as part of a movement of black political leadership that arose to challenge the white domination of Los Angeles politics in the early 1960s.
President Lyndon B. Johnson fought a “War on Poverty” for a “Great Society” and the Civil Right’s Movement marched on, but for many black youth of South Los Angeles, progress was too slow and hard to see. Violence broke out on Aug. 11, 1965, after a crowd witnessed what had seemingly become routine police brutality via the humiliation of members of the black community. The National Guard poured into the area, followed by state and federal funds. California Gov. Pat Brown (Gov. Jerry Brown’s father) swiftly assembled an investigatory committee headed by John A. McCone, a wealthy California scion and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Among the committee’s varied findings was the need for a full-service hospital for the people of South Los Angeles, though that idea originated with local black physicians like Dr. Wells Ford and Dr. Sol White Jr. In tight collaboration with black political leaders like Mervyn Dymally, Hahn began a long process which eventually led to the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital and the Charles R. Drew School of Medicine and Science (King/Drew) in Willowbrook. Shuttered mid-scandal in 2007, King Hospital reopened in 2015.
A generation later, Kenneth Hahn’s children, James and Janice, have enjoyed remarkable ascensions of their own. James Hahn served as city controller and city attorney before serving as mayor of Los Angeles from 2001 to 2005. He now presides as a judge on the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench in Santa Monica. Janice Hahn represented the 15th District of the Los Angeles City Council from 2001 to 2011, after which she’s represented the 36th and 44th districts in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Rep. Janice Hahn took a break from her busy schedule in Washington D.C. to speak about the politics of her father, her experience in the House and her campaign for the 4th District of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Danny Simon:How do you account for your father’s progressive politics?
Janice Hahn: My dad was born into a family with a single mom who raised seven boys in poverty in South Los Angeles. He lived and died no more than two miles from where he was born. He grew up in poverty and I think he never lost touch with that. I know that the first suit he ever owned was when he joined the Navy, and I think the first steak he ever ate was in the Navy. I think he never lost touch with his roots and his poverty, and he had a keen way of relating to the people he represented. He was one of them and I think they knew that, so I think his politics were about how he would’ve liked to have seen politicians in the ’30s and ’40s make policies that would’ve helped his family.
DS:Do you think that came out of a sense of FDR Progressivism that was bipartisan?
JH: Yes, I think that in those days there was a sense that government did have a role to play in people’s lives, both positive and helpful in terms of reaching out to the poor and trying to make more opportunities available. We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Social Security. Two great programs that have kept many people out of poverty.
DS:So there’s a bit of a paradox in that after Johnson got past all the Great Society legislation, then comes the violence of August 1965. Do you think your dad understood the anger in the black community? Could he empathize or was he offended by it?
JH: As I recall it—I was 13 at the time—I remember the Watts Riots very well. I think his first reaction was a bit of disbelief, a little bit of sadness that then quickly turned to resolve. My father was very interested in helping to rebuild the community. He was very interested in seeing what the McCone Commission recommendations were and what he could do to implement some of them. Of course, one recommendation was that the black community needed a full-service hospital, and one of my dad’s greatest legacies was [that] they built a hospital in Watts.
DS:How do you think he’d respond to King Hospital reopening in such a scaled-back manner?
JH: I think that if he’d been still alive, we’d never have lost the first hospital. He took such a keen interest in that hospital. I remember so many times that we would drop by the hospital and he would go in unannounced, he would walk the halls and talk to doctors, talk to patients. I think he had a much better sense of what was going on in that hospital and I’m not sure that he would’ve allowed it to meet its demise like it did. He would be happy that there is some sort of healthcare available to that community. But like me, I’m sure he would not have been fully satisfied until there was a level-one trauma center again. It had a first-rate trauma center and I think people probably lost their lives because that trauma center was closed.
DS:How do you explain your dad’s lasting popularity amid a massive demographic shift?
JH: I think Kenny Hahn is synonymous with public service and with faithfully representing his constituents. He set an incredibly high bar for all politicians, like, if you take care of little things, the big things will take care of themselves. He was famous for filling potholes, for building swimming pools, for putting in stop signs, for knowing the pastor of every church. I was sitting on a plane next to a woman who said, “We always felt like your father had our backs.” His constituents knew that Kenny Hahn had their back and that no matter what happened, he’d be on their side because he was always on the side of the people. Not many politicians have that reputation. I think there’s still a sense that people have to fight city hall to get their concerns addressed. I don’t think he ever gave the impression that people had to fight county government to get something. He worked day and night to bend county government to work for the people. And that has really lasted and they remember his legacy for having built a hospital and assembling a paramedics program, to put call boxes on the freeway, to bring the Dodgers to LA. He was one of those people’s politicians that would see a problem and figure out how to solve it and people appreciate that.
DS:What have you learned both politically and personally while serving in the House of Representatives?
JH: I think what I’ve learned is that even if you have a passion or idealism to accomplish things or change the world, in Washington D.C. it’s very difficult…There’s almost zero cooperation between both parties. The deck is stacked against whomever is in the minority, the committees are stacked against them, the rules are stacked against them. Its very difficult no matter how hard you try to form a relationship to work across the aisle. It just doesn’t bode well for a divided government. There’s no real incentive for the party in the majority to work with the party in the minority. A few times when the Tea Party revolted against the speaker, the Democrats have come into play because Speaker [John] Boehner needed our votes to pass something, and then we were able to force some compromises and get some of our ideas onto a bill. I’ve learned that I’m not politically wired for partisan politics; I enjoy and I’m more suited to nonpartisan politics; I enjoy building consensus; I enjoy bringing different people to the table; I enjoy identifying a problem and identifying a solution; I enjoy that kind of politics and I think my skills are better suited for local politics. I learned that it’s a team sport back in Washington D.C., us versus them, and both sides try to move the football down the field and try to score some points. It’s not something I’ve found enjoyable. I’m not as well-suited for partisan politics as I thought I was.
DS:But you have cultivated some relationships across the aisles?
JH: One of my biggest accomplishments in Congress was my bipartisan port caucus; that was the first time in the history of the United States Congress that anyone decided to gather people together around the subject of our nation’s ports. I started it; I co-chaired it and it had about 100 members of Congress whom I educated about why ports matter in this country. Because of those relationships, I’ve brought some of them to LA and Long Beach to look at our ports, and I’ve traveled with them to look at their ports, and as a result, I believe for the first time we’re able to bring more money back to our ports than ever before. When I look back, that will be my greatest accomplishment [in Congress] and that was done in a bipartisan way.
DS:How will you campaign for the 4th District seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (currently served by Don Knabe)?
JH: This race is neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community, almost block by block. It’s about really understanding the needs of the different communities and seeing how county government can step in and play a role to solve problems. Or, I’m sure there are many communities that won’t want county government to play any role. That’s what I’m good at, because of my father, who was good at listening and talking to people about where they’re at and seeing their frustrations, or maybe, their disappointment with county government, and seeing if there’s something I can do to fix it…. If elected, I will be the third female on the county board, making it a female majority, the first time in its history. I kind of joke, “this is not my dad’s board of five men that ruled the county for a very long time.”
DS: Your dad’s board could be extremely divisive over issues like the creation of King Hospital. How do you feel things have changed?
JH: My dad was many times on the end of a losing vote, 4-1. He finally went to the voters to build that hospital (Hahn lost that vote by a razor- sharp margin of .3 percent, but eventually forged a compromise with Mayor Sam Yorty). I feel that this is a board on which we will find many opportunities to build consensus. I know Mark Ridley-Thomas very well. I know Hilda Solis, who was also a member of Congress and who served as secretary of labor under President [Barack] Obama. I know Sheila Kuehl, I talk to her a lot; Sheila and Hilda have endorsed me. I feel like this is a board that will be very workable, and I’m proud of the work they’re doing right now with their progressive agenda.
DS: Do you have any projects you’d like to see accomplished in the next decade by the Board of Supervisors?
JH: I get asked that question a lot, and at this time, I don’t know. I’m sure when my dad first took office in 1952, he never dreamed he would be building a hospital or bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles or putting call boxes on the freeway or starting the paramedics program. Those probably weren’t visions or dreams of his, and by the way, they probably happened like during year 15 or 20 of his tenure on the board. Now, of course, we have term limits and there are only 12 years that you’re allowed to serve. I think I’ll take it one step at a time and look for opportunities to serve the residents of the 4th District in a way that would make my dad proud.
DS:Why do you want this job?
JH: I grew up in the home of a county supervisor. I was a baby when my dad was elected, so I watched the way that my dad did the job for 40 years. I watched him solve problems for constituents, from filling the potholes to building the hospital…. It was certainly imprinted on my soul and my heart and my brain that this was a noble profession and a good opportunity for me to serve my Los Angeles County. I was born and raised in Los Angeles County; it’s my home and I know that I can deliver results for the 4th District. I look forward to that job, I look forward to that work. I think everything I’ve done so far has prepared me and led me to this moment in time and I’m gonna embrace it.Read More