Dueling legacies in the race to replace Don Knabe on Board of Supervisors

The political betting had U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn easily winning a Los Angeles County supervisor seat and taking her place on the dais where her legendary father, Kenneth Hahn, wielded power for decades.

But Hahn fell short of the majority needed to win outright in June’s primary, with 47% of the vote to rival Steve Napolitano’s 37%. Now, she is facing a tough fight in November — one that will determine just how far leftward the Board of Supervisors will tilt in the coming years.

The election also marks a potential milestone for the Hahn political dynasty. Her brother, James, is a former mayor of Los Angeles. She’s a Democrat from San Pedro with an impressive political resume that includes a stint on the Los Angeles City Council.

Napolitano, an attorney and former Manhattan Beach councilman who has worked for Knabe for 12 years, has less name recognition but has his boss’ backing and substantial financial resources of his own. 

Each campaign has raised about $1.7 million for the primary and runoff. In Napolitano’s case, that included almost $1.4 million of his own money. Hahn, meanwhile, has drawn heavy support from labor groups and may have run afoul of county campaign finance rules as a result.

If elected, Hahn would be the fourth labor-backed liberal on the officially nonpartisan five-member board — constituting a supermajority that could assure passage of certain tax and salary matters. Knabe and Michael D. Antonovich — the two Republicans on the board — are being forced out by term limits.

Hahn said voters have a choice between “same old, same old with Steve Napolitano or something different.”

“I will really take an interest in those who are most vulnerable in the county,” Hahn said. ““I think being a woman, being a mother, being a grandmother, my focus will really be on the children, the seniors, those who really need the help of Los Angeles County.”

Napolitano, for his part, touted the more than a decade he has worked for the county and his understanding of local issues.

“I can hit the ground running on day one,” he said. “The county’s just a different animal when it comes to government. Each of our communities has different needs.”

The candidates are not far apart on most issues, but some differences exist. The new board members are likely to have to decide whether to place a sales tax measure on the March ballot to fund homeless services. In interviews, Hahn said she supports putting the question to voters, while Napolitano did not rule it out but was more circumspect.

Some of Napolitano’s supporters said they would be happy with a continuation of Knabe’s policies.

“You need a mix of people on the supervisors so that certain agendas don’t just get pushed through,” said Tony Palermo, who owns Tony P’s Dockside Grill in Marina del Rey. Palermo said Knabe — and Napolitano — had been responsive to the needs of small businesses. “I think Steve’s a really good balance for the Board of Supervisors, and they need balance.”

But party affiliation is likely to give Hahn an advantage in the district, where registered Democrats now substantially outnumber Republicans.

“If everyone votes, it will be very hard for Hahn to lose,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “It might be a nonpartisan race on the ballot, but the endorsements and the mail and the slates are going to make [party affiliation] very clear.”

The memory of Hahn’s father also looms large. The former supervisor was known widely for his role in bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles, for getting a hospital built in Willowbrook in the wake of the Watts riots and for his embrace of Martin Luther King Jr. at a time when many white politicians shunned the civil rights leader.

“I admired him greatly,” said former Supervisor Yvonne Burke, who succeeded Kenneth Hahn, becoming the first African American on the Board of Supervisors.  “I can’t thank him enough for the help he gave to me, and I know that Janice will continue in his footsteps.”

Diane Middleton, a retired attorney and longtime San Pedro resident who ran against Hahn in 1993 in a Los Angeles City Council race in which both lost, said she was initially skeptical, thinking that Hahn was simply trading on her family lineage.

“My impression was that she was very sincere and obviously had the political background you would expect from Kenneth Hahn’s daughter, but had never run for office and was kind of feeling her way,” Middleton said. “I’ve seen her mature over the years, and I’ve seen her positions take shape. … She’s earned my respect.”

Now Middleton said she backs Hahn, largely because of her support of both labor groups and environmental rules at the Port of Los Angeles.

Knabe accused Hahn of riding on her father’s coattails.

“You’ve got one candidate that says she’s anointed because of her dad,” he said. “And you’ve got the other candidate who’s working his tail off and really understands the district.”

The contest in the county’s southernmost district has been hard-fought, both in fundraising and in the campaigns’ attacks on each other.

Last month, the county registrar sent Hahn’s campaign a letter saying she may have violated a county campaign finance rule that caps total contributions from political action committees at $150,000 in the primary and $150,000 in the general election. Hahn’s committee received a total of $439,619 in such contributions through June 30, the registrar said.

The Napolitano campaign — which made the issue public — argued that the actual amount of political action committee contributions is even higher than the registrar had found, and called it the “largest campaign contribution violation in L.A. County history.”

Hahn’s campaign contends that the fundraising limits did not apply under county rules because Napolitano spent a large amount of his own money on the campaign, and accused him of trying to “buy a seat” on the board.

The registrar sent Hahn’s campaign a letter this week saying it had reviewed the matter  and affirmed its original determination that “a possible violation exists.”

In an interview, Hahn said she would pay back the money if the county ultimately decides she has to, but added, “We’ve certainly questioned the constitutionality of a campaign law that would allow a millionaire to spend all the money they want … but would silence firefighters, teachers, nurses, lifeguards, women’s groups, environmental groups.”

Hahn’s campaign, in turn, recently unearthed documents showing that Section 8 apartments in a South Los Angeles building owned by Napolitano had failed annual inspections by the city housing authority. The violations included missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and a pest infestation.

Napolitano also failed to report about $13,000 in income from the property on his 2012 financial declarations, although he did report the income in the previous and subsequent years’ forms.

Hahn spokesman John Shallman called Napolitano “the ultimate slumlord millionaire.”

Napolitano said that all of the issues found in the inspections had been corrected within the required 30-day period and that the apartments all have two working smoke alarms.

“You cannot get paid by Section 8 unless you get re-inspected and you pass,” he said. “Any landlord needs to do maintenance and repairs on their building.”

He said the failure to report the income in 2012 was an “oversight” and that he would file an amended form.

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