South Central Los Angeles’ African-American community was joined by Vice President Al Gore and the city’s top politicians in saying goodbye to Kenneth Hahn, who was remembered at a memorial service as both a visionary and a pothole politician.
Hahn, 77, died Sunday after a long illness. He represented the 2nd District on the county’s Board of Supervisors from 1952 through 1992, longer than any other supervisor in California history. Hahn, who was white, adapted to the demographic changes in his district over the course of his career and was consistently re-elected by wide margins by his mostly African-American and Latino constituents in South Central.
“He looked past race and he saw within,” Gore said at Friday’s service at the the Crenshaw Christian Center’s Faith Dome. “We ought to look at the life and service of Kenneth Hahn as an example to emulate.”
In his 40 years as a supervisor and five on the Los Angeles City Council, Hahn amassed an extensive record of achievement. He established the county’s paramedics program in 1970 and the placement of emergency call boxes on freeways in 1962, helmed the building of Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center in 1972, and helped bring the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, said when she first ran for state Assembly back in 1976, she walked around Hahn’s county district knocking on doors seeking support.
“One senior citizen said I’m going to vote for you because I think you’re going to be a Kenny Hahn-type of public official,” Waters said. “I knew exactly what she wanted. She wanted me to be a defender (of) the poor and powerless.”
Waters said Hahn sat next to her before she seconded the presidential nomination of Sen. Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, her first exposure before a national television audience.
“He told me, ‘You get up there and tell them you’re from Watts,”’ Waters said. “I threw away my speech and told them everything Kenny Hahn whispered in my ear.”
Hahn had been honored many times over before his death. The county’s headquarters building is named the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration. There’s also the Kenneth Hahn Shopping Plaza, the Kenneth Hahn Community Center, the Kenneth Hahn Swimming Pool and Kenneth Hahn Lake.
“His recognition lies not in those things, but in the hearts of the people,” said Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who replaced Hahn as the 2nd District representative in 1992. “You see the people gathered here today. Everyone has a story they can share with you about how Kenneth Hahn touched their lives.”
Carmen O. Perez, Hahn’s former assistant chief deputy, said every morning Hahn would drive a different route to work to look for potholes and broken street lights and note everything he found on a tape recorder.
“Every morning those cassette tapes were given to the secretary,” Perez said. “We had to give him a report within 24 hours on each problem he found, with the words that said, ‘done, handled, taken care of.”’ It was that commitment to basic services that made him a winner at the polls, said Tommy Hawkins, the director of communications for the Dodgers, and a former Los Angeles Laker and campaign worker for Hahn.
In the 1968 election, Hahn faced a challenge from a well-known African-American opponent, Judge Billy Mills, a former city councilman.
“Everyone in the ‘60s thought this was going to be a racial thing,” Hawkins said. “Kenny told me ‘I simply want you to go to people and ask them who serves them better.’ The answer was overwhelmingly Kenny Hahn.”
Hahn won that election with 69 percent of the vote. In his last race in 1988, Hahn was elected with 84 percent of the vote.
Hahn is survived by his wife, Ramona; his son, James Hahn, Los Angeles city attorney; his daughter, Janice Hahn, serving on the elected City Charter reform panel; a brother, Gordon; and five grandchildren.
In talking about his father, James Hahn quoted South Central activist “Sweet” Alice Harris: “Kenny Hahn had more common sense before breakfast than most politicians had all day.”
After giving a moving tribute, Janice Hahn joked about how her father seemed to know everyone. “Dad, I know you won’t need any introductions in heaven. But Mom put your business cards in your front left pocket, where you always had ‘em, just in case,” she said.