James Hahn was never going to be a political giant. In four years as L.A.’s mayor, he exuded all the charisma of gelatin. He looked more like a Wal-Mart greeter than the mayor of the nation’s second-largest city, a guy who could coach your kid’s soccer team but not lead 3.6 million people.
But that’s not why he lost re-election this week to Antonio Villaraigosa, who became the City’s first Latino mayor in 133 years. I don’t know what’s more shocking: That a city with a Latino population like L.A.’s has gone that long without a Latino mayor, or that L.A. existed 133 years ago. I can’t imagine what Hollywood was like back then, but I bet a medium Coke at Grauman’s Chinese Theater still cost five bucks.
No, Hahn lost, in large part, because of public relations.
Not directly, mind you. Like Hahn himself, the reasons for his resounding defeat come in shades of gray. But this much is black-and-white – Hahn’s coziness with PR executives and the City’s alleged trading of PR agency contracts for campaign donations destroyed his credibility and ended his political career, possibly forever.
Hahn’s aides used public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard to craft positive media events for Hahn (via the L.A. Department of Water and Power). Fleishman obliged to the tune of millions of dollars in padded bills under Hahn’s watch. Fleishman executives also were major political donors, which is probably how they “won” the PR contracts in the first place.
Fleishman-Hillard agreed to a $5.7 million settlement which the City Council approved Tuesday – an end to the saga, but too late for Hahn.
The “Fleishman Effect” was significant. Prosecutors opened criminal investigations into the alleged “contracts for campaign cash” scenario, and two Hahn supporters were charged with laundering money in separate scams. These scams may have come to light anyway, but the furor over the PR scandal had a snowball effect that buried the one-term mayor.
According to the Los Angeles Times, more than a third of likely voters thought Hahn lacked the integrity necessary to serve. Even the majority of those who voted for Hahn said they did so only by default, preferring the soccer coach they knew to the Latino City Councilman with the name they couldn’t spell.
Fleishman has by and large acted responsibly and is cleaning up its act – and the scandal has prompted many other agencies to review their billing practices and focus on improving PR’s image with clients and the public. This is the positive side of the Fleishman Effect.
For Jim Hahn, however, it’s too late for change. He put too much faith in PR and not enough faith in the public. He used City Hall to promote himself and make friends with people like former Fleishman executive Doug Dowie – Hahn should have known something was wrong right there, as a quick survey of the PR and journalism world in Los Angeles would have revealed to Hahn that Doug Dowie doesn’t have any friends.
Good luck, Hahn Solo. May the force of humility be with you – and perhaps one day you can rise again, seek our forgiveness, and earn your redemption.