Janice Hahn has a different relationship to Los Angeles County than most politicians.
Many voters in the county are at least passingly aware of her father, Kenneth Hahn, who served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from 1952 to 1992.
In the aftermath of the Watts Riots, he spearheaded the construction of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital in South Los Angeles after a report noted the lack of emergency healthcare in the area. He is also the namesake of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration building that hosts board meetings every Tuesday and of a county park in South Los Angeles.
The shadow of her father looms large over Hahn, who is currently vying for an open seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
“With my dad, I was born into county government,” Hahn said. “He was our inspiration, he was our teacher, he was the guy that we both watched growing up and loved what he did and loved what we saw his capability in helping people was at that level.”
Hahn is seeking to exchange her current post in Congress for the open fourth district seat on the board, where she hopes to carry on her father’s legacy and strengthen programs aimed the county’s most vulnerable families and children.
“The county has a big role to play in a child’s life,” Hahn said. “We’re the safety net.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors controls a budget of $28 billion a year and oversees the nation’s largest child-welfare and juvenile-justice systems in the country. Its 10 million residents make it larger than all but seven states.
The U-shaped expanse of the fourth district includes 2.2 million people living in 27 cities, spanning coastal cities like Marina Del Rey, Hermosa Beach and Long Beach as well as inland communities like Cerritos, Downey and Hacienda Heights.
Since 1996, the fourth district has been under the watch of Don Knabe, a fiscally conservative Republican who has sometimes been at odds with a left-leaning majority on the board. But Knabe is stepping down because of term limits, opening the door for a new face.
Currently representing the 44th Congressional District, Hahn (D-San Pedro) has served in the U.S. House of Representative since 2011. Before that, she spent a decade on the Los Angeles City Council representing the southernmost neighborhoods of the city like Watts, Wilmington and San Pedro.
Hahn nearly rode to an early victory during the primary election. With about 47 percent of the vote, she handily beat competitors Steve Napolitano (36.7 percent) and Ralph Pacheco (16.2 percent). But since she did not pass the 50 percent threshold, she and Napolitano are headed to a showdown on Nov. 8.
The campaign has mostly revolved around the county’s outsized homelessness issue and allegations of campaign finance violations. Hahn says that she is more concerned about children’s issues than her opponent Napolitano.
“I have a great passion and concern, a little anger, about what’s gone on with children in the county,” Hahn said. “And I haven’t heard him talk about those things as an advocate for children.”
Hahn describes herself as a fan of the county’s Office of Child Protection, though she would like the board to push for more oversight of some of the recommendations included in the final report of the 2014 Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. The commission was formed to address the systemic issues that led to the death of 8-year-old Palmdale boy Gabriel Fernandez in 2013.
“The Office of Child Protection was a great first step,” Hahn said. “I think we’re on the road to reforming all of the agencies that come in contact with our children. But I think the accountability piece is where I want to add my voice. We’ve got to make sure that some of the recommendations in the reform, we’re holding people accountable.”
Hahn calls herself “a big eyeballer” in terms of wanting to see for herself how the county is working, much like her father. If she is elected, Hahn plans to meet with foster parents in the county and tour some of the county’s 13 juvenile halls to get a sense of how the county is working to protect children.
But she also wants to get answers from the Office of Child Protection about cases where children have slipped through the cracks, such as the recent death of 11-year-old Yonatan Aguilar. Aguilar was found dead, wrapped in a blanket, in the closet of his mother’s apartment in Echo Park.
“Why was there a high level of risk for Yonatan [Aguilar] to be abused and no cases were opened?” Hahn said. “I want to know where did that go badly.
“That’s not just a clerical mistake, that’s a child that fell through the cracks.”
Hahn would like to see the county invest more in prevention work, like more preschool programs. But she’s also wants to make sure Los Angeles County is exploring ways to keep youth on the right track in school and beyond.
After working with the Watts Gang Task Force while on the L.A. City Council, Hahn said the county should step up its efforts to steer youth away from making choices that could lead them to the county’s system of juvenile halls and camps.
“I’m a big believer in preventing kids from getting into our juvenile-justice system,” Hahn said. “I believe in second chances for those kids in our camps, but I really want to work on more after-school programs, more job training programs. I think we’ve made a big mistake in our schools by taking out vocational classes.”
Hahn said that she would like to work with the Los Angeles County Board of Education to ensure children have more reasons to stay in school.
“Academics isn’t the only thing that can keep a kid in school,” she said. “Resource-wise, we’ve cut art, we cut music, we cut drama, we’ve cut auto body shop, we’ve cut home economics. There’s a lot more I think they could do to prevent kids from coming into our juvenile justice system by providing them something that keeps them in school.”
Hahn lauded the work of current Supervisor Knabe in working with nonprofits in the district and establishing the Safe Surrender initiative, a program that allows parents to leave babies with no questions asked at any Los Angeles County hospital or fire station.
But Hahn says that the county should be responsible for doing more than helping parents avoid raising a child in difficult circumstances.
“Are they going to be healthy, are they going to be in a family that loves them, are they going to be in a school that can graduate them, are they going to be able to get a job, are they going to have their own families here?” Hahn said.
“We can’t just be happy that we rescued them. We’ve got to make sure L.A. County gives them the best possible life that they can have after that.”