L.A. Mayor's Family Duties Compete with Job, Campaign

Karen Grigsby Bates explores whether Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn is being helped or hurt politically by his status as the primary caretaker of his children. The incumbent mayor is in a tight runoff race, and some critics say Hahn's parental duties are taking time away from his mayoral obligations.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Los Angeles elects a mayor next week, either the challenger and leader right now, Antonio Villaraigosa, or the incumbent, Mayor James Hahn. He is trailing now, but then he's a busy man. He's also primary caretaker of his children. And some raise this political question: Should he be at home more often with the kids? Here's DAY TO DAY's Karen Grigsby Bates.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

When you hear this kind of speech, you know a politician is at the other end of it.

Mr. ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles Mayoral Candidate): Let me introduce a woman who in many ways is the inspiration for everything I do.

BATES: That's LA mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa at a campaign stop late last month introducing his wife Corina, and at this point in the campaign, he's the only candidate who has a wife. The incumbent, Mayor James Hahn, amicably separated from his wife, Monica, in 2003 after 20 years of marriage. And while there have been mayoral splits before--Rudy Giuliani's legendary separation from wife Donna Hanover played out before all of New York City--the Hahn separation had a novel twist. She moved out and the kids live with him. Hahn's detractors often accuse him of being a 9-to-5 mayor partly because he's always taken his parenting duties seriously, but that charge makes the normally even-tempered mayor livid.

Mayor JAMES HAHN (Los Angeles, California): You know, this criticism of me is just intolerable. Imagine saying to somebody who's a single parent, `You can't do your job because you're, you know, taking care of your children.' What kind of a society have we become?

BATES: Catherine Seipp writes a column on politics and culture for the National Review Online. A single mother, Seipp says she's voting for Hahn, but she doesn't want him playing the daddy card.

Ms. CATHERINE SEIPP (National Review Online): I think any of us who are parents, our priority is to be a good mom or dad, but when the taxpayers are paying you to do a job, that's not really something that's going to make us feel great about re-electing you.

BATES: In other words, Seipp wants him to work on what she elected him to do, but Hahn bristles at any implication that he isn't.

Mayor HAHN: And what they don't like is that I'm not out and about on the town, you know, going to parties, going to openings of plays and those kinds of things, but, you know, I'm doing the job that a mayor needs to do.

BATES: And he certainly does get around during the day.

Unidentified Woman: ...just wanted to say welcome and...

BATES: Earlier this month, Hahn stopped by the Vaughn Next Learning Center, a charter school in the San Fernando Valley, and he immediately tells the assembled parents what he and they share.

Mayor HAHN: I'm a parent, too. My two kids attend LA public schools down in the Harware area(ph) and so it's very important to me that we do everything we can to replicate the success that you've seen here. Parents are involved.

BATES: Some observers wonder whether Hahn's double act as a prominent politician and primary caregiver of two children might get him sidelined on what sociologists have termed the Mommy Track. That's the lower-octane career path for women who take time off from work or who work less brutal hours to care for their children. But Debbie Walsh, the director of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, doesn't see Hahn suffering that fate.

Ms. DEBBIE WALSH (Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University): I think that he's probably the beneficiary here of some gender bias.

BATES: So he's not being Mommy Tracked?

Ms. WALSH: No, I don't think so. I think he's going to be the beneficiary here of a daddy track.

BATES: Walsh says voters often praise male politicians who showcase their families and question the priorities of women politicians if they do the same thing, which has led some women candidates to develop an interesting defense.

Ms. WALSH: When you see campaign materials for women who are running for office, oftentimes they don't use their family photograph because the question always comes up, `Who's going to take care of your children?' That question doesn't come up for men. The family photograph with the kids and the golden retriever was a plus.

BATES: Jim Hahn insists he can balance being mayor and dad. He feels he owes it to LA voters to do a good job as mayor and he says he owes it to his children to provide them as normal a life as possible. That means not dragging them into the campaign spotlight and showing up at places everybody else's dad does when he can.

Mayor HAHN: You know, I would, of course, love to go to my son's Little League game every time he has one, but you know what? I bet a lot of other parents wish they could go to every game, too. And, you know, if I can catch an inning, you know, that's worth it to me.

BATES: Whether he will have more or less time to devote to that kind of activity will be determined on May 17th, when voters will elect their next mayor, wife optional. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: And thanks also to NPR's Ina Jaffe.

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