Politics & Policy

Ganging Up in California’s Special Election

A Democratic candidate faces questions about her involvement in a gang program.

How optimistic should Republicans be about tomorrow’s special election in California’s 36th House district? The good news is that GOP challenger Craig Huey — who wasn’t even expected to make the runoff — has a fighting chance against Democratic Los Angeles city councilwoman Janice Hahn.

Washington Republicans think Democrats are getting nervous, the turnout numbers for Republicans and Democrats in the early vote are surprisingly even, and the fundraising numbers were also surprisingly even at the end of June. All of this is occurring in a district that scores D+12 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index, that Obama carried with 64 percent of the vote, and that Democrat Jane Harman represented, with few serious challenges, for nine terms.

But the challenge for Huey shouldn’t be underestimated. And if Huey does pull off the upset, it may not be the national bellwether that the GOP would hope. Just as Republicans argued they lost the special election in New York’s 26th district because a phony “Tea Party” candidate split the vote, Democrats will have good reasons to proclaim extraordinary circumstances here.

Hahn brings a considerable history to the race, and a significant base of support from her ten years on the city council; to make the two-candidate runoff, she survived a primary that attracted interest from California’s secretary of state and other experienced candidates from her party.

But few Democratic House candidates have long ties to controversial programs to reach out to gang members, and the Huey campaign holds almost nothing back in its effort to showcase that issue. On April 30, 2008, Chris Blatchford, an investigative reporter for Los Angeles’s Fox affiliate, ran a shocking report entitled “Janice Hahn Funds Gangs.”

At this point, it was already known that the mayor’s office had taken over control of the city’s anti-gang programs, following questions about the programs’ effectiveness and claims that public funds were being handed out to gang members.The report focused on Hahn’s work with Steve Myrick — a Crips gang member also known as “PJ Steve,” who has the words “Trust No Bitch” tattooed on his arm — on a gang-intervention project.

During a 2006 interview with Hawthorne police after an arrest on rape charges, Myrick claimed he worked for Hahn, and said that Hahn had helped him obtain a release on his own recognizance after arrests for indecent exposure, drug possession, and violating court orders. He is on videotape saying, “Miss Hahn got me out three weeks ago.” She disputed the claim, insisting that she had only called to ask why he had been arrested.

Myrick ultimately was sentenced to life in prison in November 2007 for threatening to rape and kill a young woman during a home invasion.

A 2006 article in L.A. Weekly described a key interaction between the city councilwoman and the gang member during a meeting on gang violence at Hahn’s office in Watts. She apparently saw Myrick as a useful conduit to local gangs:

During the meeting, frustrated by the lack of actual young gang members in attendance, “PJ” Steve Myrick, a powerful PJ Crip from the Imperial Courts projects, stormed out, two homeboys in tow. Little Janice Hahn jumped out of her seat and went after PJ Steve like she was Pittsburgh Steeler strong safety Troy Polamalu. She implored him to stay and speak his mind. With the help of Cynthia “Sista Soulja” Mendenhall, an activist from Imperial Courts, Hahn persuaded PJ Steve out of an elevator and back into the meeting.

During an interview with the Fox affiliate, Hahn contended that using convicted criminals as “gang intervention” workers was worthwhile, despite the risk that they may continue their violent ways: “I think you’re saying that they were part of the problem in the past, I’m saying they’re a part of the solution now, and that’s positive,” Hahn said.

That report quoted two Los Angeles police officers, Ryan Moreno and Chuck Garcia, who contended that Hahn was being used by the gang members. They later accused Hahn of pressuring the department to remove them from their foot beats in Watts because she was closer and more sympathetic to the gang members. The officers filed suit against the city, but jurors ruled against the officers.

Huey supporters are going door-to-door with DVDs of the 2008 report. The National Republican Congressional Committee is showcasing the report on a website, “Hahn Got Me Out.”

In her effort to shoot down the report’s accusations, Hahn went so far as to file a cease-and-desist order against the affiliate, seeking to prevent any additional reports on the same topic. Hahn’s attorney accused the Fox channel of saying she “bailed him out of jail,” but the reporter, Blatchford, notes his report never used that term; it indicated that her pressure may have led to his release.

An update recently aired on the channel, returning to the controversy in the context of the House race. “Hahn was a driving force behind programs that got money to gang intervention workers,” Blatchford concluded. “She walked out on our interview three years ago, and now, rather than answer questions, she had her attorneys send a cease-and-desist demand.”

Hahn’s best option in these final days of the campaign may be to try to blur two separate questions. The first question, regarding what “PJ Steve” meant when he said “Miss Hahn got me out,” remains unanswered. But on the second, whether Hahn was dangerously naïve about the behavior of the violent convicted criminals she was working with, the evidence is clear.

Will this story be enough to drive Huey to victory in a district that is tough for Republicans? We will know soon.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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