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Valley Business Leaders Express 'Cautious Hope' After D.C. Visit


WASHINGTON — A delegation of San Fernando Valley business leaders concluded three days of meetings here Wednesday, cautiously optimistic that the Clinton Administration and the state's lawmakers will begin to address Southern California's continuing economic problems.

"We were extremely well received and they were telling us in all branches of the government that California's success is key to the nation's economic recovery," said Benjamin M. Reznik, chairman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn.

The business activists arrived in the nation's capital profoundly concerned about the Valley's economic prospects in the face of deeper defense cuts, higher taxes, the costs of illegal immigration and skyrocketing workers' compensation premiums. Several executives said they were considering relocating outside California and others are looking to expand operations in neighboring states.

David W. Fleming, a Universal City attorney and chairman of VICA's government relations committee, said he was returning to Los Angeles with a sense of "cautious hope."

"We're encouraged by the level of enthusiasm and energy" in the Clinton Administration, said Fleming, who has made the journey to Washington the past four years. "How everything shakes out remains to be seen. But they've obviously embarked on some huge, huge undertakings."

The representatives of VICA, which has 350 member firms with about 250,000 employees, were invited to continue to communicate their views by U. S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and Joan Spero, undersecretary of state for economic and agricultural affairs. Both stressed the importance to California's economy of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, which VICA strongly supports.

"If California can't recover, the country can't recover," Kantor said during a 15-minute presentation Wednesday. "So we're going to work with you to help it recover.

"This office is always open to you," said Kantor, a Los Angeles attorney who chaired Clinton's election campaign. "We'd appreciate your help on NAFTA and on anything else."

The group was so impressed by Spero, a former American Express executive and United Nations official, that it immediately invited her to be the keynote speaker at VICA's annual Business Forecast Conference in December.

In addition to Kantor and Spero, VICA's 41 representatives and spouses met with officials at the Health and Human Services Department and from Vice President Al Gore's effort to reform the federal government. They were also briefed on Clinton's economic program by an aide to White House Budget Director Leon Panetta.

VICA connected on Capitol Hill as well. California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, all Democrats, spoke at a VICA reception Tuesday. And members of the group, which has been coming to Washington each year since 1989, met with various members of the Valley's House delegation at a lunch and during private visits on Capitol Hill.

Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) made brief appearances at a lunch hosted by freshman Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita). Some VICA participants also met with Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) after the luncheon.

The increased influence of California in the Democratic Administration was apparent throughout the visit. Kantor noted that he was one of four Californians in the cabinet (the others are Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Laura D'Andrea Tyson, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Panetta).

At HHS, the group met with Fernando M. Torres-Gil, a friend of Fleming's who has been nominated as assistant HHS secretary for Aging. Torres-Gil is a former member of the Los Angeles Planning Commission. Reznik also had a private lunch at the White House mess with John Emerson, a Los Angeles attorney who is deputy director of the Personnel Office.

Despite such well-connected friends, not all went ideally. Efforts to meet with Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown--the Administration's official liaison to California--fell through when he left town early in the week. Brown later said he was available but VICA's schedule was full. A bid to see Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was also unsuccessful.

Reznik, Fleming and other VICA participants insisted that they took these disappointments in stride. They noted that all the appointments that were previously confirmed were kept.

But some were miffed over a conflict that arose Tuesday over a briefing at the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House with Joseph J. Minarik, associate director of economic policy for OMB.

Administration officials had told VICA that spouses could not attend because the conference room was too small. They brought six wives anyway, but all were turned away in the lobby.

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