Six months ago, most San Fernando Valley voters didn't know Mike Feuer from Adam.
But that was before the Westside legal aid attorney and City Council candidate went door to door, wearing out a pair of size 12 shoes by walking through nearly every Valley neighborhood in the 5th District.
The worn shoe leather paid off. On his way to becoming the top vote-getter in the 5th District race, Feuer won 34% of the Valley vote, beating three other candidates, including a well-known local activist and a former school board member who had represented the Valley for 14 years.
When Feuer squares off with second-place finisher Barbara Yaroslavsky in the June 6 runoff, Valley voters will once again play a pivotal role in deciding who will represent the district that stretches south from Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and North Hollywood, over the Santa Monica Mountains to the Westside.
With 40% of the district's registered voters in the Valley, both candidates agree the region cannot be ignored in the runoff.
Yaroslavsky's campaign strategist, Rick Taylor, calls the Valley a "tremendously important vote," and Feuer promises to continue concentrating most of his energies on the Valley.
"I did very well here, and I need to continue to do well," Feuer said after appearing on a cable access show in Van Nuys. "The outcome of the race is largely dependent on what happens in the Valley."
Indeed, Feuer swept every Valley neighborhood in the April primary, even in Sherman Oaks, where he finished ahead of Jeff Brain, the former president of the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce, and longtime Valley school board representative Roberta Weintraub.
For Yaroslavsky, winning the Valley vote is even more crucial if she hopes to take the post that her husband, Zev, held for 19 years before resigning in December to become a county supervisor. After all, she drew only 19% of the Valley vote in the primary, ranking last in the field. A strong showing in the Westside won her a place in the runoff.
Overall, Feuer drew 39% of the 5th District vote, compared to 26% for Yaroslavsky, who had a fund-raising lead of more than $100,000, as well as several blue-chip endorsements and the strong name recognition provided by her husband.
But a Yaroslavsky comeback is not impossible, say political consultants, some of whom cite the victory of Gov. Pete Wilson last year after early polls showed him far behind his rival, Kathleen Brown.
To win back the Valley, they say, Yaroslavsky must run an extremely aggressive campaign, highlighting her opponent's weaknesses and promoting her endorsements. She is backed, for example, by Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., and Mayor Richard Riordan, who won 71% of the Valley in his 1993 mayoral bid.
"When you are trailing as much as Barbara was in the Valley or anywhere else, you have to find something negative on Mike," said political consultant Richard Lichtenstein.
Valley-based consultant Paul Clarke said Yaroslavsky would have a difficult time pulling ahead of Feuer in the Valley. But he predicted that she can make inroads by walking as many precincts as possible.
"Personal contact is always the best," he said.
Clarke speculated that Yaroslavsky did poorly in Sherman Oaks--the largest Valley community in the district--because of lingering resentment among residents over a controversial redevelopment program that her husband, Zev, endorsed to speed up the earthquake recovery there.
He said Close's endorsement of Yaroslavsky may ease such resentment, especially since the Sherman Oaks homeowners group sued the city in January to kill the redevelopment project.
Darry Srago, a political consultant, said a projected low turnout in the runoff could benefit Yaroslavsky if she can identify her supporters and make sure they vote. Srago ran the campaign of Lea Purwin D'Agostino, who was dropped from the race for failing to collect enough signatures to qualify.
"You've got to find out who is for you and give them doughnuts or whatever it takes to vote," he said.
Another key in the race will be winning over voters who had cast ballots for Weintraub and Brain. Although neither candidate has made an endorsement, Yaroslavsky and Feuer have lobbied both for their support.
Yaroslavsky's camp has begun efforts to put a tougher face on her campaign by replacing Sacramento-based consultant Paul Kinney after the primary with Taylor. An aggressive, fast-talking strategist with a long history of local contests, Taylor has already shown that he is willing to run a no-holds-barred campaign.
Unlike the primary campaign, which focused mostly on promoting Yaroslavsky's qualifications, the runoff campaign under Taylor is taking a harder edge. In interviews and news releases, he has sought to portray Feuer as a "slick Harvard lawyer" who flip-flops on key campaign issues to bolster his support----a portrayal Feuer rejects.