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, more than any of the 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 once again will play a pivotal role in deciding who will represent the district, which 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, Yaroslavsky's campaign strategist, Rick Taylor, calls the area a "tremendously important vote," and Feuer promises to continue concentrating most of his energies there.
"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.
Indeed, Feuer swept every Valley neighborhood in the April primary, even those 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.
Yaroslavsky, meanwhile, must do better in the Valley if she hopes to take the post that her husband, Zev, held for 19 years before resigning in December to become a Los Angeles County supervisor. She drew only 19% of the Valley vote in the primary, ranking last in the field. A strong showing in the Westside put her 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 by Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., and Mayor Richard Riordan, who won 71% of the Valley vote 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 endorsed to speed up earthquake recovery there.
But Close's recent endorsement of Yaroslavsky may ease such resentment, he said, especially since the Sherman Oaks homeowners group sued the city in January in an attempt to kill the redevelopment project.
Darry Sragow, a political consultant, said a projected low turnout in the runoff also could benefit Yaroslavsky if she can identify her supporters and make sure they vote. Sragow 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 those who voted for Weintraub.
Yaroslavsky's camp has begun efforts to put a tougher face on her campaign after the primary by replacing Sacramento-based consultant Paul Kinney 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.
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.
Although he declined to discuss specific strategies, Taylor said he will try to improve Yaroslavsky's showing in the Valley by addressing specific problems in each community, as well as highlighting her endorsement by Close.
As for Feuer, he began seeking Valley votes the day after the primary by holding a news conference in front of a quake-damaged store in Sherman Oaks to call for stronger efforts to repair such buildings. Two weeks later, he held another news conference in the Valley to announce the support of Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar).
And if elected, Feuer has promised to establish a police substation and a field office in the Valley.
Times researcher David Brady contributed to this story.