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SECESSION

The Political Game Behind the Valley's Rebelliousness

June 09, 1996|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

The brouhaha over the possible secession of the San Fernando Valley from Los Angeles is rooted in a simple political fact: Republicans control the machinery of the Assembly.

If the Democrats had kept their grip on the lower house, the bill, authored by Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills), nullifying the City Council's veto power over secession would never have seen the light of day. Democrats opposed secession in order to protect their urban and labor constituencies. Now Republicans are attempting to fast-track the issue to achieve their own political ends in a crucial election year.

Boland first introduced secession legislation three years ago. This year, with Republicans holding a slim majority in the Assembly and in control of its committee system, the Boland bill easily cleared the Local Government Committee and then the Assembly. The "no" votes were all cast by Democrats. The bill's prospects in the state Senate, where Democrats still hold the majority, are cloudy, at best.

According to a Los Angeles Times poll, there appears to be no groundswell of pro-secession sentiment in the Valley to frighten recalcitrant legislators, no battalions of anti-City Hall activists storming the Capitol to demand Valley independence. That gives city lobbyists, anti-secessionists and their legislative allies the opportunity to join with public-employee unions, other Democratic constituencies and downtown business interests to torpedo the Boland bill.

But L.A.'s political clout in Sacramento has been declining. The Assembly vote on Boland's bill reflects the shift of political power from cities to suburbs. Urban and liberal Democrats have seen their numbers and influence shrink. Willie Brown's departure from the speakership last year marked the first time since 1970 that a leader from either Los Angeles or San Francisco did not control at least one house of the Legislature.

The state's shifting political demographics make secession an issue that could resonate with the anti-big-government attitudes of suburban swing voters--the archetypal Valley electorate. Because unions oppose the secession legislation for fear it would cost city jobs, the Boland legislation also gives state Republicans potential ammunition to woo middle-class voters by positioning Democrats as captives of public-employee unions, urban bureaucracies and ethnic minorities, who benefit from programs paid for by "underserved" and "over-taxed" suburbanites.

Some compare the nascent Valley secession movement to the beginnings of the drive to limit property-tax hikes that culminated in Proposition 13. Perhaps a better political analogy is the fight to split up the state, which went nowhere after an initial flurry of coverage.

Dividing up California into three states was an issue manufactured by Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run), who was looking for a cause that would propel him into the media spotlight and a run for higher office. For a while, the three-Californias movement played well. Then Statham lost his bid for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, and the talk about dividing California disappeared as fast as he did.

The San Fernando Valley secession debate is similarly stoked by political ambition and whipped by media coverage of Los Angeles as a fraying city. Term-limited out of her West Valley Assembly seat, Boland is running for an open state Senate seat that includes the Burbank-Glendale areas, far outside her home base. She faces a tough battle against Democrat Adam Schiff, a former federal prosecutor. Retiring Republican state Sen. Newton Russell held the seat for 22 years, but Democrats have gained a slim registration edge in the district.

Boland's championing of "democracy" and "self-determination" has helped her attain a high visibility in a district where she is little known. But her publicity could thwart her bill's progress. It's unlikely that Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) and his Democratic caucus will want to boost Boland's campaign by handing her a legislative victory.

But the secession issue is unlikely to disappear as fast as Statham and his three-California bill did. It has already become enmeshed in the 1997 race for Los Angeles' mayor. Richard Riordan owes his 1993 election, in large part, to Valley voters, who supported him by nearly a 3-1 margin. To ensure reelection, Riordan needs Valley activists, homeowner groups and business organizations behind him again. Some of their number are actively promoting the Boland bill. Secession, however, could prove prickly for a mayor pushed and pulled by opposing forces: the imperative to exercise citywide leadership, on the one hand, and the need to respond to the demands of key political supporters, on the other.

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