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Charter Reform Becomes an Insider Struggle

May 30, 1999|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

How do you sell charter reform in a municipality whose citizens are divided over the issue, know little about it or are looking to opt out of the city altogether?

It isn't easy.

Proponents of the new L.A. charter on the June ballot offer voters a "vast reworking" of the city's 74-year-old civic constitution. But challenging the status quo can be a dicey political strategy these days. Things may be going too well in Los Angeles for charter reform to be enacted. Voters seldom opt for radical change when the outlook is rosy.

A March Los Angeles Times poll showed 53% of city residents believed L.A. is "going in the right direction," up dramatically from the 22% who felt that way five years ago. An impressive 80% said the city's economy was doing well, and 82% thought things were going well in their neighborhoods.

Republicans, Westsiders and San Fernando Valley residents were among Angelenos registering the highest satisfaction. They are also identified as more likely to vote for the new city charter. But the poll indicated that 60% of Valley residents want to secede from the city. With such conflicting tugs and pulls, will these high-propensity voters cast their ballots for reform?

Whites and conservatives typically dominate June turnouts; The Times poll showed they are more approving of Mayor Richard Riordan, a big booster of charter reform, and the charter proposal than are minorities. But in the hotly contested runoffs for three City Council seats and one school-board slot, campaigns are focusing on motivating minority voters. These races--in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, Central L.A. and the Eastside--could disproportionately influence the fate of charter reform.

Turnout is likely to be higher in contested areas than citywide. In mid-city's 10th Councilmanic District and the South-Central school-board race, that could boost charter opponents. About four in 10 voters in Central and South L.A. indicated they supported charter reform, as compared with at least a majority of Westside and Valley residents. The poll showed African Americans split on the issue.

On the other hand, the mayor has vowed to defeat school-board member Barbara M. Boudreaux, who was forced into a runoff by Riordan-backed Genethia Hayes. Hayes voters should hear a lot about the need for charter reform.

Labor, which generally opposes the new charter, has much vested in the council runoffs. In the Valley's 7th District, labor's choice, Alex Padilla, is the front-runner. But Padilla also counts Riordan among his supporters. In the Eastside's 14th District, labor's post-primary endorsement went to Victor Griego, in a tight race with Nick Pacheco, an elected charter-reform commissioner who has been endorsed by the mayor.

White voters, heavily supportive of Riordan, could determine the outcome in these council races and the school-board contest. Will the mayor's involvement motivate Anglos to turn out and stick with him to support charter reform?

In both council races, Latino voters will be targeted. The Times poll showed they tend to favor the new charter: 40% of Latino respondents indicated they would likely vote for the proposal and 28% against. In addition, Riordan has high approval ratings among Latinos. That could help charter-reform proponents.

More than one-third of Latinos surveyed said they didn't know how they would vote on the new charter, which gives charter opponents an opening to use their powerful labor allies to sway undecided voters in these districts. In a head-to-head confrontation between Riordan and some public-employee unions over competing slates of candidates for the elected charter-reform commission in 1997, labor won.

So little is known about the charter's details that the campaign has come down to a tug of war between personalities and endorsements. People look for voting cues from supporters (or opponents) they trust (or don't). They also look for uncomplicated explanations. Confused voters tend to vote "no."

Charter-reform proponents are under strong pressure to send out a simple message of change, if only to overcome voter stupefaction caused by the charter booklet mailed to city households. The Riordan-backed, pro-reform effort talks about spending $1.5 million. Here's where the proponents' edge in campaign money will come in handy.

There are lessons for both sides of the charter-reform battle in the campaign that gave California its last successful constitutional overhaul. In 1966, a strategic decision was made by legislative leaders to package Proposition 1A, their sweeping constitutional revision, as one ballot proposition. California voters swallowed their distaste for various individual provisions--one allowed legislators to set their own salaries by statute, for example--and passed the comprehensive measure overwhelmingly.

Back then, bipartisan legislative leadership supported reform. So did both candidates for governor. That united front strengthened proponents' arguments for change.

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