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An Unlikely Leader Steers Valley Secession

Politics: Jeff Brain owes thousands in taxes and his voter registration was revoked. Yet he's credited with getting cityhood on the ballot.

July 22, 2002|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't Jeff Brain's charisma that helped get San Fernando Valley secession on the Nov. 5 ballot. Even he acknowledges that he tends to appear stiff and trips over his words.

The Valley VOTE president has made other stumbles as well, embarrassing himself and sometimes clouding the message of his campaign.

He owes thousands of dollars in city, state and federal taxes, debts that in some cases stretch back 12 years and continue to mount. He cast ballots in several Los Angeles elections while living in the city of Glendale and later registered to vote at a Sherman Oaks business address, prompting county officials to revoke his registration.

And Brain says he had been unaware of his five-year membership in the American Independent Party, best known as the 1960s vehicle of onetime segregationist George C. Wallace. He says he registered with the party by mistake.

Brain's critics seem astounded that he could have played such a major role in putting the historic secession initiative before voters. But they and his supporters agree that the measure wouldn't have happened without the 43-year-old's energy, single-minded devotion and wonkish ability to wade through bureaucratic jargon and procedure.

"No person has worked harder at getting secession on the ballot than Jeff Brain," said Richard Close, chairman of Valley VOTE. "The odds of this getting on the ballot were a thousand to one."

His tax and voting troubles aside, Brain has many typical secessionist traits. The former high school wrestler is a longtime Valley activist who disdains the downtown power structure. He tried to make himself heard through neighborhood groups and by running for the City Council in 1995 and the city charter commission two years later, losing each time.

He has a bigger audience now. His boyish face and Woody Woodpecker hairstyle are a constant presence at hearings, forums and living room gatherings around the Valley and throughout much of L.A. At every opportunity, he spins his vision of a new Valley city, his demeanor always calm, his focus never wavering.

His quiet intensity makes Brain hard to really know, fellow separatists say.

"I've worked with Jeff for a while," said David Fleming, a prominent secession backer, "but I can't say that I know him well personally."

Brain gives the impression that the secession campaign is the whole of his existence. He holds no other regular job, and hasn't for several years. The New York native bounces from residence to residence, the latest a small apartment in Sherman Oaks. Twice divorced and the father of four, he concedes that the long hours spent on secession have cost him precious dad hours.

"He eats and sleeps secession while others of us have a life," said Valley VOTE board member Bob Scott. "I'm sure he's had to make a lot of personal sacrifices."

That's true, said Brain. But he adds that he still finds time to unwind with his sons and daughters, ages 6 to 17. Snapshots of them decorate his Ventura Boulevard office in Sherman Oaks.

"I hope they see that people do care about the community and they do have a role in the community," Brain said of his children, as he drove along Woodman Avenue in the northeast Valley. He pointed out the litter and graffiti that he blamed on poor city services. "I hope they see that people can make a difference."

Early Interest

Brain developed an interest in local government while growing up in the Long Island town of Bayport, one of seven children. His mother was active in the PTA. A community parade was a heralded event. Town leaders could be called to account at the local diner.

In 1971, Brain's world expanded when his father, an aerospace manager, moved the family to Encino. Riding for the first time through the Sepulveda Pass on the San Diego Freeway, Brain was overcome by views of the sprawling Valley.

"I'll never forget it," he said, sitting at his desk in Valley VOTE's peach-colored office, where an Enya CD was playing.

Brain's family moved back to the East Coast, but he returned to the Valley after his high school graduation. With $600 in his pocket, he hopped on a bus for a four-day, nonstop trip to L.A.

He worked at various jobs, as a Radio Shack salesman and a bookkeeper at a Studio City dress shop. He earned accounting and finance degrees from Cal State Northridge in 1983. Three years later, Brain founded a real estate company in Sherman Oaks, which he ran for a decade. He also twice served as president of the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce in the 1990s.

Brain started the annual Sherman Oaks Street Festival, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for schools since 1991. He also helped Valley residents and businesses hurt by the 1994 Northridge earthquake secure federal money. And he uncovered an accounting error in a City Council plan to revive Ventura Boulevard, saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

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