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Many Dire Forecasts, Few Facts in Secession Debate

Politics: Both sides in the breakup fight use loaded language and emotional appeals.

June 08, 2002|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To listen to secessionists, the proposed cities of Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley will be gleaming citadels of government efficiency, latter-day promised lands freed of an oppressive City Hall.

Lend an ear to Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and other secession foes, and the same proposed cities sound vulnerable to every calamity but a plague of locusts. Earthquakes, fires, financial ruin, even a terrorist attack, may lurk around the corner, opponents warn, finding them unprepared.

The loaded language on both sides of the secession debate--comparing a municipal breakup to the biblical story of Exodus, the American Revolution, the Civil War and the end of South African apartheid--hints at the highly emotional appeals to come.

Unlike many traditional campaigns over issues or candidates, the two secession proposals on the Nov. 5 ballot offer so many unknowns, at such high stakes, that many arguments can be easily twisted to support either side. The result, political experts say, is likely to be a debate based more on passion than reason.

The campaign is expected to intensify after a summer lull, with both camps planning a drumbeat of mail and television ads in the fall. Hahn's anti-secession team plans to raise $5 million for the effort, while secession backers hope to collect at least $4 million.

The money will bring to the airwaves conflicting messages of hope and despair.

Attentive Politicians

Secession backers aim to convince voters in all parts of Los Angeles that smaller cities mean more attentive elected officials providing better, cheaper services. They imply that a split could eventually help fix public schools, even though the secession measure would not change the existing school system.

Opponents argue that a breakup would only spawn more politicians while endangering city finances and services across the board, especially public safety.

Both sides have taken a broad approach rather than crafting distinct messages for specific ethnic or income groups, although that could change as the campaigns sharpen their focus.

Secession supporters paint City Hall as a dark, distant empire, where arrogant politicians and power brokers gorge at the taxpayers' trough while shortchanging the people paying the bills.

"It's the billionaires versus the people," said Richard Close, chairman of the secession group Valley VOTE.

Reject the downtown political elite, secessionists tell voters in the breakaway regions, and everything will improve. "Local control"--even in a Valley city of 1.35 million--will banish government waste and boost services. Council districts will be smaller, politicians more responsive.

Polishing the Message

But proponents must also polish the other side of the secession coin: the remainder of Los Angeles. To win, they need voter approval not just within the breakaway areas, but also among voters citywide.

So secession supporters are now leavening gripes against downtown with more upbeat promises that resonate across the city.

"This is good for all areas of the city," said Ben Goddard, the campaign manager recently hired by secessionists. "Government will be much closer to the people in the new Los Angeles and in the Valley and Hollywood. It's a win-win for everyone. Smaller is better. It's more responsive to people's needs."

But anti-secessionists believe a similar message of control also works for them. The approach plays on fear of the unknown: Approve secession, and who knows what disasters could be unleashed. Keeping the city whole means keeping things from spinning out of control, so everyone can rest assured that Los Angeles police and firefighters will be there when needed.

"The whole idea is: Is it worth the risk?" said Kam Kuwata, political strategist for the mayor's anti-secession campaign. "If a Northridge earthquake hits or a Sept. 11 hits, will they be ready for that?"

The what-ifs tend to play on fears about financial and physical security. Would services be cut? Could taxes go up? What about water and power bills? Would public safety suffer? Would a Valley city be able to float bonds to build more police stations?

"Many people fear the unknown," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. "With secession, the unknowns are so vast. There's no historical guideposts for this, so the anti-secession side will be stressing: 'As problematic as you see the city now, all sorts of horrors await you' " if a breakup occurs.

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

Secession supporters have already coined a catch-all phrase to dispel the power of such scary images. They call it "fud"--fear, uncertainty and doubt. It has even begun to pop up as a verb, as in: "There goes the mayor, fudding again," whenever Hahn warns of secession's dire consequences.

Now that Valley and Hollywood cityhood questions have made the ballot, opponents of all stripes have bolted into action--leading to multiple variations on the anti-secession theme.

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