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Secession Fight Revs Hahn Up

Mayor relishes battle, which has sharpened his focus. He denies that figures who backed breakup bids will face retaliation if they fail.

November 03, 2002|Beth Shuster | Times Staff Writer

The move to separate the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood from Los Angeles has energized the administration of Mayor James K. Hahn, sharpening its focus by giving it the specific goal of winning an election -- a familiar challenge for a mayor who has won six citywide contests.

But critics say the campaign has also encouraged the mayor and his aides to hide plans that might cost Hahn crucial votes in Tuesday's election.

Over the last eight months, the mayor has mounted an aggressive campaign to defeat the secession efforts. Once seen as laconic and rarely spied outside City Hall, he now holds three or four media events a day, many in the Valley, talking about improving city services, filling potholes and creating neighborhood councils.

Hahn has helped raise millions of dollars and directed that money toward a blistering advertising campaign highlighting the risks of breaking up the city. He is actively engaged in the political strategy of the campaign, talking to consultants at least daily and overseeing the mail and television ads.

At the same time, he has avoided talking publicly about an upcoming 10-day business trip to Asia, where he will lead a delegation of public and private leaders -- including some donors to the anti-secession campaign -- on an expensive trip partly funded by the city and aimed at boosting the local economy. He has tried to keep under wraps a $1,000-per-person fund-raiser for his officeholder account scheduled after the election. (These accounts are used by elected Los Angeles officials to pay for activity related to city business and for communication with constituents.)

And, sources say, as soon as the election is over, Hahn and his aides will figure out who was with them on secession -- and who was not -- as they approve appointments to city commissions and evaluate upcoming city contracts.

Richard Close, a leader of the Valley secession effort, said the trip, for instance, is evidence that Hahn is preparing to dole out favors after the election.

The Asia trip, Close said, "is clearly a reward ... for those people who fought against a Valley city. One thing is for sure, I wasn't invited. I would welcome the opportunity to go on a trip with the mayor."

In an interview, Hahn defended his post-election day plans. He said his long-term goals include making the city friendlier to business and residents by continuing many of the initiatives he began this year. Moreover, he said he will encourage those who pushed the secession efforts to join him in improving the city.

He also acknowledged that the campaign gave his administration focus over the last few months, and he said he has enjoyed the battle. In his first year, some critics charged that Hahn did little to demonstrate his leadership of Los Angeles.

"It's been a healthy public debate," he said. "It keeps our eye on the ball.... I think it was a real motivation for us to do things we wanted to make city government more responsive."

The mayor, who has never lost a citywide election, said campaigns are exhilarating. "You know you're alive when you're in one," he said.

For months, Hahn has merged the campaigns to improve Los Angeles and to keep the city together into a single effort.

He has addressed residents, business leaders and city department managers, sounding a similar theme to those varied groups. He has pushed department heads to deliver more efficient city services, and advocated lowering business taxes. His administration established a housing trust fund in an effort to create more affordable housing. Of late, he has trumpeted his appointment of William J. Bratton to head the LAPD, a move that has proved popular citywide and especially in the Valley.

As the mayor touts those efforts, he ends his speeches on a similar note. "There's only one threat to all of this I've been talking about," he told the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce recently, "and that is secession."

His opponents, meanwhile, complain bitterly that the mayor is only motivated by politics and that his goal is less about improving city services than about protecting the downtown business interests of the city. They say the mayor uses scare tactics to persuade people that smaller cities created by secession would be financially crippled and that the rest of Los Angeles would suffer as well.

"They have run a campaign based on fear, half-information and innuendo," said Richard Katz, a leader of the Valley secession movement.

In addition to their criticism of what he has said, secession supporters say Hahn also has shied from topics that could hurt his standing with the public at this delicate political time.

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