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Foot Soldier Gives Heart and Sole

November 06, 2002|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Whatever astronomical political effects that Tuesday's vote on San Fernando Valley secession may have on Los Angeles and the Valley, it officially marked the realignment of Tanny Wiggins' personal cosmos.

Wiggins spent election day as she has spent much of the past two years: talking herself hoarse on the phone in the cause of Valley cityhood, chatting up passersby on the sidewalk, distributing literature, treating anyone with the thirst for it to a great draught of her passionate conviction.

In the course of the long campaign for secession, the 64-year-old retiree was the exemplar of the citizen-volunteer who answers phones, runs errands, enters data into computers and stands for hours at card tables set up in shopping malls.

While higher-profile secessionists spoke before television cameras and mass meetings, Wiggins embraced the stoop labor of the movement.

During a noontime hiatus Tuesday, Wiggins sipped an iced coffee outside the Valley Independence Committee's second-story office and looked down on the Ventura Boulevard traffic in Van Nuys. The good sense of a Valley breakaway from Los Angeles, she said, struck her like a meteor in 2000 when she went with a friend to hear Valley VOTE leader Jeff Brain address a senior citizens meeting.

"I was really sort of ho-hum about it, but my friend was interested. I don't think I've ever had anything hit me like that. I think it took two seconds, and I knew it was a match," Wiggins said. "All of a sudden I could see government coming home where I could touch it. Government being my government, not just a lot of distant statistics. Government that would be accountable to me. I thought, 'Boy, would that be wonderful!' "

Many preelection polls forecast secession's defeat, but over the long campaign Wiggins won many personal victories in the form of newfound understanding.

Wiggins worked for more than three decades in the business operations of KNBC-TV Channel 4 in Los Angeles. Part of that time was spent in the department that handles broadcast practices and standards, including political campaign ads. Despite that experience, Wiggins said she was taken aback by the tactics of anti-secession leaders, such as Mayor James K. Hahn, who predicted dire results if voters approved Valley secession.

"It breaks my heart that the other side has put fear into the hearts of vulnerable people, like old people," she said. "I just want to take them in my arms and say, 'No, no. It's going to be all right.' "

Wiggins, who owns a home in Sherman Oaks, has lived in the Valley since moving from New York City 31 years ago.

Crisscrossing the landscape in the cause of secession brought her into contact with people from different parts of the Valley and different income and ethnic backgrounds. That experience, she said, has meant "I've gotten to know the Valley more and I've grown to love it more.... I feel a camaraderie and a cohesiveness I didn't feel before."

Wiggins finished her iced coffee and returned to work. With the polls not closing until 8 p.m., there were still a good 7 1/2 hours to win an election. She gathered a clutch of brochures, tucked a large red, white and blue Valley independence sign under one arm, reframed her arguments in her head, and set out for the Valley cityhood phone bank at the Remax Realty office four blocks east on Ventura Boulevard.

Along the way she encountered Maria Sauno, 28, of Pacoima. In response to Wiggins' inquiry, Sauno, resting on a bus bench in front of a clothing store, said, "I want to vote but I don't know what to vote for."

"The most important thing to me," Wiggins replied, "is local control. We pay taxes to the city of Los Angeles, property taxes, business taxes, sales taxes.... "

Soon after, Wiggins, with a voice that was becoming more hoarse by the moment, had engaged a young couple a few paces from the bus bench and reiterating the secessionist conviction that cityhood would allow the Valley eventually to part company with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Wiggins then ambushed a young man putting coins into a parking meter near his chrome-trimmed pickup truck. The man listened to her presentation, then announced, "I'm for it."

Not everyone, however, was buying. A young man flying past on a bicycle pointed to Wiggins' sign. "You know what that's gonna cost us?" he demanded.

"No more than it is already," she called after him.

Wiggins approached a woman on a pay phone. "Would you ... ?" she began.

The woman cut her off with a firm shake of the head, "No."

After reaching the phone bank, Wiggins sat with three fellow secession backers, ringing up likely voters whom a previous phone survey had indicated favored secession. As cheerily as she could, she reiterated on each call a standard message: "Hello, this is a friendly call from Valley cityhood, reminding you to vote yes on Measure F today. Remember, the polls close at 8 p.m."

Despite her enthusiasm, Wiggins confided, she was aware of the difficulty she and her colleagues faced as the final hours of election day wore away. But Tuesday was not the end of things, she said.

"I think we have laid the groundwork," she said. "I'm already thinking about how I'd do things differently the next time.... I think we've all learned from our mistakes and seen what we could do better. I think I'd like to be involved in the initiating stages next time -- help plan. I'm even making ideas in my head as I go along today."

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