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In Ashes of Secession Bid, New Clout for Valley

With the status quo jolted, a way toward change has been opened.

November 08, 2002|Raphael J. Sonenshein | Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton and the 2001-2002 Haynes Foundation Fellow, was the executive director of the L.A. Appointed Charter Reform Commission.

With the defeat of secession in Tuesday's election, some will say that the Valley secession movement failed. But movements fail only when they make no impact. By that standard, the Valley secession movement has been a success.

It has shaken the comfortable certitude of Los Angeles city government to its roots. It has set off the most explosive period of self-criticism and reform in Los Angeles government since the Progressive era of the 1920s.

Shocked by the challenge of secession, city leaders initiated a process of charter reform in 1997 that led to the first comprehensive revision of the charter since 1925.

Charter reform created neighborhood councils and area planning commissions, innovations that pushed Los Angeles to the forefront of urban reform. The new charter established an advisory citizens commission on redistricting that led the City Council to realign council seats to augment Valley influence and to move one seat from the Westside to the Valley.

Secessionists may choose to go back to the drawing board and design a new campaign. Alternatively, Valley residents can take a riskier path: Reexamine the assumption that the Valley does not have power within the city of Los Angeles. This would be a difficult axiom to give up because the powerlessness of the Valley is central to the secession argument.

Even as Republicans decline as a share of voters citywide, and while the Valley now has a Democratic voting majority, the Valley still offers a major bloc of moderate voters that is critical in city elections.

The Valley, with more than 40% of the city's registered voters, was pivotal to the elections of Richard Riordan and James K. Hahn in their mayoral contests. Latinos in the East Valley represent the fastest-growing population in the city. Jewish residents in the southern portion of the Valley, though largely Democratic, are more ideologically moderate than Westside Jewish voters. The West Valley continues to be a highly mobilized base for Los Angeles conservatism.

If the Valley now takes stock of its own power and uses it to get community improvements through the political process and through the reformed structures that the secession movement helped create -- and pushes for additional structural reforms -- its effect will be profound.

But first, Valley residents must develop their agenda. What sort of community or communities would be most desirable? How would the balance between growth and slow-growth be drawn? What sort of commercial development is wanted, and where?

Raising these issues will undoubtedly accentuate divisions within the Valley, including those between more affluent areas and the growing and upwardly mobile Latino community in the East Valley.

Out of such a discussion, however, a coherent set of demands may well emerge, even if they are not identical in each part of the Valley.

As Valley residents give voice to their specific demands, they will find that the same politicians who opposed secession can be formidable allies at moving the government.

The example of Staten Island in New York may be helpful. In 1993, Staten Island voters passed an advisory secession measure with more than 65% of the vote on the island. But then Staten Islanders used their voting power to resolve their most contentious demands. The political process worked and secession sentiment declined.

The most important element of Valley power will be coalition building. Secession could not win without alliances over the hill; neither can Valley power succeed without coalitions.

A lesson can be drawn from L.A. history. African Americans, only 18% of the population in 1970, united around an agenda of social change and forged alliances with white liberals, particularly Jews, to achieve much of it. In so doing, they made Los Angeles a better city by opening it up to the diversity of its population.

A Valley movement, disciplined by politics, can continue the work of opening Los Angeles to its diversity of place.

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