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Secessionists Taking Their Cues From Past

Cityhood: Valley leaders look to Prop. 13's successful campaign for guidance and hope.

October 04, 2002|SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the quest to break up Los Angeles nears a long-sought vote, the secession movement's leaders are counting on support from a familiar group that stunned the establishment 24 years ago: middle-class San Fernando Valley residents whose alienation and resentment carried the property-tax revolt of Proposition 13 to victory.

The Valley secession campaign is taking several pages from the Proposition 13 playbook, from populist fund-raising methods to a reliance on homeowner groups for grass-roots organizing. That is no surprise, because Proposition 13 had its start in the Valley, and many of its early backers are now stumping for secession.

Breakup advocates say they expect to duplicate the tax rebellion's strong finish in the coming weeks, as they take their message of smaller, more responsive government beyond their largely conservative core of supporters, most of whom live in the Valley.

In fact, the parallels between secession and Proposition 13 continue to give backers of Valley and Hollywood cityhood hope that they will pull off a victory on Nov. 5.

Proposition 13 confronted strong opposition from many of the state's political elites, and yet it won by a huge margin on election day.

Secessionists have struggled to ignite a Proposition 13-style "prairie fire," as then-Gov. Ronald Reagan described the effort, in a campaign lagging in the polls, in fund-raising and in volunteers, among other problems.

The movement's appeal to the business community also is less direct than in the case of Proposition 13, which businesses supported with contributions because many were big property owners with money at stake.

Whether the secession campaign succeeds in capturing Proposition 13's spirit during the next few weeks will, some say, come down to the payoff to voters that secessionists can realistically predict.

By promising to end a decade of rapid increases in property taxes, vowing to roll back rates and limit future hikes, Proposition 13 guaranteed property owners cash in the bank. It offered immediate relief in a climate of crisis.

Secession supporters argue a similar but less tangible case in the current campaign. They say smaller cities will deliver better, more efficient services, and therefore, breaking up Los Angeles will ultimately be a money-saver.

But the future of new Valley and Hollywood cities is filled with unknowns, such as whether taxes will rise or fall or whether political novices will be able to set up and run--in the Valley's case--the nation's sixth-largest city. The appeal of breaking up Los Angeles is based on a mostly intangible frustration with city government.

"Secession needs an issue--something the government has really messed up on, something people could say they were really mad about," said John Matsusaka, a USC political scientist who has studied Proposition 13.

Richard Close, the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. president who helped spearhead Proposition 13 and a leader in the secession campaign, says people are angry. Voters will flock to support secession because city services are poor, the bureaucracy is remote and the Valley pays $127 million more per year in fees and taxes than it receives in services, he said.

"Prop. 13 was all about making government better, making it cheaper, smaller," said Close, who was 32 when Howard Jarvis, the populist political gadfly who founded the tax-revolt movement, showed up at a meeting of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. to push his plans.

"All those arguments that you hear reverberate in the independence debate today had similar tones in the Prop. 13 debate almost 25 years ago," Close said.

Beating the Opposition

Close and others say Proposition 13 overcame many of the same obstacles standing in the way of secession, including opposition by most politicians and business leaders.

Back then, state and local elected officials massed behind Proposition 8, an alternative that would have resulted in smaller tax cuts. Today, Mayor James K. Hahn and the City Council, in their fight against secession, have assembled a broad coalition of business organizations, labor unions, rent-control activists, and civil rights and religious groups.

The secessionists say that like Jarvis and Proposition 13 coauthor Paul Gann, they can beat the establishment. They are relying on precinct walkers, carefully targeted mailers and coffee klatches--a close-to-the-ground campaign to mine voters' unhappiness with government in and outside the Valley and Hollywood. To pass, each secession measure must get a majority vote in both the breakaway region and Los Angeles as a whole.

"The level of upset about the way City Hall has managed the city's business does exist throughout Los Angeles," secession strategist Frank Schubert said. "Our job is to try to tap into that."

Jonathan Zasloff, who teaches law at UCLA and has studied the tax revolt, said the parallels between secession and Proposition 13 are strong.

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