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Secession Foes Home In on Valley

October 14, 2002|Jeffrey L. Rabin and Sue Fox | Times Staff Writers

Flush with cash and confidence, anti-secession forces led by Mayor James K. Hahn are targeting San Fernando Valley voters in an all-out campaign to crush the secession movement on its home turf.

With three weeks remaining until the Nov. 5 election, Hahn's L.A. United campaign and a host of other groups are rolling out messages aimed at distinct groups of voters. The messages vary, but their purpose is the same: to convince voters that secession is too risky, especially in the Valley.

"We've got to defeat it in the Valley," said Larry Levine, leader of the anti-secession group One Los Angeles. "If it wins in the Valley, then I think we'll see it coming back again and again and again.... For the health of the city, we need to end this with an exclamation point and not a question mark."

The anti-secessionists are pressing their case through television and radio ads, in the mail and on the phone, at shopping centers and community forums.

Their commercials, mailers and fliers are being tailored to resonate with homeowners and renters, senior citizens and union members, Latinos, and gay and lesbian voters. In the view of secession opponents, each of those groups has reason to be wary of breaking up the city.

"It's strategic; it may be even surgical," said Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla, who is leading a bilingual effort to persuade the Valley's Latino residents to reject secession.

Secession opponents are even more confident of defeating the Hollywood cityhood measure, also on the Nov. 5 ballot. From the start, public polls as well as some private surveys have shown the Hollywood proposal losing badly -- both within Hollywood and in the city overall. Polls also have generally pointed to citywide opposition to the Valley breaking away. But in those same surveys, secession has fared better among Valley voters.

For each secession measure to pass, it must attract a majority of votes in the breakaway region and in Los Angeles as a whole.

Key Battleground

Secession leaders, such as former Assemblyman Richard Katz, acknowledge that the Valley has become the battleground in the campaign's final weeks and say that Hahn and special interests at City Hall are trying to break the back of the cityhood movement. But Katz said it won't work.

"I don't think the Valley is going to be fooled. What the downtown power brokers don't understand is that the Valley is used to getting beaten on by City Hall," Katz said. "What you're seeing today is that the Valley is not going to take it anymore."

Secession opponents, however, have reason to hope that the notion might be defeated, even in what was once thought to be its stronghold. In recent months, a back-room effort to negotiate a deal to replace the Valley cityhood measure with a borough plan backfired. A high-powered field of candidates for mayor and city council seats never developed. Campaign consultants quit last month for lack of payment. And secession supporters failed to raise the millions of dollars needed to wage a campaign on the airwaves, leaving anti-secession TV ads unchallenged, except by pro-cityhood spots on local cable stations.

"It would have been laughable three months ago to think Jimmy Hahn could defeat secession in the Valley," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. "It's not laughable now."

UC San Diego political scientist Steven P. Erie agreed. "The stars are not aligned for secession," he said.

Both professors say voter turnout will be key to the outcome.

"It's a question of who gets more demoralized as this election season goes on," Cain said. "Right now, I'm betting it's the Republicans, because [GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill] Simon has just sort of immolated himself. That could dampen Republican turnout, which would help Jimmy Hahn."

Turnout traditionally is stronger in the Valley than in the rest of the city. In last year's mayoral election, Valley residents, who account for 38.5% of the city's 1.46 million registered voters, cast 42% of the ballots.

If cityhood passes in the Valley but fails citywide, some observers predict that secessionists will try to change the state law requiring a citywide vote. Valley secession leader Richard Close has threatened to file a lawsuit over such an outcome.

The election also includes races for offices that would exist only if cityhood passes. If it fails, that will leave 14 would-be city council members and a mayor who were elected to serve in a stillborn city -- a turn of events that secession opponents worry would form a sort of Valley shadow government that could bedevil City Hall.

Hahn's campaign has raised nearly $5 million to fight secession. After being elected with the support of Valley voters, Hahn is determined not to preside over the dismemberment of the city -- and is hoping to avoid a split decision.

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