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Secession Staffers Refuse to Give Up

October 26, 2002|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

"Like I've told you all along, it's grass-roots," John Ferrero said, a hint of irritation shading his voice. "We need every single body we can get."

He paused, cell phone pressed hard to his ear to blot out the din from buses roaring down Ventura Boulevard. "Look, I'm full of things that could've been, should've been, but we have to deal with the cards that we're dealt," he told the volunteer at the other end of the line.

As the campaign for San Fernando Valley secession hits its final lap, Ferrero, 42, has cleared his schedule of almost everything else. A corporate efficiency consultant, this Studio City dad has become a full-time cheerleader for cityhood, helping drive a movement perilously short on other resources.

With little cash and few well-known candidates seeking office in the proposed Valley city, just about all the secession campaign has left is its volunteers. There are 600 listed in the database, all neatly parceled into phone trees and e-mail groups. It is unclear how many of them will actually turn out to knock on doors and staff phone banks.

Ferrero and a few dozen others may spend their days handing out fliers at supermarkets and stapling lawn signs to wooden stakes, but when the campaign held an open house Tuesday night to train volunteers to walk precincts, only a handful showed up.

Still, it takes a lot to quench the ardor of true-blue secessionists.

They tend to dismiss any evidence suggesting that the breakup proposal -- Measure F on the Nov. 5 ballot -- could flop. After a recent Times survey found that likely voters citywide opposed Valley secession 2 to 1, Ferrero said: "The poll only talked to 970 [likely] voters. That's less than 1% of the Valley's population."

Working out of a storefront office in a Sherman Oaks mini-mall with walls painted the color of a Creamsicle, the secessionists have perfected the art of looking on the bright side.

Each time he slices open an envelope and fishes out a check, Joe Vitti lets out a cheer.

"Fifty dollars from Mr. Pollack, an M.D. from Woodland Hills!" he cried. "Twenty-five dollars from Clifford Van Ness! He's from North Hills. Every one of these helps.... Whoa, this is 500 bucks! Earl and Toba Greinetz. Wow!"

Both Ferrero and Vitti, a 68-year-old grandfather who lives in Granada Hills, are "quadrant leaders." They are in charge of volunteers in their respective quarters of the Valley.

At one time, secession leader Richard Katz vowed to marshal 3,000 people to take the cityhood message to the streets. But separatists succeeded in drafting only a fraction of that number.

Ferrero, who is leading the southeast Valley effort, estimates that he has about 150 volunteers. Six or eight of them have joined him to walk precincts on the weekends, he said.

Despite the setbacks, a sort of folksy, hail-fellow enthusiasm crackles through the campaign. There are many here who insist secession still has a fighting chance, and they're fired up by the populist zeal that comes with taking on City Hall.

"I like being on David's side and not Goliath's," said Aaron Goode, a shaggy-haired Yale student volunteering for the campaign.

Smiles and hugs prevail, whether or not the cameras are clicking. But at public events, it's important to look spiffy.

Ferrero, who usually favors jeans and tight T-shirts that show off his brawny arms, slipped into a charcoal-gray suit for a recent news conference. He and some of the better-known faces of secession--Katz and Jeff Brain--grinned and glad-handed, some giving TV interviews, as voters cast early ballots on the county's new touch-screen machines.

An hour later, Ferrero was back at campaign headquarters, stapling together more lawn signs. Laura DiGilio, a firecracker in a red, white and blue blazer, burst into the office.

A Granada Hills woman who wears a beaded necklace depicting tiny American flags, DiGilio is known in secession circles as the volunteer who collected the second-largest number of signatures during the 1998 petition drive to push Valley cityhood toward the ballot.

"We need more attention over here out in the Valley," she said. "I don't even have a street light on my corner. I don't feel comfortable walking in my neighborhood at night."

Near the back of the office, campaign field director Chuck Levin murmured into the phone about a new KABC-TV poll showing the secession proposal leading in the Valley. Two sweaty volunteers ambled in, fresh from hanging a campaign banner from a billboard in Tarzana. A 62-year-old house painter named Ralph dropped by to write a $100 check.

Such gestures are manna to the faithful.

"In the majority of campaigns, you spend a lot of time trying to draw people in," said Levin, a 55-year-old campaign veteran with a mop of snow-white hair. "That's what's remarkable about this campaign. People just naturally embrace the concept."

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