In an area of Los Angeles where some residents still do errands on horseback and dissatisfaction with City Hall runs higher than anywhere else in the city, voters in the northwest San Fernando Valley will decide next month who will assume the seat being vacated by longtime Councilman Hal Bernson.
The council's 12th District was a hotbed of secession support, producing the largest majority for breaking up Los Angeles -- 61% -- of any district in the city. So perhaps it is no surprise that all six candidates on the March 4 ballot have adopted a decidedly hostile posture toward City Hall.
"Historically, it's been the most conservative district in the city, the one that gives us the lowest vote on any bond measure," said Valley political consultant Larry Levine, who is not involved in the race. "It also is the district that feels the most alienated from City Hall."
Indeed, three of the candidates were leaders of the secession movement. The breakup may have been defeated, they say, but they will pursue revolution from the inside.
Businessman Walter Prince of Chatsworth is a founding member of the secession group Valley VOTE. Former Assemblywoman Paula Boland of Northridge sponsored legislation to make a breakup vote possible. And Norman Huberman of Northridge, like Boland, ran and won a race for council in the proposed Valley city, only to be thwarted when voters citywide killed secession.
By far, the leading fund-raiser in the race is Greig Smith of Granada Hills, who wrote a study in the 1970s on the advantages of the Valley becoming its own city, but was publicly neutral on the November cityhood vote.
Other leading contenders include Los Angeles school board member Julie Korenstein of Porter Ranch and affordable-housing builder Robert Vinson of Granada Hills.
Bernson is prevented by term limits from seeking reelection after 24 years in office. Most observers believe that with a large field of high-profile candidates, no one will win more than 50% of the vote next month, forcing a runoff election May 20.
Smith, 54, is a City Hall veteran who is on leave as Bernson's chief of staff, but he, too, has gone on the attack against what he describes as a downtown bureaucracy that has failed to give the Valley its fair share of city resources. At the same time, Smith has received backing from five of the Valley's six council members, including Bernson, and financial support from many of the same lobbyists, city contractors and attorneys who helped keep Bernson in office.
Smith has so far reported raising $298,000 in contributions and city matching funds, compared with $81,000 by Vinson, $75,000 by Korenstein and $63,000 by Boland. Smith also has received $45,000 worth of billboard advertisements provided independently by Clear Channel Outdoor. None of the other candidates has reached $50,000 in contributions.
Smith, one of the few Republicans in the nonpartisan race, has spent much of his money sending out mailers featuring an endorsement by Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), a secession leader who was the leading vote-getter for mayor of the proposed Valley city.
The district's personality has forced Smith in particular to walk a fine line, telling voters his 23 years of experience at City Hall will make him an effective councilman, but also contending that the city has failed the Valley. "I have the knowledge of how to get things done," Smith said.
Vinson and Korenstein have attacked Smith as part of the problem, contending he headed Bernson's office during years when developers reigned supreme and services suffered.
"My greatest concern for our community is that we are so long overdue in having someone in City Council who will listen to us," Korenstein said. Smith, she said, "has learned from the current council person. Anybody who has spent that many years in that office will end up duplicating the way citizens are handled."
Several issues have emerged in the race: dissatisfaction with police service and schools, opposition to more development, a perception of wasteful spending at City Hall, and a belief that officials fail to return to the district the tax dollars residents send downtown.
All of the candidates have come out for business tax reform and for giving neighborhood councils more clout. They all oppose expanding the Sunshine Canyon landfill and the rampant subdivision of property in horse-keeping sections of Chatsworth to allow homes on small lots without horses.
The latter issue led to one of the campaign's most colorful events so far, when Vinson and supporters rode on horseback to a meeting with stable owners to pledge his support for preserving the equestrian character of neighborhoods. Vinson, 38, said the city has to get "more focused on needs unique to the Valley, like our rich equestrian heritage."