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A Power Surge for the Valley

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the author of "Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles" (Princeton University Press, 1993)

There has been a lot of talk lately about the powerlessness of the San Fernando Valley. This is so widely assumed to be true that it has become the starting point of most discussions about city politics these days. But is it true?

Residents of the Valley have for years felt alienated from the downtown power structure of Los Angeles. Separated from the rest of the city by the Santa Monica Mountains, but also by a more suburban lifestyle, Valley residents often complained of inadequate city services and inattention from City Hall.

Then in 1961, insurgent mayoral candidate Sam Yorty upset mayor Norris Poulson, the favorite of the downtown business establishment, by forging an unlikely alliance of Valley homeowners and inner-city minorities. Yorty’s appeal to Valley voters was symbolized by his popular call for the abolition of separate containers for trash.

Yorty’s base was in the Valley, and as he came into conflict with African Americans, he became an increasingly conservative mayor. His three terms ended in 1973, when he was defeated by Tom Bradley, who forged a durable coalition of inner-city minorities and the liberal Westside, particularly Jews.

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But even during the Bradley years, the Valley’s large bloc of registered voters maintained a key role in city politics. Bradley himself built an increasingly strong base in the Valley. In his third term, he reoriented his city commissions to include greater Valley representation. In his 1977 and 1981 reelection campaigns, he carried all but one Valley council district. In his 1985 reelection, he carried all 15 City Council districts.

And even during the reign of a coalition that did not have the Valley at its core, the area held virtual veto power over important city policies. As a result of Proposition 13, passed in 1978 with huge Valley support, tax measures required a two-thirds vote. Thus, no city initiative requiring new revenue could be passed without considerable Valley backing. When Valley voters bitterly opposed school busing, they spearheaded an effort to recall key school board members, and eventually the busing program was ended.

After the reapportionment that followed the 1990 census, the Valley’s power on the City Council reached new heights. Redistricting increased the share of two crucial Westside districts, 5 and 11, represented by Mike Feuer and Marvin Braude, to include large blocs of Valley neighborhoods. Feuer’s district is probably half-Valley. These two districts, with their highly educated, affluent and involved voters, play a central role in the governance of Los Angeles.

Four other council districts, 2, 3, 7 and 12, represented by Joel Wachs, Laura Chick, Richard Alarcon and Hal Bernson, are fully enclosed in the Valley. John Ferraro, the powerful City Council president, now has a significant Valley bloc in the 4th District.

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Thus, the Valley has a big voice in seven of the 15 seats on the council and the potential to influence other members as well. In recent battles over sewer rates, the council supported the position of Valley voters by a narrow margin, sparking cantankerous debate at City Hall but also testifying to the Valley’s clout.

In 1993, the political power of the Valley received a further boost with the election of Richard Riordan as mayor. Riordan’s main base of support was the Valley, where he rolled up large margins over his opponent, Mike Woo. As mayor, Riordan has increased the appointments of Valley residents to city commissions and has been close to Valley business leaders.

With Riordan’s election, the Valley returned to the center stage at City Hall. But there was more to come. When state Assemblywoman Paula Boland introduced legislation to facilitate the Valley’s secession from Los Angeles, the Valley’s future became a topic of considerable attention. With the failure of the Boland bill, that attention turned to reform of the city charter. There is now a swirl of activity around charter reform at City Hall, setting off a titanic political struggle between Riordan and the council. However that issue turns out, it is clear that for the first time in a generation, the San Fernando Valley is driving the agenda at City Hall.

The Valley is no monolith. It is far more diverse than most people think, and there is not a single Valley “interest.” So it will not operate as a single unit seeking power and influence. But its presence in a powerful role is nonetheless a very important development in Los Angeles.

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So why don’t people in the Valley feel better? For one thing, having this sort of power is new. It takes some getting used to. And it takes a long time to translate increased political power into the changes that communities call for. In addition, Riordan has been an ambiguous tribune for the Valley. His real enthusiasm has been downtown power-brokering. Valley voters have historically been suspicious of overdevelopment backed by business interests.

The Times Poll for the last two years has shown Riordan’s approval rating in the Valley below 50%. Charter reform may be a way for Riordan to win back the hearts and minds of hopeful Valley residents. And even to the extent that Riordan is the Valley’s best hope at City Hall, pinning those hopes on a term-limited mayor is a chancy proposition. Ironically, Riordan’s bitter battle with the City Council and his desire to weaken the council’s authority may not be good for the Valley in light of its council influence.

Residents of the Valley will soon absorb the lessons of city leadership that were painfully learned by activists in the Bradley coalition. When you go from being outsiders to insiders, the going gets easier in some respects, but tougher in others. It is much easier to get your way but, as any physics professor can show, increased force creates an equal and opposite reaction.

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In leading a large, diverse city like Los Angeles, any group or section needs to understand its own interests and goals in terms of the greater good of the community as a whole. If charter reform, for instance, becomes solely a vehicle to reduce the Valley’s “powerlessness,” it will become a highly contentious and divisive issue that will actually threaten the Valley’s power. If instead it becomes a way to increase the representation of both the Valley and all the residents of the city, it will confirm that power has been wisely used. With their new power exercised in the common interest, the people of the San Fernando Valley may find that a big piece of the Big Orange is not such a bad deal after all.


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