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Secession Foes Home In on Valley

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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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His L.A. United advertising plays on fears about public safety, raising doubts about whether a new city could provide adequate police and fire protection, paramedic services and emergency response to disasters. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents LAPD officers, is already airing radio ads saying that public safety could be jeopardized in a new Valley city.

The Public Safety Coalition, an alliance of four City Council members and lobbyists and special interests who court them, plans to deliver the same message to Valley voters through the mail.

Secession opponents are hoping the message of uncertainty will alarm people in particularly fragile circumstances--such as renters and senior citizens.

“We are literally going to go after everybody, but we are going after certain people in a much more targeted way,” said Hahn campaign strategist Kam Kuwata. “The majority of voters in the Valley don’t know that their taxes could go up, that their water bill could go up, that their senior center could be eliminated, that their after-school program could be cut.”

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Most of the anti-secession mail and phone calls will be directed at Valley voters. Renters will be warned there is no guarantee that a new Valley city would keep rent control in place. Senior citizens will be told that meal programs and senior centers could be cut back.

Gay and lesbian voters will be reminded that domestic partnership benefits for city employees could be lost.

City employee unions, worried about their jobs and benefits, have launched a massive outreach campaign to persuade union households that secession is not in their best interests.

Secessionists counter that the mayor’s campaign distorts the ground rules under which a Valley city would operate. “There’s no factual basis to the fears that they’re raising,” Close said.

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Under the law, a new city would retain rent control and all other Los Angeles ordinances for 120 days. After that, the Valley government would decide which laws to keep. A new city must also honor union contracts, although it can negotiate new agreements as contracts expire.

As for senior centers and other programs, Valley leaders would set service levels. A projected Valley surplus would mean better services across the board, secessionists say.

The mayor’s campaign has been aided by the money and muscle of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. On Saturday, about 100 electricians, bus drivers, firefighters and other union workers hit the Valley streets to ring doorbells at union households.

A trio of firefighters based in the harbor area headed straight to the heart of secession country: the West Valley.

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As they trooped from one Reseda tract house to the next, they handed out colorful fliers detailing their union’s opposition to secession. “We trust our firefighters with our lives -- shouldn’t we trust them about secession?” the flier read.

Fire Capt. Brian Hishinuma of San Pedro was even more blunt.

“You got kids?” he asked one man who answered the doorbell. “Well, the closest pediatric center to you is in Childrens Hospital. If you were to secede, you’ll have only one [Fire Department] helicopter here in the Valley. That means if there’s a brush fire here, and one of your kids needs an air ambulance, there’s no way to do it.”

“Wow,” replied Andre Consalvi, a 26-year-old loan officer. “You got our vote then.”

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Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the labor federation, said the 104,000 union members in the Valley can expect seven pieces of mail, as well as phone calls, urging them to vote against secession.

Contreras is one of those determined to beat secession once and for all. “If it passes in the Valley, it will give the same proponents of secession another soapbox,” he said.

With one-tenth of the money raised by their opponents, Valley cityhood advocates cannot compete with the barrage of messages against secession.

Plans for a mighty ground campaign have diminished, with only a few hundred volunteers ready to walk precincts rather than the 3,000 secessionists predicted. Instead, cityhood backers are putting their faith in the voters to resist the onslaught of anti-secession appeals.

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“With a huge war chest that the special interests have given the mayor, they’re going to try very hard to step on the Valley,” Katz said. “We will try to show that disinformation for what it is. People react negatively to the fear-mongering.”


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