Valley of the Pols

Los Angeles
September, 2001

Sooner than you might think, Los Angeles could find itself embroiled in another contentious fight for mayor. No, Jim Hahn isn't in jeopardy already -- his presence in the plushest office of City Hall is a safe bet for four years and counting. Still, Hahn shouldn't get too comfortable. Survival of his newly won empire isn't assured -- nor is his place in the media spotlight as the freshest face to join the exclusive club of big-city honchos.

The gathering storm on Hahn's horizon is, of course, San Fernando Valley secession. Oh, that old thing, you say? Beware of dissing break-up talk as a squall felt only on the far side of the Santa Monica Mountains. This is no longer a lost cause preached around the back tables at chamber of commerce breakfasts in Canoga Park or Reseda. Cleaving Los Angeles into a pair of nearly equal-sized cities could actually happen -- as soon as next year.

Or haven't you noticed that the Valley's been gaining respectability as the part of town where political fortunes are made and broken? Hahn knows about that. He rode the Valley to victory over Antonio Villaraigosa in June's rancorous runoff election, and since taking office he has made frequent public appearances there. Eight years ago, Mike Woo ventured out of Silver Lake to capture the rest of the city but lost the Valley -- and with it the mayor's office -- to the upstart millionaire Richard Riordan. These days, half of Los Angeles' voters live on the inland side of the unique geographic, climatic and cultural divide that is the Santa Monicas. If Valley folks get riled up, as they did in the late 1970s when the suburbs' anger fueled Proposition 13 and quashed busing for school desegregation, the City of the Angels as we know it could be history.

That's not to say divorce is a lock. It's not -- most Valley denizens need more rousing before they will be ready to split. They also need to be convinced that home rule is worth the risk of the whole thing disintegrating into a costly mess. However, enough real energy has built up that the prospect must now be taken seriously. The key step came when the Local Agency Formation Commission, a quasi-state agency, ruled preliminarily that secession was workable. The Valley, once the poor relation of downtown, is now big and rich enough to support itself, with plenty of shopping malls and industries to feed the tax rolls. The commission's study of the issue also concluded that Los Angeles could survive the fiscal trauma of separation. Hahn plans to challenge the findings because if they stand, they would ease formidable legal and psychological obstacles to secession. However, chances are better than good that Angelenos on both sides of the mountains will be asked to vote in November 2002 whether to dissolve the 86-year-old marriage.

Since Los Angeles County's millions already divvy their allegiance among 88 incorporated cities, adding another entry to our Thomas Bros. maps may not sound so radical. As it is, Los Angeles' 1.4 million Valley inhabitants eschew calling L.A. their hometown. Most say they live in Studio City or Granada Hills or any of two dozen other unofficial locales. For many the Valley is culturally as distinct from Los Angeles as are Pasadena or Santa Monica -- still part of the metropolitan mix, still peopled by Lakers and Dodgers fans, but at some level a separate place. Being allowed to make its own decisions about taxes, traffic lights and when to repave the streets is only fair, the secession argument goes.

Yet there's no question that splitting up the city would fall hard on some psyches. Los Angeles would slip to third in population, behind Chicago. (The Valley would rank sixth, larger than Detroit and Phoenix). For many voters, choosing which course to take would force them to square old loyalties with the rare chance to shake up government, and to balance resentment of city hall against fear of the unknown.

Also, consider the logistical burdens of secession, starting with the task of fairly dividing the city's assets. This would require a laborious accounting of all property from library books and manhole covers to the value of Los Angeles International Airport and the money-making Department of Water and Power. It would be doable but not easy.

Riordan and Cardinal Roger Mahony, who as a boy rode his bike to North Hollywood's St. Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church, hope to give voters another reason to pause. They frame secession as a moral outrage in which the affluent suburbs are trying to shirk their responsibility for the urban poor. The morality play has drawn a tactful rebuke from some Valley clergy who see in their congregations the mix of classes and nationalities that America's most famous postwar suburb has become. "The idea that secession is a moral issue is absurd -- it's a public policy issue," says Joel Kotkin, senior fellow at Pepperdine's Institute for Public Policy. If nothing else, the rhetoric is an early sign of how angry the campaign could turn.

Meanwhile, if you want to gauge the movement's momentum in the coming months, keep watch on the posturing of local politicos. They'll be eyeing the polls more closely than anyone else, looking for evidence that it's catching fire. So far, only a few openly support the breakup or strongly oppose it -- why alienate anyone until necessary? But the enticement to leave the sidelines and join the game may soon prove too great to resist.

That's because the secession plan, as currently drafted, offers a fine remedy for flailing political careers. Its passage (a majority of voters in the new city area and in Los Angeles as a whole must approve) would create 15 elected jobs in the Valley -- 14 council members plus a mayor whose powers remain to be determined. Los Angeles' existing 15 council districts would be reshuffled into new geographic areas south of Mulholland Drive, creating a bunch of openings. That's a tantalizing bounty, especially for lawmakers turned out by term limits.

Of all the new plum jobs, one beauty would stand out.


It's easy to imagine the mayor of a new Valley city eclipsing Hahn's star. And not just because Hahn would be branded as the bumbler who lost Los Angeles.

If it wins voters' blessing, the secession experiment is sure to attract great interest. Jay Leno has already introduced the subject to his late-night audience by offering suggestions for the prospective city's name, among them Smogadena, Unknown Actorville and Pornadelphia. (The actual name would be voted on.) In this atmosphere the mayor is almost guaranteed more than fifteen minutes of fame, possibly much more. Even if the boss lacks the personal charisma to convert the opportunity into stardom, being at the center of The New New Thing promises loads of collateral benefits.

After all, the Valley has long been more "Hollywood" than Hollywood. (It doesn't much matter that Valleywood's biggest institutions lie across the city line in Burbank.) Disney calls the Valley home, as does its ABC network, recently relocated from New York. Warner Bros., the first major studio to move into the Valley, gives giant AOL Time Warner a local stake. Universal, DreamWorks, NBC, and CBS all have studios there, too, and the Valley's flatlands are lousy with sound stages, special effects houses, and animation studios. Toluca Lake, a tony enclave of million-dollar estates, has been a show business colony since Bob Hope and Bing Crosby built homes there within earshot of the greens at Lakeside Golf Club. With proximity comes familiarity, then notoriety. In recent years, the Valley has been the setting -- or an unmentioned character -- in films from Magnolia and Boogie Nights to 187 and Two Days in the Valley.

It won't hurt the mayor's media quotient that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (the Emmy Awards group) occupies a grand complex in North Hollywood. Or that the parents who rate film sex and violence for the Motion Picture Association of America assign their PG's and R's on Ventura Boulevard in Encino. Or that most of Southern California's actors and production staff probably either live or work in the Valley or come to visit their moms on Mother's Day.

So it's no surprise that buzz is building around certain names said to be mulling the race. Tops on many lists is state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg. The Sherman Oaks lawyer's appeal is multi-faceted. He's a mainline Democrat, which fits well in today's Valley, no longer the Republican stronghold of past decades. He may not possess the star power to get a prime table at Spago -- or possibly even Pinot Bistro, Joachim Splichal's Sherman Oaks outpost -- but Hertzberg had the chops to win the Legislature's top power job. He can raise serious money and, with Villaraigosa and county supervisor Gloria Molina among his closest allies, he's popular in some Latino circles, a plus in the multi-cultural Valley. (His wife, Dr. Cynthia Telles-Hertzberg, a psychiatrist on the faculty at UCLA medical school, is also active in Latino politics). Finally, if secession comes up for a vote next fall, Hertzberg will be conveniently available after hitting the legal limit of six years in his state office.

To make a mayoral run, Hertzberg first will have to explain the hostility toward secession he expressed in a 1999 L.A. Times op-ed piece that called the move ill-conceived. The Valley's partisans sound willing to forgive, since Hertzberg also pushed bills that will provide state money to fund the LAFCO study and give the city more council members. He declines, though, to address his interest in the job.

The betting is, he wouldn't have the field to himself anyway. Another potential frontrunner is state Senator Richard Alarcon, a former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley who has even deeper Valley roots -- he attended John Francis Polytechnic High in Sun Valley, not far from the barrio where his father settled in 1924. Alarcon portrays the Valley as routinely slighted by downtown, though his official secession stance is wait-and-see: "I've been open-minded. We should wait for the study to be concluded."

Pondering a hypothetical mayoral race is premature, Alarcon says, and the most he will admit to is feeling flattered to be mentioned. Among voters he may be better known than Hertzberg. Alarcon served on the Los Angeles City Council and joined the Senate in a 1998 triumph that brought new attention to the rising importance of Latino voters in the Valley, where half the population now cites some Hispanic heritage. In that election's ugly primary, he showed his willingness to scrap by using tactics that embittered some fellow Democrats. The man he defeated, Richard Katz, is another prominent Valley leader whose name merits buzz, despite his denials that he is interested.

Of the three, only Katz identifies openly with the secessionist cause. The former assemblyman recently joined the board of Valley VOTE, which turned in 200,000 voter signatures to force secession onto the civic stage. His presence gives added credibility to the group, which is dominated by officers of homeowner associations. Even Katz, who lives in Sylmar, stops short of endorsing a breakup -- yet: "For me it will come down to can we deliver better services. But I want to make sure it won't cost people more money."

Less shy is Bobbi Fiedler. The former congresswoman is one of the few Valley leaders to flatly endorse secession. A Republican, she formed her political identity at Encino's Lanai Road Elementary School, where she mobilized other mothers to protest busing. Fiedler can expect to attract some support if she joins the non-partisan race, although she will find the Valley's voters less conservative than when she last won election in 1984.

Under the rules of municipal divorce, LAFCO decides whether secession -- and the mayoral derby -- goes on the November 2002 ballot. If it does, candidates will have to reveal their intention to run before they know whether the break-up will fly. Don't be surprised if the hopefuls wait as long as possible to go public. For now, the polls offer them little guidance. In the Valley, Katz figures, "15 to 20 percent of people are strongly for it, 15 to 20 percent are strongly against, and then you have the vast majority who don't know yet. First it has to get on the ballot."

©Kevin Roderick 2001