No Divorce

The Valley will rise again, even if we have to sue: that was the vow of secessionists as the measure to breakup the City of Los Angeles went down in defeat, winning by a narrow margin in the San Fernando Valley but losing in the citywide vote.

But supporters of the breakaway effort were decidedly more subdued at a Wednesday morning press conference, saying that they were exploring a variety of options but would not necessarily pursue legal action.

Measure F, which would have allowed the San Fernando Valley to become an independent city, was defeated with 67 percent of voters citywide voting against, despite a narrow majority of Valley voters running 51 percent in favor. The measure was unique in its requirement that it pass both within the Valley and in a combined Valley and City of Los Angeles vote.

Jews were involved on both sides of the secession battle, but communities in both the Valley and the city were opposed to the measure primarily because they felt it would disenfranchise the poor.

From the beginning, secessionists agreed that theirs was a long shot, and election returns throughout the night bore that assessment out. But far from being depressed, Tuesday night found breakaway advocates in good spirits, gobbling up chocolate-covered strawberries as "Big Country" boomed from the sound system at the Radisson Hotel in Sherman Oaks. Valley candidates, a good percentage of whom are Jewish, expressed their optimism despite the early returns.

"I really believe we’ll carry the Valley," said Carol Silver, a candidate for the Valley City Council’s 7th District. "Los Angeles has just done too little, too late. People feel that, for the first time in a long time, their vote counted."

Like a lot of secession supporters, Silver, the owner of a PIP printing store, found the issue had spurred her to a whole new level of civic involvement. She said she did not know if she would run for an L.A. city office if secession were defeated. "I’m not ruling anything out. I may not run again, but I’ll always be a part of the process."

On the opposition side, things were relatively quiet at one of the two anti-secessionist outposts in the Valley. At the Democratic Party of the Valley’s Encino headquarters, about 75 people gathered to watch the returns and toast each other with Camelot wine (a poke at one of the possible names for the new Valley city). Rep. Brad Sherman, currently of the 24th District, did not have long to wait to breathe his sigh of relief; by 9 p.m. CNN had called the 27th congressional race in his favor. Most of the concentration then went to other Democratic candidates including Lloyd Levine — who would go on to win the race for State Assembly’s 40th District — and the governor’s race, where Bill Simon had taken a premature lead. Secession, partiers felt, was in the bag.

Meanwhile, at the Sheraton Universal, a restless crowd from L.A. United also seemed more focused on the gubernatorial race than on Measure F. Volunteers from the group had worked tirelessly to defeat the breakaway effort, aided by the giant war chest of $7.4 million amassed by Mayor James Hahn.

Most anti-secessionists interviewed predicted (incorrectly, as it turned out) that Measure F would be defeated in the Valley as well as the citywide vote. Some, like former City Councilman Michael Feuer, expressed their fervent hope that such an outcome would finally put an end to the breakaway effort.

"This secession campaign is a distraction from actually fixing things," Feuer said. "The mayor, the city councilmembers, everyone had to put their time into thinking and working on secession when they should be working every waking moment to make things better in the city."

Asked if he thought a boroughs system or more powerful neighborhood councils might get another look now that secession had failed, Feuer said he did not think those were the solutions to the Valley’s problems.

"I’m skeptical of this flavor-of-the-month approach to reforms. We need to give the reforms that are already out there time to work," he said. "For example, it’s very early in the evolution of neighborhood councils. We should give those a chance for a little bit. Saying, ‘We’re impatient to improve things in the city’ is different than saying, ‘Lets add one layer of reforms after another.’"

Los Angeles Police Department Chief William Bratton soaked in the party’s atmosphere from the side of the stage. The newly installed chief of police, who has been vocal regarding his opposition to secession, said he foresaw some good coming out of the secession movement.

"It’s brought a lot of attention to their concerns," said the chief.

"Whether or not those concerns are justified is a matter of perception, but we in the [police] department certainly intend to give it a fresh look."

Back at the Radisson, Jewish community activist Scott Svonkin watched the election returns from his penthouse suite, surrounded by family and friends. Although he won his bid for the Valley City Council’s 14th District, it was a bittersweet victory, since the loss of Valley secession left him a councilman pro forma. He did get to participate in a press conference Wednesday morning with the other winning candidates, but the future of the Valley’s "council in exile" seemed unclear.

"I would be happier today if I were councilman of a city, but I’m very gratified with the outcome of the election," Svonkin said.

On election eve, Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment chair Richard Close and others discussed taking the issue to court if a majority of the Valley voted for Measure F.

Svonkin said he did not know if that fight would continue, but he acknowledged that changes were in the air and he hoped to be a part of them, as did the other Valley candidates.

"I think it’s my obligation as one of the top candidates to ensure the Valley gets the things the voters spoke out for — a fair share of resources, better services and a more responsive government," Svonkin said.

Whether the mayor will accept the olive branch extended to him remains to be seen.

"There is an opportunity here, when the noise dies down," Feuer said. "The mayor and the city council need to go to the people and say, ‘Now we’re going to show you that we are better as a larger city and this is how it will work.’"

One on One With Joel Wachs

He says he’s 61, but you wouldn’t know it either to look at him or the paper-shrouded desk in his downtown office. After half a life crusading, his batteries retain their charge even as his office space threatens to succumb to the ever-encroaching mudslide of municipal files. I am told that City Councilman Joel Wachs prefers holding forth from his offices in Studio City. But today is a day for meetings and interviews — it is past 3 p.m. and I am his third griller of the afternoon. He is always this busy, even more so now that he is running for mayor, and his desk is always on the verge of collapse. “I haven’t taken a day off in 20 months,” he confides.

Sheldon Teitelbaum: We keep hearing about the ethnic divisions that rive this town. Why aren’t we seeing them reflected in this race?

Joel Wachs: It’s something that’s been grossly overemphasized. The differences are on the outside. Inside, people are fundamentally the same. They came here for the same reasons my parents or grandparents came to this country 100 years ago. They come to make a better life for themselves and their families. They see a country filled with possibility. So now they’re coming from Latin America or Asia instead of Eastern Europe, but it’s all basically the same thing. So they all want to make a living, raise a family, get a better education, be safe in the neighborhood, move up in the world.

ST: Are you saying that second- and third-generation Americans are largely sympathetic to these successive waves of immigration?

JW: I think they are, and I think it’s important for leaders to remind us that they should be.

ST: Granted. But within this disparate city we also have to recognize that the majority of people are Hispanic. And this community faces the possibility its next mayor will be Jewish. Is something askew with this picture?

JW: I don’t think so. No one person can be everything — black and Latino and Jewish and Asian and Anglo and man and woman and straight and gay. You can only be one person. You just have to be the kind of person who genuinely wants to, and will, embrace the rest. It’s about finding greatness, strength and beauty in the variety, and recognizing that as an asset, something that makes L.A. unique, perhaps even defines it. You have to have a system of government that includes everybody, but you have to be a mayor of everybody. The reason I have been the strongest proponent of neighborhood government is that there is an institutional framework that enables everyone to contribute what they can, to grow as individuals, to feel they are a part of something, that this is their government and their city.

ST: Do you see any downsides at all in this devolution of city government here? Just as a school or a police department can blow it big time, leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces, so too, I imagine, could a neighborhood council.

JW:: I have this amazing belief in people. It’s not only about responding to the sense of alienation but recognizing that most people are good and care and want to contribute their fair share, and really do want to be a part of the system. If you give people that chance, what the city will get in return is the aggregate benefit of all the many things people here are capable of contributing.

ST: If there’s been any kind of animus manifested among the candidates, it seems to be between you and Steve Soboroff.

JW: That’s more personal than anything. It’s not ideological at all. I don’t want it to be that way, but that’s the way it is.

ST: In many ways you all seem to share a great deal more in common in your approaches than not.

JW: You’ll see an awful lot in common in what we all say. In politics, as in everything, have you done and will you do what you say? It’s very easy to figure out what you think you should say. But will you do it when you’re tested? Where will your allegiances be when you have to make choices? We all say we’re for the environment, but will you be when a project comes along and a real estate developer who is very influential at giving campaign contributions pushes the other way? We all say we’re for historic preservation, but will you have the guts to say no when the cardinal wants to tear down a cathedral? My career has been 30 years of standing up for what I say and believe in. There are times where I stand alone, where I buck all the powerful interests. That’s fine. You make enemies that way, it’s tougher to raise money that way, but you also gain respect and self-respect.

ST: Having stood alone in opposition as often as you have during your career, is it possible now to govern?

JW: It hasn’t been just in opposition. Many times standing alone is the first step in bringing about change. I fought the water and power department for 20 years, saying it was bloated and overstaffed, and it was, and finally we brought in the first outside, independent audit. It took a quarter of a billion out of the budget, streamlined the operation, and now we’re the model utility in the entire state at a time when others could potentially go bankrupt. The initial stand is not just a stand in and of itself but a step toward improvement. Endless changes in city government that have made it more efficient and productive were changes that took that battle at first. I never fight the battles for their own sake. When I fought the $150 million tax subsidy for the sports arena or $100 million subsidy for a hotel downtown, it’s not just because I want to stop that but because I have a different sense of priorities and reflect the priorities of a community that can use that money for other things — to pave streets, fix sidewalks and trim trees, put books in schools and after-school programs for kids and paramedics. I fight chemical contamination of water not just to fight but because I want to clean up the water. I don’t fight air-spraying of malathion just to fight but to find an alternative. Often these fights are politically harmful because you step on interest groups.

ST: How powerful are these various interest groups these days? It’s been a while since the last time I watched “Chinatown.”

JW: They’re very powerful. And not just here. It’s about money. It always goes back to money. You need money to run for office. The forces that get people elected, keep them in office and get them to the next place will always be powerful. The ability to make decisions in secret behind closed doors always makes it possible for people to do things they might not otherwise do if the public were looking. People act a lot differently when someone is looking over their shoulder.

ST: How do you respond to those in this campaign who say you don’t trust the folks who dug the hole to pull you out of it?

JW: Most people reject that. It’s not whether you’ve been in government for 30 years but what kind of job you’ve done. The reason we’re leading in the polls without having spent almost any money is because not only have we been in office but we’ve done a good job. Everyone can talk a good game at election time. But do you have something to prove you’re the real thing? I have my record, my vision, and people will judge me as such. So when someone says you’ve been there so long, I’ll say, yeah, and I’m really proud of my record. If there had been 15 Joel Wachs, things would have been real different.

ST: Each of the candidates paid lip service to how awful the Rampart business is. And then the “buts” come.

JW: It’s not buts. It’s that it shouldn’t be either/or. Reforming the department or protecting the public shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. You can’t have one without the other as far as I’m concerned. We can and should have both.

ST: So why do I get the sense from all of you that the onus is actually on the public to win back the department?

JW: The issue has been framed — and Steve [Soboroff] has partly framed it that way — that reform is okay, but you’re tying the hands of the department to do its job. I’m saying it’s not one or the other — it’s both. I think I have support from so many officers because they realize it’s both. The good officers don’t want to be tainted by the bad ones. But there has been a code of silence. And it is maintained more at the top than the bottom. That’s why I pick on management more than on rank and file. The management is doing the investigating. Who is looking at themselves? We wouldn’t have known there was a Rampart if it wasn’t for Rafael Perez getting caught and stealing drugs. The reason I was the first to call for an outside investigation and take it wherever it went is that I knew it would never come voluntarily. We had to do that and only because the mayor and chief were pig-headed about it that we not have the federal government coming in. So wring it all out, I say. Open this culture up. Look at it in a broad way, reform the department, but always remember that public safety is always the number one priority of a local government.

ST: So what’s the deal with education? I understand the bully pulpit. But if, as you say, it always comes down to money, then let’s understand the next mayor has no budget that says “education” on it.

JW: Okay, you have no legal authority. But if you allow the Belmonts to happen — Belmont is to the school district what Rampart is to the police that some of the MTA cost overruns and boondoggles are to transportation. If you permit the bad things to happen and continue, you not only waste a lot of money but undercut public support for giving the very resources the system needs. We need more money for teachers, not less. There’s something crazy about a society that pays a ball player $10 million but begrudges a teacher $10,000. We need smaller classes and better teachers and more technology. All the things that make it better for rich people in private schools, we need more in the public schools. But when people use the failures as an excuse to cut support? So if a mayor says he can help bring some reform to that, some changes, you have begun to create an environment that creates public support for schools.

I cringe at a Belmont not only because of the wasted money and environmental disaster but because it serves as an excuse not to support the schools. An educated workforce drives the modern economy. So I have to believe that to the extent that you can use your position on something as important as this — people leave the city for other educational systems — the well-being of the city depends on this. Yes, there is a board of education that runs that. But I think the current mayor was right in involving himself in trying to improve the system. That’s different from saying I would do all the things he says he would like to do. But there’s no doubt of the ability of the mayor to effect change by virtue of being the spokesperson of the second largest city in the country — I think that’s true, and the public wants to see that in their mayor.

ST: Rabbi Harold Schulweis recently told congregants that as Jews we are commanded to take an interest in the ills afflicting other parts of this city and to take a hand in resolving them. Given our own propensity to flock either to the West Valley or the Westside or to gated communities and private schools, do you have the sense that this community has heeded the call?

JW: I see enormous numbers of people doing good in every neighborhood. It’s heartwarming to see it. You’d be surprised how good a lot of people really are. If we learned anything from the riots a decade ago, it’s that you can’t build walls around you and divorce yourself from the rest of society. It’s not only not possible, it’s not moral, and certainly not the way Jews are raised. I’m out there every day, and I watch endless examples of people who put their time and energy to help others, to help elderly, to make sure kids have something going for them after school. I think mayors can lead in that way by setting a tone, by how they lead and live by example, by how they focus the attention of others. Mayors ought to be saying the same thing mayors should say. What Rabbi Schulweis said is what I expect of my rabbi. But politicians should be saying similar things. It shouldn’t only be rabbis who say these things. Mayors may reach people that rabbis can’t.