Valley secession is finally on the ballot, and observers say the Jewish vote may well be a factor that tips the scale either for or against the biggest break away in U.S. history.
"We tend to constitute about 15 percent of local city voters in municipal elections," said statistician Pini Herman of Phillips & Herman Demographic Research. "Since we comprise about 5 percent of the population, that means we actually vote three times our numerical strength. It makes the Jewish community very important in the scheme of things."
From the moment the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) voted May 22 to put the issue of Valley secession before voters in November, backers and opponents of the issue began squaring off. Mayor James K. Hahn, a ferocious anti-secessionist, was joined at a May 23 press conference by his predecessor, former Mayor Richard Riordan, along with other prominent Angelenos like businessman Eli Broad. All promised to do everything in their power to defeat the measure. The next day, Valley VOTE and other pro-secession groups and individuals, including former Assemblyman Richard Katz, held a rally in Van Nuys to stir up the troops, bolstered by their victory in getting the issue on the ballot and by the most recent poll numbers. A Los Angeles Times poll in March showed 55 percent of Valley residents and 46 percent of city residents favored secession, a 10 percent increase over the numbers in a survey taken the previous year.
However, secessionists may have a tougher time convincing the public of their opinion than the polls indicate. It was clear at a meeting held April 30 at El Caballero Country Club by the Tarzana Homeowners Association that their members, mostly seniors (another high-turnout voting group), preferred the status quo to making the enormous changes secession requires. Some people said they were content with the services they received from the city; others said they were not satisfied with the vagaries of LAFCO's report, particularly the lack of specific plans for funding the new city. A few mocked the idea of the Valley being able to retain the fame-by-association of being a part of Los Angeles. As one man said derisively: "There's the Los Angeles Symphony, the L.A. Lakers -- what are we going to have here?"
This perception -- that the Valley is only important because of its connection to Los Angeles -- is one that mirrors similar feelings in the Jewish community. While some Jewish leaders can see the point that secessionists are trying to make -- that smaller government is more efficient and that the Valley doesn't receive the services it deserves -- no matter what their opinion of secession, many agree that it would be a bad move for the Jewish community.
Rabbi Alan Henkin spent the past year serving on the Council of Religious Leader's secession task force. The task force released a report last month opposing secession, primarily on the grounds that it will not help the poor and disadvantaged in the city or the Valley. In addition to the concerns expressed in the report, Henkin said he was also concerned about the impact of secession on the existing Jewish communities on both sides of the hill.
"This is going to divide the community, and I think it will dilute the role of Jews in politics in both cities," he predicted.
But Bruce Bialosky, president of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Los Angeles and a secession supporter, said he believed that "when people in the Jewish community take a hard look at the facts and see that the running of the city has chased a lot of Jews out of the city, they will come to the conclusion that secession is a good decision for everyone." Other secessionists, like Katz, point to the possibility of the Jewish community having even greater representation on both sides of the mountains, given that Jews have comprised a disproportionate number on the Los Angeles City Council and in city government.
Concerns about how secession will be perceived and strong opposition by trade unions and Democratic Party leaders have caused some hesitation when it comes to who will be running for office in a new Valley city. In what can only be called a bizarre situation, not only must citizens of the entire city vote on secession but, simultaneously, Valley residents only will have to vote for a mayor and a city council that might not come to pass.
This odd arrangement makes for a risky proposition for candidates: to spend money for a race in a city that may not exist once all the ballots are counted.
Scott Svonkin, chief of staff for Assemblyman Paul Koretz and former head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, is one of the people considering a run for city council in the new Valley city.
"It depends on whether I can build a broad enough coalition," he said.
Svonkin said many of the concerns about the Valley losing status if secession goes through are groundless.
"The greatness of Los Angeles -- the beaches, the mountains, the entertainment -- will all be here whether the Valley is independent or a part of the city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is special because of the places and the people who live here, not because of the structure of its government," he said. "Secession won't make people feel any less a part of the Los Angeles community, but it will bring government closer to them and make it more accessible."
No matter into which camp people in the Jewish community fall, it is tough to fight against what LAFCO member and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky sees as an emerging trend in government.
"We have to keep in mind that this change isn't only taking place in Los Angeles. This is sweeping all over the world," Yaroslavsky noted. "It's why Slovakia broke off from the Czech Republic and why Bosnia-Herzegovina wants to split off from Yugoslavia. Those cases may be ethnic, but they're also about local control.
"Things are changing so fast and so dynamically in our world; you have 100 pieces of information coming at you a mile a minute, and most things seem out of our control," he said. "People want to feel some semblance of control, at least over their frontyard, over the school across the street and over their neighborhood in general."