VICA's Silence Puts Crimp in Secession Push
By HOWARD FINE
With citywide support for San Fernando Valley secession trailing substantially in the polls, proponents looking to turn the tide could use big-money donors and fast.
But the Valley Industry and Commerce Association the one business group in the Valley with the clout and the corporate membership needed for such a push has remained on the sidelines and will continue to do so for most of the rest of the campaign.
VICA, which could have taken a position on secession months ago, instead has opted to poll its 400-member companies after Labor Day and release the survey results in the final week of September, just six weeks before the Nov. 5 election.
"That's when people will really be focused on the election and our announcement of our position will have the greatest impact," said VICA Chairman Fred Gaines.
But even if VICA's members choose to support secession and that's by no means certain the support may be too little, too late to do the secession campaign much good. Should the secession vote remain up for grabs by October, there will be little time to tap the VICA membership for critical fundraising.
Secession opponents, led by L.A. Mayor James Hahn, already have raised more than $1.5 million, with at least another $1 million in commitments.
The stated goal of L.A. United, the group leading the anti-secession campaign, is to raise at least $5 million; they are on track to raise substantially more than that.
Secession proponents refuse to disclose how much they have raised. The stated goal is $2 million to $4 million, but political consultants and others suspect they will be hard-pressed to raise $2 million, especially since the first round of fundraising letters are only now being sent out.
Business donors sought
It could take as much as $5 million to mount a media campaign that could counteract the anti-secession side. That kind of money is unlikely to come through $100 or $500 donations from committed residents; major corporate donations of $100,000 or more are also needed. (Because this is not an election for offices in the City of Los Angeles, the city's $1,000 contribution caps do not apply.)
Valley VOTE executive board member and former state Assemblyman Richard Katz said secession supporters are aggressively seeking contributions from business, whether they are in VICA or not.
"We obviously hope the membership of VICA and other business organizations will support us and write checks," Katz said. "But we're not waiting for their support. We're already soliciting their member businesses and businesses outside that organization."
The most recent Los Angeles Times poll showed support for Valley secession at 52 percent in the San Fernando Valley and 38 percent citywide, down from 57 percent and 47 percent respectively in a similar poll taken three months ago. To pass, Valley secession needs a majority vote both in the Valley and citywide.
"If the secession proponents had a mountain to climb before those poll numbers came out, they are now confronted with a Mount Everest," said political consultant Richard Lichtenstein. "Those poll numbers make it virtually impossible for businesses that aren't true believers in secession to even think of supporting it, let alone write checks."
Without a group like VICA to help turn on the fundraising spigot, Lichtenstein said secessionists will be hard-pressed to keep pace with opponents in the fundraising department. "VICA provides the 'Good Housekeeping' seal of approval that would reassure businesses," he said.
Hahn visits chambers
While there are dozens of other chambers in the Valley, most of them are neighborhood groups. Besides VICA, the only Valleywide organizations are the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley and the United Chambers of Commerce.
The non-profit Economic Alliance is barred from lobbying or political fundraising. The United Chambers of Commerce is primarily an umbrella organization of chambers whose board has twice put off votes on secession a fact Hahn trumpeted last week along with the poll results.
"We've been meeting extensively with chamber representatives all across the Valley, and I'm convinced that's one of the reasons the United Chambers of Commerce and many other chambers have so far chosen to remain neutral on the secession issue," Hahn said last week.
The board of the United Chambers is tentatively set to vote on secession this week.
Gaines, who notes that a majority of VICA board members probably favor secession, said that taking a position later in the campaign and from the full membership, not just the board would have more impact. Also, he said, "a lot of board members felt it would be more valuable to be neutral for as long as possible so we can try to get out balanced information to our members."
But other sources said a crucial reason for the board's reluctance to take a stand was fear of retribution from Hahn's office. "A lot of our members do business with the city and it was very clear to them that they could run into trouble if they supported secession," one source said.
Earlier this year, Hahn sent members of his economic development team and other administration members to Valley business groups in an effort to keep them from declaring their support for secession.
Accounts of those meetings differ. Secession proponents claim Hahn's staff was bullying the groups with threats of harsher treatment at City Hall if they went on the record supporting secession. Officials with L.A. United said staff members were simply asked to answer secession-related questions.
Whatever the case, just the fact that Hahn administration officials were attending these meetings may have been enough to convince some VICA members to remain on the sidelines. "These companies realized they could not afford the risk of antagonizing an administration that was going to be regulating them," Lichtenstein said.
For the secessionists' strategy, having VICA stay neutral could be just as harmful as an outright vote against secession.
"VICA going neutral would be a big blow to the secessionists," said Kam Kuwata, campaign consultant to L.A. United. "After all, many of their board members are also on the board of Valley VOTE."
Valley VOTE board member Katz, who is also on the board of VICA, disagreed.
"If VICA remains neutral, we will still go after individual members for funding." Katz said. "VICA businesspeople know better than anyone how hard it is to do business in the city of L.A."
And even if VICA's member companies ultimately come out in support of secession, they may not give the green light to raise funds, Gaines said.
If not, Lichtenstein said the major source of funding most likely would have to come from the efforts of three outspoken business leaders: attorney David Flemming, auto dealer magnate Burt Boeckmann and Lod Cook, former chief executive of Atlantic Richfield Co.
"They are well-respected entrepreneurs and I have no doubt they would get their calls returned," Lichtenstein said. "But I don't think they can match the reach of billionaires Eli Broad, Ron Burkle and Ed Roski, all of whom have joined the opposition to secession."
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