LOS ANGELES — Signs are growing that this city the nation's second-largest metropolis, which recently appeared on track toward splitting into two cities may not yet be ready for divorce.
A Los Angeles Times poll this month suggests a sudden U-turn in support for a secession measure on the November ballot, with a near majority of registered voters now opposing it.
Polls just last March showed citywide support close to the necessary 50 percent the first serious sign that the six-year-old, grass-roots secession movement in the million-resident San Fernando Valley could succeed. Those polls showing that an uprising of suburbanites could succeed grabbed headlines worldwide and galvanized factions on all sides of the issue, even spawning breakaway movements by smaller civic entities with similar beefs over unfair sharing of government resources.
But a key Times poll this month shows that voters citywide are leaning against the idea, 38-47 percent. Secessionists are outraged that the air is going out of their balloon before the formal campaigns have seriously begun to publicly discuss the actual merits of the proposal that will appear on the November 5 ballot. (A Hollywood secession bid is also on the ballot, but a harbor-area breakaway bid failed to make it.)
Secessionists are pointing a finger at the state's largest newspaper the Los Angeles Times claiming it has steadily campaigned to undermine the seriousness of their effort. "The whole public debate is ... driven by a newspaper which is clearly against the idea," says Robert L. Scott, a board member for the San Fernando Valley Independence Committee (SFVIC). Along with other prosecession groups from the Valley, SFVIC has been researching the impacts of secession on delivery of city trash, police, and fire services, transportation, parks, libraries, and taxes. "The rug is being pulled out from under the idea before the public hears the debate," says Mr. Scott.
The Valley-based Daily News has largely trumpeted the pro side of secession, but it's circulation, 200,000, is only a fifth that of the Times, and is centered in the Valley. "It's like one of those old, one-newspaper towns of the Old West where powerful editors can set and control the popular agenda," complains Scott.
As evidence that the Times is wielding that influence unfairly, he and others say the turning point in public opinion came at the hands of a faulty poll by the Times. They hold that the respondent sample used in the paper's July 2 lead story consisted of registered voters citywide, instead of "likely" voters. Polls of "likely" voters show support for secession at about 50 percent, secessionists say. Some leading polling firms quietly concur that conventional poll strategy for predicting election outcomes is to use "likely voters."
The detail is important because since the Times carried the poll results in its front-page story July 2 under the headline, "Voters Oppose Breaking Up Los Angeles," a host of negative developments for secessionists have followed. Candidates have withdrawn their names from possible mayoral candidacy to head the new city. Key Latino and black leaders have come out against the new city, as have key former politicians from Mayor Richard Riordan to Assembly Speaker (and mayoral candidate) Antonio Villaraigosa.
"The reason no self-respecting politician wants to have his name in the hat is that none of them think it will pass," says Larry Berg, of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Government. "That's a very bad sign for the prosecessionists."
This week, Magic Johnson, the NBA Hall of Fame basketball star from the LA Lakers announced he'll campaign against secession. And a measure to offer voters an alternative to secession a plan to divide the city into boroughs was struck down July 16 by the City Council, a move suggesting they're now less fearful of secession support and aren't compelled to offer an option to stave it off.
Times management itself assigned top reporter David Shaw to compare Times and Daily News coverage. In a series of articles in June, Mr. Shaw concluded that the Times had indeed given short shrift to the idea because management had not taken the movement seriously, calling the tone of news coverage "sometimes derisive." Chastened by its own investigation, the Times assigned up to five reporters at a time to the issue. Yet the effect of that extra coverage appears to have weakened public support for secession. Others, including Times pollster Susan Pinkus, defend the Times coverage and poll methods.
"[Secessionists] are complaining because after more complete coverage of their issue the people are leaning against it," says Ms. Pinkus. She defends the use of "likely" voters in her poll because the vote is still nearly four months away.
As for how the shift in support occurred, most political analysts say the gloves have come off. Secessionists say that Mayor Hahn and other top officials are leaning on the city's 34,000 employees and any other politicians who aspire to public life to fight the movement. One example is former police chief Bernard Parks, now running for city council, who has recently stated he will oppose secession. He joins Mr. Johnson, who has redevelopment investments that depend on city money.
"This is going to be a very tough fight from the city people who have politicians, money, and experience on their side," says Mr. Berg. "It' very easy to create doubt in the minds of voters ... and when they are not sure, they vote 'no.'