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Gas Prices, Not Politics, Preoccupy Valley Voters

23 May 2001 , 17:05459
On the sidelines of a boisterous cricket game in Woodley Avenue Park, where men knock back beer from red plastic cups, nobody is talking about compressed work schedules for police officers.
The scheduling debate--a recent flash point in the Los Angeles mayoral race--isn't much of a conversation item among joggers circling Balboa Lake, either.
What matters to people here tends to be far more personal, far more connected to the workaday struggles of weary drivers slogging their way through rush-hour traffic than the political battles engulfing City Hall.
Gasoline prices. Long commutes. Mediocre schools. Housing costs. At the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area, the Valley's answer to Central Park, such ordinary concerns about money, time and resources stretched too thin for comfort tumbled out again and again during interviews with some two dozen people visiting this green oasis.
Sprawling northwest from the tangled junction of the San Diego and Ventura freeways, the recreation area is a pastoral patchwork of three golf courses bracketed by Woodley Avenue Park to the east and Lake Balboa to the west. It hardly looks like a battleground, but the 2,000-acre park straddles something of a political fault line in the mayoral contest.
Both candidates in the June 5 runoff, former state legislator Antonio Villaraigosa and City Atty. James K. Hahn, have staked out the Valley as prime campaign turf, packed with thousands of up-for-grabs voters whose affections might well tip the race.
And the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area is wedged between an electoral no man's land--a southern ribbon of the Valley where about 60% of voters shunned both men in the election's first round--and a central Valley region where Villaraigosa took first place in April, beating Hahn by roughly a 2-to-1 margin.
Between them, the candidates are expected to spend more than $10 million by election day to get their messages out. But it's not clear whether these impassioned appeals are reaching their intended targets.
Less than a month before the election, many people here are preoccupied with concerns that have little to do with City Hall. And when they do voice interest in local matters, some seem unable to connect these issues to a candidate.
For instance, several Valley voters interviewed in the park in early May said that knotted traffic on the San Diego Freeway was a major problem. But no one mentioned a plan Villaraigosa unveiled in March to buy hundreds of new buses and slash fares in a sweeping bid to cut vehicle traffic, or a proposal from Hahn to add more carpool lanes on freeways.
Which raises a fundamental challenge for would-be mayors: Sometimes, there's just too much going on in everyday life to tune in to city politics. "I know I ought to," many people confess sheepishly, "but I just haven't gotten around to it yet."
Take Randye Sandel, 58, a blond and bespectacled oil painter from Valley Village. Sandel said she plans to vote for Hahn, "a known quantity" in City Hall, but a moment later admits that she might change her mind. The thing is, Sandel adds, she's been really busy setting up an art exhibition at a Santa Monica gallery and has yet to research her mayoral options. "I've been totally immersed in my own life," she said.
Same goes for Harold Seay, a muscular golfer heading back to his car after playing 18 holes. The 44-year-old music teacher from Encino said he's had his hands full for weeks rehearsing graduation recitals for a Brentwood private school. "The news is the last thing I'm paying attention to," he said.
But both voters can easily rattle off their most pressing concerns. Sandel, who used to teach art at Valley College, said she is particularly worried about education.
"The last few semesters I taught, I was horrified by the academic preparedness of the students. They were practically illiterate," she said. "They couldn't take notes from my lecture because they didn't understand the vocabulary. That bothers me a lot. Who's going to inherit this country?"
Seay, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Miami, said he is troubled by the air pollution and racial tension he has encountered here. Seay is African American and his wife is Italian, he said, and their 9-year-old daughter is "stuck half-and-half," caught in what Seay regards as a troubling black-white divide. "That black-white thing really turns me off," he said. "I care about people getting along."
As the mayoral race hurtles into its final weeks, some of Hahn and Villaraigosa's most spirited skirmishes have erupted over crime and law enforcement issues. Each man is trying to burnish his own crime-fighting credentials while accusing his rival of neglecting public safety.
The candidates have squabbled especially fiercely over compressed work schedules for police officers--the notion of squashing the police workweek into three 12-hour days, or possibly four 10-hour days. The Police Protective League endorsed Hahn, who supports the so-called 3-12 schedule favored by the union. Villaraigosa, whom Hahn has often characterized as soft on crime, seized upon the scheduling issue to retaliate, arguing that the three-day week would jeopardize public safety.
But interviews with people visiting the Valley's biggest park revealed that crime--which has declined significantly since Mayor Richard Riordan took office eight years ago--was not the main issue weighing on these voters' minds. That distinction belongs to something that has walloped wallets far and wide across this car-addled city: the soaring price of gasoline.
As he cooled down after a six-mile run near Balboa Lake, Ray Verdugo summed up the problem facing many gas-guzzlers as prices approached $2 a gallon: "I made a big mistake and bought a big SUV," lamented the retired Rocketdyne engineer from Winnetka. "I'm on a fixed income, and [gasoline prices] keep going up all the time."
Big-city mayors, to be sure, wield minimal influence over gasoline pumps. Gas prices are swayed by market forces, including the international cost of crude oil, rising demand and limited refinery capacity. Nonetheless, about a third of voters interviewed as they ambled around the Sepulveda Basin named gas prices as a top concern. Half as many said they were worried about crime.
Some voters said they were troubled by California's electricity woes, although Los Angeles residents have been spared shortages and blackouts because the city's municipal utility avoided deregulation.
"I think building more power plants would help," said Julie Erickson, 27, a figure-skating instructor from Reseda.
And then there are the things that people aren't talking about. Nobody (at least nobody in an admittedly unscientific sample of voters culled over two days in the Sepulveda Basin) mentioned the Rampart police scandal or the recruiting problems crippling the Los Angeles Police Department.
No one uttered so much as a peep about neighborhood councils, that much-ballyhooed innovation of the new city charter. Even the Valley secession movement--which Villaraigosa has pointed to as "the biggest challenge facing Los Angeles"--hardly earned an honorable mention from this cross-section of Valleyites. Only one voter referred to secession at all, saying that she favored it.
Instead, many people voiced personal gripes, the kind of woes unlikely to vault to the center of the mayoral radar screen--but issues that nonetheless embody the high quality of life both candidates envision for Los Angeles.
One man, a sunburned golfer who lives in Van Nuys, said he's dismayed that the city hasn't finished building a new golf clubhouse and restaurant at the Woodley Lakes Golf Course. Another frequent park visitor, a retired housekeeper from Sherman Oaks, complained about the windblown litter she sees as she walks her dog around Balboa Lake.
But some problems vexing these voters seem frankly beyond the grasp of even the most poll-tested candidate.
Sandel, the oil painter, got downright metaphysical after a good 15 minutes spent mulling the troubles facing Los Angeles, and indeed the world. Technology, she concluded, was advancing so rapidly that it was crowding out humanity's intuitive, spiritual side.
"I think there's an extraordinary sense of collective despair and psychological uncertainty smoldering just below the surface," she said. "I don't know what City Hall can do about that."


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