By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
This district is, after all, secession country, where last November 61 percent of voters gave a big thumbs-up to carving a new Valley city out of Los Angeles. Contempt for City Hall, apparent throughout the Valley, is at its apex among the riding stables and office parks of Chatsworth, the gated developments of Porter Ranch and the spacious single-family homes of Northridge and Granada Hills. Residents and business owners make no secret of their disgust with the policy, politics and bureaucracy that emanate from downtown city offices an hour’s freeway drive away.
The reluctant Angelenos in the 12th Council District will not forget that voters citywide are to blame for secession’s defeat. No single institution inspires more outrage here than City Hall — no institution, that is, except for the hated Los Angeles Unified School District.
So voters in March weeded out 10 fresh faces, secession gadflies and old pols from their ballots and set up a May 20 runoff between Korenstein, the longest-serving active school-board member, and Smith, a 23-year City Hall employee backed by big money from downtown lawyers, corporate lobbyists and city-employee unions.
It’s enough to make Walter Prince scream.
“I think people here are still reeling from the secession problem,” said cityhood advocate Prince, one of the unsuccessful candidates in the March primary. “People just said, ‘The hell with it.’ Now we have these two, who are sidestepping the issues to just take potshots at each other. I didn’t do that kind of stuff. But then I didn’t do very well.”
A closer look at Korenstein and Smith reveals not only the bureaucratic backgrounds and downtown links that 12th District residents love to hate, but also the traits that often bring success in local politics, even in the breakaway-oriented northwest Valley. Both candidates have garnered a certain degree of grudging loyalty among their constituents. Korenstein has the edge in name recognition from her 16 years on the school board, but Smith, too, is well-known among the chambers of commerce and homeowner-association leaders. Smith is far ahead in fund-raising — having raised an amazing $300,000 since the primary — but Korenstein has pumped in $22,000 of her own money to bolster a respectable $100,000 in donations from teachers and labor interests.
Both candidates also tapped seasoned and expensive political consultants. Smith, the chief of staff to retiring Councilman Hal Bernson, went with Mitchell Englander. Korenstein, a former tutor, went with John Shallman. The campaigns have been heavy on mail and personal attacks.
The nasty tone has spilled over to raucous campaign appearances, where accusations are shouted from the audience and partisans scoff and boo when either candidate speaks.
“You’re being very rude,” Korenstein told a crowd at a Galpin Motors debate when her recital of her accomplishments drew laughter. “You may not like what I have to say, but it’s true.”
She repeatedly reminds voters that she battled the school-district bureaucracy to put air conditioning in stifling Valley schools, and that she led the charge to bring back phonics. Both statements generally bring cheers at candidate forums.
Her opponent has faced spirited audiences, too.
“Is this a question or a lynching?” Smith blurted when greeted with jeers over the independent-expenditure campaign featuring his name and his face on giant billboards. “I have nothing to do with those. I’m not even allowed to ask about them.”
The scoffing turns to wild applause when Smith shows — as he does routinely in debates — his LAPD badge and reminds this traditionally law-and-order community that he is a reserve officer.
“I carry a badge, and on weeknights I go out and serve the people of this community,” Smith said at one recent forum. “As a councilman, I will not only serve you, I will protect you.”
Emotions run high because of a perception that a style of life once common to the district is slipping away. Residents here enjoy the lowest population density and the most open space of any district in the city, and about 2,000 acres are zoned to allow property owners to keep horses. But riding trails that once led through open fields of wild mustard and sagebrush now are hemmed in by the huge Porter Ranch development. Plans for new bedroom communities just outside the city limits threaten to add thousands of commuters to clogged surface streets and freeways. A proposal by developer and Airport Commission president Ted Stein that required a zoning change spurred a suit by horse owners, who see it as the beginning of the end of the ranch character of Chatsworth. Homeowners blame the Sunshine Canyon landfill for polluting the water and sickening schoolchildren, and they study perchlorates and other contaminants leached from a closed Rocketdyne plant.
The district’s image already has been well-outstripped by reality. Chatsworth residents may tout their equestrian heritage, for example, but there are more low-slung office parks than ranches, and the community has quietly become the world capital of pornography, known more for its adult-video production than for cowboy poetry. The district may be one of the city’s whitest, but it has become increasingly diverse, and now is the home of a growing population from India and Pakistan. Demographic changes — along with the recent redistricting that traded off Sylmar for a swath of Encino — have ended the Republican voting majority.
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