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Los Angeles Elections Could 'Divide' City - 2002-05-31

Bernard Parks, who was denied a second term as Los Angeles police chief, is now running for a seat on the Los Angeles city council. The announcement shifts the political balance in a city that may be on the verge of splintering.

The former chief says he does not want to get even with the man who effectively ended his career, Los Angeles mayor James Hahn. Mayor Hahn opposed a second five-year term for Mr. Parks, who says his run for city council, representing South Los Angeles, will allow him to continue serving the city. "I hope that this is not going to be labeled as a contest between individuals. I think what is important is the overall city," he says.

Mr. Parks hopes to represent the eighth council district, which is half African-American and 40 percent Hispanic. The district's black voters overwhelmingly supported the mayor in last year's election, but his disintegrating relationship with the former police chief has cost the mayor support there. Former chief Parks is African-American, and his move into politics comes at a critical time.

November 5, voters will decide whether to split Los Angeles into separate cities, granting autonomy to the suburban San Fernando. The most prominent opponent of the split is Mayor Hahn.

Nearly 60 percent of people in the San Fernando Valley favor separation, but the measure must be approved by a majority of Los Angeles residents. Black voters could be the swing vote, says political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California. "The stars are aligning in very strange ways politically in Los Angeles," she says. "And that is partly a result of the movement of secession onto the ballot, and it is partly the result of political decisions made within the city by the mayor, and the response of a community, the black community, which sees its political clout eroding in the city."

City council candidate Parks has not taken a stand on secession and says he is studying the issue. But the former chief says he understands why many voters want it. "They believe there is too much self-interest and too much dealing with individual personalities and not enough about the betterment of the city," he says.

If voters grant autonomy to the San Fernando Valley, Chicago would again become America's "second city," after New York. Los Angeles would drop to number three. The San Fernando Valley, with 1.3 million people, would be the sixth largest city in the country.

A successful secession movement would drastically change the political balance in Los Angeles. Mayor Hahn would lose many of his supporters, who live in the Valley. And African-Americans, who have lost political clout in the face of immigration from Latin America, would see their influence grow on Los Angeles city council. There is even talk of a run for mayor by the former police chief. Complicating the politics of the sprawling West Coast city is another secession movement in Hollywood. A local commission will decide next week if Hollywood could function as an independent city. If the answer is yes, that issue will also appear on the November ballot, along with a list of rival candidates for public offices in the new cities. Says political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, it all makes for an unusually lively local election.