Yaroslavsky reflects on decision to leave politics

In an interview with The Journal on Thursday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that he hasn’t spent much time yet thinking specifically about what he’s going to devote his time and energy to after he leaves public office at the end of his term in 2014, but he said he will continue to work in the areas that have been priorities for him—especially helping to address the needs of the homeless and providing healthcare to those who cannot afford insurance.

Yaroslavsky, 63, had announced on his Web site Thursday morning that he will not enter next year’s Los Angeles mayoral race, despite having entertained the possibility for many months. He wrote that he will leave politics altogether once his term with the L.A. County Board of Supervisors ends in 2014.

“I have no doubt that, with my expertise and experience, I could help transform L.A.’s fortunes. In the end, however, it is this very length of service that has tipped the scales for me,” Yaroslavsky wrote.

He described the decision as “one of the most difficult … of my political life.”

Yaroslavsky was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1975, at age 26, after being a prominent advocate for the cause of Soviet Jewry. When his current term ends, he will have been in public office for almost 40 years. Yaroslavsky said his plans are to “move on to the other things I’ve longed to do outside the political arena.”

[Related: Video: Yaroslavsky goes out for the count ]

Yaroslavsky said he also planned to write and teach in a part-time capacity, and said he hoped to continue his work overseas monitoring elections and working to advance democratization.

The L.A. native also said he will not be leaving Los Angeles.

“I’m not moving away,” Yaroslavsky said, “I’m going to stay involved in issues that I care about in this city.”

This isn’t the first time that Yaroslavsky has declined to run for mayor after being suggested as a potential candidate, and he had been considering a run to succeed L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa over at least the past two years. He was considered by many to be a serious contender, though he never officially announced a mayoral bid.

A Center for the Study of Los Angeles poll released in April showed Yaroslavsky ranking alongside the two official frontrunner candidates, Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Gruel. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who also is running, was ranked fourth.

An outpouring of praise for Yaroslavsky Thursday, including from those candidates, prompted the County Supervisor to joke that “the praise has been so incredibly effusive that I was reconsidering my decision, and I was going to claim their endorsements.”

In making his announcement on his blog, however, Yaroslavsky was definitive and serious.

“Simply put, it’s time for a new generation of leaders to emerge and guide this region into the future,” he wrote.

Praise for Yaroslavsky came from an intergenerational group of elected officials and community leaders.

“As a councilman and supervisor of Los Angeles, he has a remarkable legacy,” Rep. Henry Waxman said in an interview Thursday, “and it’s a been an honor to work with him on issues such as public health, transportation and veteran’s issues.”

Waxman first met Yaroslavsky when the latter was leading California Students for Soviet Jewry as a student at UCLA.

“He was a voice of conscience for these people who wanted to live a life of freedom in the United States or go to Israel,” Waxman, who has represented West Los Angeles in Congress since 1975, said.

California Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who succeeded Yaroslavsky on the L.A. City Council, called him “an extraordinary public servant,” citing Yaroslavsky’s work on behalf of “seniors, kids, public health, the environment, transportation and more.”

“He’s made an indelible mark on L.A., and it continues to be a privilege to work closely with him,” Feuer said.

The current representative of the fifth council district, Councilman Paul Koretz, was a student when Yaroslavsky first ran for city council in 1975.

“He had a virtually unfunded campaign,” said Koretz, who worked on Yaroslavsky’s campaign over that summer. He was expected to finish “fourth or worse,” Koretz said, but Yaroslavsky managed a narrow second-place finish in the primary, thanks to community support and the willingness to walk door-to-door to meet voters.

“Then it just took on a life of his own,” Koretz said of the 1975 campaign.

Koretz said he was “very disappointed” Yaroslavsky won’t be running for mayor.

“I think he’s probably the best budgeter in L.A. County in any elected office,” Koretz said, “and I think he would’ve been exactly what the City of Los Angeles needs from the next mayor right now.”

“He’s among the most honest, smart and dedicated public servants I’ve ever come across,” Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Isarel of Hollywood, said of Yaroslavsky, “and hopefully something big will be named in his honor to recall to the minds and hearts of Angelenos that this was a politician of integrity and a public servant of great import.”

“I will miss him in public office,” added Rosove, who called Yaroslavsky a friend., “But I’m sure that he will continue to do great works, because that’s the nature of his heart and mind and soul.”

Yaroslavsky wouldn’t say whether he will endorse any of the other mayoral candidates, making the point that whoever wins will have to deal with what he called the “mess” of the city’s budget.

“Part of having to deal with it is going to be saying ‘no’ to the people who supported them in the election,” Yaroslavsky said, adding that a “bold candidate” might demonstrate during the campaign the capacity to disappoint both business interests and union interests.

Yaroslavsky called all the candidates “good people,” but said he wasn’t hopeful about any of them taking such a potentially unpopular step.

“People aren’t going to want to alienate constituencies,” he said.

Yaroslavsky was born in Boyle Heights and has lived in the Fairfax district since he was a boy. He has long been a strong advocate for Jewish causes, and for Israel, and said he would continue to stay involved in the Jewish community.

“It’s my home,” he said. “It’s who I am.”

Yaroslavsky acknowledged that, as he prepares to step out of politics, there are far fewer Jews holding public office today than in years past, and it’s less clear who in the coming generation of Jewish leaders might take his place.

Compared to the seven Jews serving on the City Council when Yaroslavsky left in 1994, today only three council members are Jewish – Perry, Koretz, and Mitchell Englander.

Yaroslavsky said he hasn’t really analyzed the reasons for the “diminution of Jewish communal interest in the political arena,” but expressed confidence that Jews working in the business, entertainment and nonprofit sectors will step up to take his mantel as future public officials.

Though he confessed that there are some things he will not miss about being in public office, Yaroslavsky called those things “trivial.”

“I’m blessed that I get to get up every morning and do what I love to do,” he said. “I’m just smart enough to know that I don’t think I’d love it as much for 50 years as I’ve loved it for 40 years.”