State Assembly hopeful is a political and personal bridge builder

When Robert J. Blumenfield was 12, he covered the 1980 Democratic and Republican conventions as a reporter for a youth-oriented magazine, and he has been hooked on politics since.

In June, Blumenfield, 40, always addressed as Bob, won the Democratic primary to represent the 40th Assembly District in Sacramento, which in this heavily Democratic enclave in the San Fernando Valley is considered tantamount to election.

The Journal met with the candidate in a quiet coffee shop, close to the Van Nuys office of veteran Congressman Howard Berman, where Blumenfield’s multiple duties as district director include serving as liaison to the Jewish community.

To Blumenfield’s own surprise, he won the primary outright by 53 percent against three opponents in an Assembly district that includes Van Nuys, Northridge, Canoga Park and Woodland Hills.

The campaign to succeed the termed-out incumbent Lloyd Levine was acrimonious, fueled by chief opponent Stuart Waldman’s charges that Blumenfield’s father and Berman had funneled large contributions to the winning candidate through a nominally independent committee.

With national attention focused at the time on the Democratic presidential contest between Sen. Barack Obama, the first viable black presidential candidate, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, local political and social analysts took a special interest in Blumenfield’s family life.

His wife, Kafi, is black, has a law degree from UCLA and is now president and CEO of Liberty Hill, a foundation working for social, racial and economic equality in Los Angeles County.

Bill Boyarsky, a Journal columnist, moderated a debate among the Assembly candidates at a synagogue and filed a report on

“Bob Blumenfield is white, Jewish and chairs the Valley Advisory Board of the Anti-Defamation League,” Boyarsky wrote. “His wife is African American. They live across the street from his parents. She was in the audience at the synagogue. Twenty-five years ago, this would have been impossible.”

Then, pointing to Obama’s campaign, Boyarsky observed, “It could be that race relations in America are taking a new turn, unfamiliar to those of us who see everything through the prism of mid- and late- 20th century conflict.”

Kafi Blumenfield touched on the same topic, though suggesting that the “new turn” still had some way to go.

Speaking at Liberty Hill’s Upton Sinclair dinner, she reminisced, “After I arrived in Los Angeles, I met a wonderful man. His name is Bob Blumenfield. We got married…. We have a beautiful baby, who I hope is home asleep right now.

“Last month, I was trying to find a part-time baby sitter, and I got a call from our search agency. ‘Mrs. Blumenfield,’ the agent said, ‘would you hire a black?’

“Bob and I face a lot of challenges building bridges between his heritage and mine. Our daughter, Nia, will also face challenges of dealing with racism and anti-Semitism…. What community does my daughter belong to? She is black, and she’s Jewish. At her day care center, the kids speak Spanish.”

Nia is now two-and-a-half years old and, said her father, is being raised “100 percent Jewish and 100 percent African American.”

To cement the Jewish part, Nia had a baby conversion ceremony, conducted by a Reform rabbi. A little later, the parents held a baby naming ceremony for “Ruth” at the 212-year- old Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where some of the mother’s relatives live.

Asked how the respective families felt about the marriage, Bob Blumenfield said, “The reaction was generally positive, but there were a few hiccups. Our parents were very supportive.”

On the campaign trail, the interracial aspect tended to be a plus rather than a minus, and during debates the most hostile remark came from a questioner who wanted to know whether Blumenfield was loyal to the United States or to Israel.

Blumenfield was born in Brooklyn, but was raised in Scarsdale and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Beth Am Shalom, which he described as a Conservative/Reconstructionist temple. His father is a still-practicing psychiatrist and his mother a social worker.

“It was a mixed marriage,” said Blumenfield. “My father was a Republican and my mother a Democrat.” Eventually, mother and son brought the father over to their side.

After graduating from Duke University with a degree in public policy, Blumenfield headed for the nation’s capital in 1989 and landed a job as an aide to Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat.

He moved on to become legislative director of Berman’s office in Washington and, following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, focused on getting emergency relief for the stricken area.

Blumenfield got an even closer look at Los Angeles politics as government affairs director for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy between 1996 and 2000.

“It’s there I got to know a lot of political leaders, like Zev [Yaroslavsky] and Antonio [Villaraigosa], and also learned the difference between Sacramento and Washington politics,” he said.

Blumenfield made another switch in 2000 (“All my life decisions seem to coincide with presidential election cycles,” he observed) and became the district director for Berman’s congressional office in Van Nuys.

Surrounded by politics and politicians, Blumenfield had considered for a long time running for public office. After establishing a family, persuading his parents to leave the East Coast, and joining Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, he felt “rooted enough” to run for the Assembly seat.

If elected, one of his top priorities will be California’s “quality of life,” especially in upgrading the state’s infrastructure. “Every one dollar invested in infrastructure adds seven times that amount to the general economy,” he said.

Fundamentally, though, “everything begins and ends with the budget,” Blumenfield said, and he advocates eliminating the requirement for a two-thirds majority to pass the state budget, moving from a one-year to a two-year budget cycle and possible modifications of Proposition 13.

His Republican opponent in November is Armineh Chelebian, whose parents came to the United States from Iran in 1978 and who is of Armenian descent.

She is an accountant and describes herself as a mother, grandmother, pro-Israel and an optimist used to overcoming obstacles. “I am not a partisan politician,” she said. “I want to focus on the issues and serve the community.”

The Journal asked Howard Welinsky, the dean of Southern California Democrats and chair of Democrats for Israel, for his evaluation of Blumenfield.

Welinsky, who campaigned actively for Blumenfield in the primary, described the candidate as “very smart, experienced and thoughtful … in today’s world of blogs, it’s very hard to find someone like him.”

Welinsky added, “I favor candidates who are versed in public policy but realize that it takes politics to achieve their goals. Bob is one of the few who combines these qualities.”