Opinion: What’s in a name?

When Morrie Stanley Mosk decided on a political career, he began referring to himself as M. Stanley Mosk and then Stanley Mosk. It was the 1940s and ’50s, and anti-Semitism was much more virulent than it is today. Mosk feared his Jewish name would hurt his chances of being elected.

In 1958, by then a distinguished Los Angeles superior court judge, Mosk ran for state attorney general. His Republican opponent continually referred to him as Morrie. Mosk won anyway, becoming the first Jew to be elected to statewide office in California. Later, he became a state Supreme Court justice. He died in 2001.

“Names are important,” Mosk’s son, state Appellate Court Justice Richard Mosk, told me. 

The justice contacted me because, more than a half-century after his father’s first fight for election, an ethnic name is figuring in the re-election campaign of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sanjay T. Kumar. Kumar is being opposed by Hawthorne Assistant City Attorney Kim Smith, who ran for the bench two years ago and was found to be “not qualified” for judicial office in that election.

What makes this an unusual election is that Kumar’s supporters say Smith is running against Kumar only because they believe he is vulnerable because of his name, bequeathed to him by his father, an Indian-born physician educated in Britain and at Massachusetts General Hospital. In the view of Kumar’s friends, a foreign-sounding name, especially one that hints of Indian, Pakistani or Middle Eastern ancestry, could be as risky politically in today’s world as a Jewish name was in the days when Stanley Mosk first ran for office. 

District Attorney Steve Cooley, who once was Smith’s colleague in the district attorney’s office, opposes Smith.

“Kim Smith is eminently unqualified to be on the Superior Court, and he has proven that,” Cooley told me. “When I heard he was running, I called him personally to urge him to not pursue the challenge against Kumar. I explained to him that Kumar was widely considered by me and others to be an outstanding jurist with impeccable character and superior qualifications. There is not any reason to challenge him on the merits. I suggested to Smith he was running because of Sanjay Kumar’s foreign-sounding name, and I thought it was despicable and un-American and that he, Kim Smith, would be properly vilified for making this challenge. He said something to the effect, ‘I have got to take my best shot, I’ve got to do this, and I’m going to do it.’ ”

Roger M. Grace, editor and co-publisher of the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a Los Angeles legal newspaper, has written that Smith is targeting Kumar, “it can’t be doubted, based on his name.” Grace had asked Fred Huebscher, who managed Smith’s 2010 campaign, if the name “Kim Smith” was enough to defeat Kumar, solely on the basis of the name. Huebscher responded yes, Grace wrote.

I asked Huebscher about this in an e-mail. He e-mailed back: “I don’t know Smith’s reason for running or what he is saying if anything about Kumar. I haven’t heard anything about it from anyone.” I asked him if he was running Smith’s campaign. “No, I’m not,” he said.

The Los Angeles Times also brought up the name issue in an editorial endorsing Kumar. “Why Smith is challenging Kumar is of particular concern because of the known tendency of voters, who have little information on which to make their decisions, to reject judges with foreign-sounding names. Because Smith won’t speak to us, we can’t ask whether that was a factor in his thinking in selecting his opponent.”

Smith wouldn’t reply to my questions when I left them on his voice mail. Obviously, he doesn’t have to. I’m just a journalist, and The Jewish Journal is just a newspaper. Nor does he have to answer the Times’ questions.

So, if Smith won’t defend himself, let me try. Why is he running? Perhaps he wants to be a judge and he thinks he’d be a good one. After watching many judges while serving as a deputy district attorney and Hawthorne city attorney, he may figure he can do a better job. What about the county bar association declaring him unqualified two years ago? He’d probably say they’re a bunch of stuffed shirts.

However, there is history to consider. In 2006, in a campaign run by consultant Huebscher, Lynn D. Olson, a non-practicing lawyer who ran a bagel bakery, defeated a well-known incumbent, Dzintra Janavs. Interestingly, the Times is endorsing Olson’s re-election this year, criticizing her for taking advantage of the “foreign name” phenomenon six years ago but saying she has learned to be a good judge.

All this has come as an unpleasant surprise to Kumar, who is highly praised by his colleagues, and is one of the few trial judges called on to be an appellate judge when a temporary replacement is needed. “I was always under the impression, if you work hard and do a good job, you keep your job,” Kumar told me. “I had never met this guy. Steve Cooley asked him directly if it was my ethnic-sounding name and he didn’t deny it. It is disappointing. I would rather not have to deal with it, but I intend to fight for my job, and plan to keep it.”

Kumar’s ability to fight is limited by personal tragedy. His wife died of cancer in July, and he is raising their sons, ages 15 and 11.

It could be that Smith is being wrongly portrayed in this affair, that the thought of running against Kumar because of the judge’s name never occurred to him. And if he wins, perhaps the Los Angeles Times, as it did in the case of Olson, will eventually conclude he has learned to be a good judge.

Or it could be that by singling out Kumar, Smith is tapping into an undercurrent of War on Terror prejudice against Americans whose families immigrated here from the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent or other places seen now as foreign danger spots.

As Justice Richard Mosk put it, “Names are important.”

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).