What makes a good politico?

What makes a good politician? More to the point for Jewish Journal readers, what makes a good Jewish politician?

I’ve been thinking about this since I spoke to the Westwood Women’s Bruin Club about my book, “Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics.”

In my talk, as I did in my book, I dug into this powerful old politician to figure out why he sought power so relentlessly. The idea intrigued a member of the audience.

“Why do politicians do it?” she asked. “How can they put themselves through all that?”

It’s a great question. Since I’m Jewish and write about politics for The Journal, I decided to devote this column to exploring what makes some of our local Jewish politicians good at their jobs.

Good politicians are like actors, a combination of ego and ambition mixed in with a public-spirited desire to help people.

The public-spirited aspect is — or should be — part of the makeup of good Jewish politicians. Whether they are religious or secular, many have been brought up to with Jewish values, including the belief that they should try make the world a better place and that they’ll be judged by the good things accomplished in a lifetime. They extend themselves beyond the confines of their jobs and think of ways to help all kinds of people.

Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, whose 30th District reaches from Santa Monica through Los Angeles’ Westside and into the San Fernando Valley, is a good example of what I’m describing.

I don’t agree with him all the time. His years of opposition to a Wilshire Boulevard subway delayed the project so long that it may be unaffordable. But as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he has launched investigations into White House secrecy, steroids in baseball, the subprime mortgage mess, big drug and tobacco companies and the recent Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to block California’s tough clean-air standards.

With his chairmanship and his eye for newsworthy subjects, Waxman has become nationally known.

It’s not so easy for a politician slogging away in City Hall or the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration. That’s because the ethnic politics of Los Angeles have changed in recent years.

As political observer Joel Kotkin and others have pointed out, the interest of many of the rich Westside Jews, who once were a powerful force in local politics, have shifted to the glamour and high visibility of presidential politics.

In addition, political coverage in our shrinking newspapers has diminished, and it has become all but nonexistent on television. Who notices activities relegated to Page 3 of the Los Angeles Times California section? And that’s on a good day. Usually, they are ignored altogether.

Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick, another Jewish politician, has successfully struggled against the media blackout by conducting much-needed audits of major city departments that often make news. (Disclosure: Chick appointed me to the City Ethics Commission).

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents an area reaching from the Westside into the San Fernando Valley, has not been so fortunate. Like Waxman, he looks beyond his district. As a Los Angeles city councilman, he joined with his colleague, the late Marvin Braude, another good Jewish politician, as authors of voter initiatives that limited commercial developments near residential neighborhoods and stopped oil drilling in the bay off Pacific Palisades.

In those days, Yaroslavsky was hot news. He considered running for mayor. Influential Jews were still interested in City Hall. The newspapers –the Times, the Daily News and the now-dead Herald-Examiner — competed in the coverage of local politics. Television was interested, too.

Today, he’s the same Yaroslavsky, but not many people notice what he’s doing. That’s because he is a member of the five-person Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, a body that usually escapes media attention.

Yaroslavsky has deep roots in the Jewish community, and he works hard to maintain them. Most recently, he arranged for The Jewish Federation Council’s Menorah Housing Corp. to build a 45-unit senior citizen housing project on the site of the old county welfare office at Pico and Veteran boulevards in West Los Angeles. I live near there and think it’s a great project.

But he has also extended himself beyond his Jewish base into activities that benefit the whole city. As a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he was the major force behind the Orange Line busway across the San Fernando Valley. The busway connects to the Red Line subway, making it possible for those who live in the Valley and work downtown to use public transit.

Yaroslavsky also was the sponsor of a countywide tax increase that provided needed funds to trauma centers in danger of closing. And he has taken the lead on the Board of Supervisors in efforts to provide housing and services for the homeless, although chances for success in that area are dim, given the board’s taste for inaction.

There are other good Jewish politicians. I happened to pick three I know pretty well –Yaroslavsky, Waxman and Chick — because each, in his or her own way, illustrates how the values of Jewish life can be carried over into the secular obligations of public affairs. They have been doing this a long time, setting an example for a new generation that will make sure our community is deeply involved in Los Angeles civic life.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.