Outsiders Again?

I once thought of running for city council.

I love Los Angeles, but I hate the homeless problem, the school system, the traffic and, especially, Lincoln Boulevard. But after thinking about it seriously for two or three minutes, I went back to my day job.

So this is one Jew the voters won’t have to kick around, and, unfortunately, I’m not unique.

“In 1975, when I was elected, there were three Jews on the council,” County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told me last week. “Ten years later there were six. After the next election, there could be just one.”

Yes, this is a column about a particular kind of vanishing Jew: the local elected official.

Think about it — in 1986, six of the 15 City Council members were Jewish: Zev Yaroslavsky, Marvin Braude, Hal Bernson, Joel Wachs, Joy Picus and Howard Finn.

A new city election is upon us, and only two Jews are in the running: Councilman Jack Weiss for City Attorney and Paul Koretz for the Fifth Council District. I am not writing here to endorse either of these candidates; I am simply noting that it’s conceivable the Jewish representation in Los Angeles’ city government could go down to just one, Councilwoman Jan Perry of the 11th District. 

Right about now, I’m sure some of you readers are no doubt gagging on the parochialism of counting Jews. It’s so identity-politics, so Chicago Ward, so tribal and narrow-minded, right?


Broadly, and beneficial to all, Jews generally bring a particular set of values to the table: tolerance, open government, accountability, sensitivity to minority rights and the rule of law. Others may share these values — many do, and some Jews don’t — but such values are at the heart of the Jewish ideas of governance.

More narrowly, there are some obvious areas of Jewish communal concern: safety from anti-Semitic attacks and terrorism, support even on a civic level for Israel, support for our local institutions and places of worship, fostering good relations among various ethnic and religious groups. Jewish representation is still the best way to represent Jews.

“It pays to have the rest of the city exposed to the needs and values of the Jewish community,” the political scientist Raphael J. Sonenshein told me, “and the best way to do that is through public office.”

Yaroslavsky put it another way:  If there were no African Americans on the council, no one would say African Americans were being adequately represented.

“The same is true for Latinos,” he said, “and the same is true for Jews.”

So where’d they all go?

Sonenshein, who for my money is the expert on Jews and electoral politics (and hence a monthly Jewish Journal columnist; see Page 8), told me that we L.A. Jews are the victims of our own successes. Jews who aspire to hold office see the U.S.Congressand the state houses as their points of entry: California has two Jewish senators, and as for our local representatives — all Jews.

“These are the wages of success,” he said. 

On the local level, two other factors are in play. One is the ascent of Latinos.

“Clearly, Latinos are the new group,” Sonenshein said. Between 1963 and 1985, they were effectively shut out of the city council. Now they have six members and the citywide offices of mayor and city attorney. One could say, Sonenshein theorized, that Jews served their purpose of liberalizing and opening up L.A. politics, and are now passing the torch.

But there may also be less noble reasons, like disillusionment, or apathy.

There are Jews engaged in civic life, as philanthropists (Eli Broad, for example), activists (Tree People’s Andy Lipkis, Heal the Bay’s Mark Gold), commissioners and consigliere (Robin Kramer, the mayor’s chief of staff). But fewer seem to find the rough and tumble of local politics worth the effort.

Or, as Stan Treitel, a longtime local activist, told me, “Maybe they’re just complacent; they don’t want to get involved.”

There is a little hope on that horizon. Steve Zimmer, Adeena Bleich, Valerie Salkin, Robin Ritter Simon and Nick Karno, all bright young lights, have run or are considering runs for various city offices.

But like so many things in life, if we want more Jews in office — and it is in our interest — we have to help make it happen.

It’s not a coincidence that Zimmer, Bleich, et al, are alums of the New Leaders Project, a Jewish Federation-funded program aimed at engaging up-and-comers in local urban issues. In other words, civic engagement is a value that needs to be taught, not an ideal to be wished for.

Yaroslavsky, for instance, is about as impressive a role model for local Jewish engagement as exists in any city, whether you agree with him on every issue or not. I asked him how many times he’s been asked to speak to Jewish schools, where each day some 9,000 students are exposed to what we think are the most important Jewish values and concerns.

So far this year, just once, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s day school.

“Our kids know a lot about Israel and nothing about life south of the 10 freeway, but they live here,” the headmaster of one Jewish school told me. “We need to fix that.”

We do, and in the meantime, we need to do one more crucial thing: vote.