Harman’s departure: what does it mean for Jews?

The outcome of the decision by Jane Harman to quit her 36th congressional seat in the South Bay will likely be a signpost of the changing role of Jewish politicians and the Jewish vote in California politics and government. The Jewish presence in Southern California politics remains strong — after all, this is still a heavily Democratic state with two Jewish women as U.S. senators and a reliably Democratic loyalty among Jewish voters. And yet in the future the Jewish role in California politics may be less dependent on solidly Jewish districts electing Jewish candidates and more on the impact of Jewish political participation and the choice of elected officials, whether or not they are Jewish, who will appeal to Jewish voters and activists.

The 36th is a heavily Democratic district, but it is much less Jewish than Henry Waxman’s 30th District, which abuts it to the north. The odds are Harman will not be succeeded by another Jewish pol, let alone one so popular with AIPAC. She could even be succeeded by a Jewish candidate whose views on Israel are the polar opposite of Harman’s — Marcy Winograd, a progressive Democrat who has been openly critical of Israel. Supporters of the Jewish homeland would probably prefer to have a non-Jewish member who is more pro-Israel. (Indeed, when Winograd challenged Harman in the 2010 Democratic primary, Waxman came strongly to the incumbent’s defense.)

So far, the two leading candidates to succeed Harman seem to be Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Hahn immediately announced her candidacy, and Bowen jumped into the race on Feb. 15. According to the newly mandated primary format, all candidates will run in one group, and if no one wins a majority, the top two finishers, regardless of party, will meet in a runoff.  Hahn has already won the endorsements of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Assembly Speaker John Perez, while Bowen boasts strong name recognition and support among Democratic voters from her years in the California Assembly, Senate and her current statewide office.

Although the 36th District race will be closely watched, attention is already beginning to focus on the newly created, voter-approved redistricting commission. In 2002, there was some conflict between Jewish House members and Latino voting rights groups. In a process dominated by Congressman Howard Berman, the bipartisan redistricting plan kept the Latino population from being large enough to challenge several incumbents. There is no certainty that the same result will emerge from the new citizens’ commission.

Even if the number of congressional seats for Jewish candidates does contract, Los Angeles Jewish activists will be much sought after for the 2012 presidential election. The Obama re-election team is gearing up to raise massive amounts of money to match or exceed the corporate flood unleashed by the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision. West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills ZIP codes are at the heart of Democratic fundraising, which is why Westside traffic got so snarled when Obama came here for a fundraiser in August. The challenge for Obama will be to revive the enthusiasm of Jewish liberal donors after two years of compromises. While the Clintonites in the Obama White House take this Jewish base for granted, the way they take the whole base for granted, they could be in for a rude awakening.

The 2013 mayor’s race is also likely to feature a strong role for Jewish voters and candidates. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will be termed out, and the election will likely draw candidates from the Jewish Westside and Valley areas. There has long been room for Jewish candidates in the complex ethnic politics of Los Angeles. The last two close mayoral elections, in 2001 and 2005, had Jewish candidates, Steven Soboroff and Bob Hertzberg, finishing just behind the second-place candidate James K. Hahn. Such a candidate could have a better chance in 2013 of making the finals without an incumbent or well-known challenger blocking the route up.

It takes about 25 to 30 percent of the primary vote in a crowded field to make the runoff. Jews tend to cast 16 to 18 percent of all votes in city elections (with less than 6 percent of the population). This makes Jews the second-largest ethnic bloc in city elections, behind Latinos, who cast roughly a quarter of all votes.

Two potential mayoral candidates with strong appeal to Jewish voters have been mentioned. The first is County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has represented the 3rd District since 1994 and has wide name identification and support among Jewish voters. Yaroslavsky’s district has 2 million people and covers a land area from Westlake Village to West Hollywood. There were 937,000 registered voters in the 3rd District in 2010. As one of the most established and respected figures in Southern California politics, he would be a formidable contender. He represented the 5th Council District for nearly 20 years before his election to the county board.

But even Yaroslavsky will not easily dispatch Wendy Greuel. Greuel has been a city council member and recently won a citywide election to become controller. Although not Jewish herself, she is married to a Jewish political activist and is very active in the Jewish community. She made a better showing citywide than Villaraigosa in 2009, and she did very well in minority communities (a weakness for Yaroslavsky that could hurt him in a runoff). She will also raise a ton of money from the movie industry, where she once worked, and from labor. Her alliance with the mayor gives her help with Latinos and labor. A third potential candidate, 9th District councilmember Jan Perry, also has a connection to the Jewish community.  She married a Jewish man, converted to Judaism and maintained her adopted faith after the marriage ended. And council president Eric Garcetti, who hails from one set of Jewish grandparents, describes himself as both Jewish and Latino and is a likely mayoral candidate. With Garcetti’s name recognition, powerful position at city hall and strong support among progressives and labor, he is likely to be a major contender.

But even if no Jewish candidate emerges in a dominant role, Jewish voters will be heavily contested in the mayoral campaign.

The 5th Council District, whose seat is occupied by Paul Koretz, is a big factor in any citywide race, because of its high voter registration and turnout. The district is more than one-third Jewish. The district boasted roughly 167,000 registered voters in 2009, compared to only about 61,000 in the Latino working-class 1st District. As it looks now, only the 5th District is sure to remain a Jewish seat, a far stretch from the days when six out of the 15 city council members were Jewish, with Marvin Braude representing the 11th, and Joel Wachs the 2nd. Finally, there has been some speculation that Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who held the 5th District seat and then narrowly lost for city attorney in 2009, might re-enter local politics, which would further increase the role of the 5th District electorate.

Harman’s departure may mean one less Jewish player in the game, but the impact of that loss on Jewish influence will likely be negligible. While the landscape for Jewish politics in the next two years includes fewer safe districts for Jewish elected officials, the community can be assured of holding sway on numerous fronts as its high level of civic involvement continues to stand out in the city and region.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.