At JNF water summit, agreement on next steps, but when will L.A. act?


This scene, it seems, repeats itself every few months in Los Angeles: Politicians, city agencies, water experts and environmentalists convene, agree that California — particularly Los Angeles County — is doing a poor job of implementing proven solutions to solving water shortages, and then ask when the government will get serious about things.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

The Jewish National Fund’s California-Israel Water Summit, held March 2 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, attempted to break this cycle. The conference included an array of speakers and panelists from across the environmental, technological and political spectrum, and featured Seth Siegel, author of the recent book “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.” 

During his morning address, Siegel connected California’s water needs with the nation’s general cynicism in regard to government, and said a breakthrough could restore people’s trust.

“The more government can deliver on its promises, the more people will trust government to do other things. Water is a good place to start,” he said. “The very good news is that Israel has spent decades developing a solution for this problem. The world can avoid the worst of a potential water scarcity crisis by being more like Israel, at least in terms of water.”

During a morning panel, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability, Mark Gold, said the last four years of drought in California “have told us very clearly that the way we’re managing water is just not sustainable.” 

“We have to move. We have no choice,” Gold said.

Gold’s panel was moderated by David Nahai, former CEO of the L.A. Department of Water & Power, and featured city and state officials, including Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies about 2 billion gallons of water a day for 19 million people across Southern California.

The summit’s overall message was simple: Solutions are out there — places such as Israel, Australia and even Orange County have proven it by implementing a cocktail of wastewater purification, rainwater capture and even the expensive desalination route that San Diego County recently launched.

But these opportunities continue to be sidelined in most of California, for now. Heather Repenning, commissioner of the L.A. Department of Public Works, said during the morning panel that most of the 350 million gallons of wastewater the agency treats daily is pushed into the ocean.

“It’s obviously a missed opportunity,” she said.

The answer to that problem, as TreePeople founder and president Andy Lipkis has said for years, is that wastewater purification (also known as “toilet to tap”) and rainwater capture make more sense than a system that pumps about 80 percent of rainwater to the sea, and imports about 90 percent of the water it consumes from hundreds of miles away.

“Rainfall in Los Angeles actually represents about half the water we need,” Lipkis said on an afternoon panel moderated by Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal. “When it rains 1 inch in Los Angeles, we throw away 3.8 billion gallons of capturable rain water.”

That panel also included City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield; Brian Peck, who is Gov. Jerry Brown’s deputy director of international affairs and business development; and Dillon Hosier, the Israeli-American Council’s head lobbyist and former senior advisor to David Siegel, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles.

Israel, which is arguably the world’s leader in water conservation technology, was held up at the summit as a model for how California — which has similar climates and topographies to the Jewish state — can address severe water shortages and poor policy decisions exacerbated by a four-year drought. 

“If you could just go over there and put it in place here, we’d be done with these kind of conferences,” Eshman said to the panel. “We could move on from this problem, which they’ve already solved in Israel.”

So what’s the hold up? Why hasn’t California replicated Israel’s water solutions? 

Well, in some places, it already has. The Western Hemisphere’s largest desalination plant in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, came on line in late 2015 and was built and designed by Poseidon Water and IDE Technologies, an Israeli desalination company. That $1 billion plant, which is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, provides about 50 million gallons of clean drinking water to a service area of about 3.2 million people. And because it’s not dependent on rain, snow or groundwater aquifers, it’s a “drought-proof” supply, which is also reflected by the fact that it’s the most expensive method of water supply, at about $2,000 for every 326,000 gallons.

Orange County, meanwhile, has one of the largest wastewater purification systems in the world, producing up to 100 million gallons of drinking water per day. Even Los Angeles, which relies overwhelmingly on imported water, has the West Basin Municipal Water District, which provides purified wastewater to 17 coastal cities in L.A. County.

And while implementation of Israeli-style water technologies is still more or less just a topic of discussion in Los Angeles, there’s hope that things like the memorandum of understanding signed between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Brown in early 2014 will help build momentum for tangible action. The same is true of more local water agreements, including those between Beverly Hills and L.A. County and Israel.

But how far can Israeli solutions go in California? Gold and Lipkis believe the relatively expensive route of desalination means it should be used only as a last resort in Los Angeles. Lipkis said that reverse osmosis, the key purification process used in desalination, is also used for wastewater purification, but is far cheaper when not cleaning seawater. 

“Israel’s loaded with good solutions — they don’t all apply here,” Lipkis said. “Desalinating seawater is the last thing you do.”

In addition to advising lawmakers and agencies on water policy, Lipkis sees water education as the other major key to translating the consensuses reached at summits like these into government policy.

“We have to radically increase literacy,” Lipkis said. “We’re fairly impenetrable right now. There are lots of government policies and rules that are stopping it. We have to create the market for policy change.”

The drought, he suggested, has helped create that market: “Before the drought, there were thousands of people in California who cared about water. All of a sudden there are 40 million of us.”

Poll: What DWP can learn from LAPD


A new Pat Brown Institute/Cal State Los Angeles poll of 501 registered voters in L.A. asked for opinions on two important city departments: the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Department of Water and Power (DWP). 

For decades, the LAPD has been a critical factor in city politics and government, often dividing the L.A. community right down the middle on racial, ethnic and ideological grounds. Earlier this year, the DWP, long a quiet powerhouse in city politics, became a key factor in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s defeat of Wendy Greuel, his opponent in the mayoral race, when her support by the DWP union led to charges that she was too subject to union influence.

In some ways, the new poll suggests public attitudes toward the two departments are mirror images of one another. 

Over the last half century, the LAPD has gone from being the most admired institution in the city, in the 1950s, to a divisive force admired by conservatives and criticized by minority communities and liberals, and whose actions helped spur two massive civil disorders, in 1965 and 1992, to its current status as a more community-oriented, well-liked institution. 

By contrast, the DWP operated generally out of the public eye. Its core critics today are among the more conservative voters. But as a result of those criticisms, the DWP is now facing an unprecedented degree of public scrutiny.

The LAPD registers majority approval in the poll, by a 64 to 30 percent margin. But even after years of reform and greater emphasis on community outreach, minority communities still report less-favorable opinions than whites. Roughly a quarter of African-Americans (23 percent) and Latinos (25 percent) strongly disapproved, compared to 10 percent among whites. Overall, 15 percent strongly disapproved.

Those under the age of 45 were more than twice as likely (23 percent) as those 45 and older to strongly disapprove of the department, and renters (21 percent) strongly disapproved more than homeowners (10 percent). In other words, even a more broadly popular police department still has work to do with some sectors of the community. But certainly compared to the profound polarization that once marked the LAPD’s standing in the city, things have vastly improved and the department is going in the right direction.

A smaller majority of voters approve of the work of the DWP (55 to 38 percent) than of the LAPD, and roughly a quarter of voters strongly disapprove of the department. Those voters who strongly disapproved of the DWP were most likely to be residents of the San Fernando Valley, to identify as conservative (37 percent), to be white (30 percent) and to be homeowners (33 percent, compared to 23 percent for renters). 

 For these voters, the DWP appears to represent what they don’t like about city government. Seventy-eight percent of those voters who strongly disapproved of the DWP endorsed the view that government protects special interests “instead of people like me.”  

Unlike the LAPD, with its central role in Los Angeles political debates, the DWP has not entirely come into focus for Los Angeles voters. Future opinion could go either way. For the police department, majority popularity with minority dissent turned into majority opposition, when the department’s actions continued unchecked and the wider community came to see what was wrong. It was reform, often resisted by the department and its allies, that laid the groundwork for the department’s current popularity.

 The first challenge for Garcetti as mayor was the negotiation of a new contract with DWP’s employees.  The intense negotiations were heavily covered by local media. But about three quarters of registered voters polled said they did not know enough about those negotiations to have an opinion of the mayor’s handling of the situation. Los Angeles City Hall issues can sometimes take a long time to reach public awareness.

But the DWP cannot take comfort in the limited public attention thus far, or the fact that only a quarter of the voters expressed strong opposition. There is likely to be considerable debate over department transparency, its “work rules” and other issues, with vigorous attention from the mayor, City Council, the controller and the media.

If these explorations turn up damaging information and if reforms are not made, a negative image could solidify and spread well beyond the core group of voters who are already critical. That is certainly what happened to the LAPD decades ago. However, if the city government can successfully reform the practices that have frustrated accountability, there is room for positive views of the department to flower. The lesson of the LAPD for the DWP is that reform, however painful, has a reward at the end — the positive regard of the voters.


Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, is also director of the PBI/CSULA Poll.

Next mayor’s earth agenda


Delivering his inaugural address on the City Hall lawn in 2005, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa challenged Angelenos to turn Los Angeles into “… the greenest big city in America.”

Eight years later, it is only fitting that we ask ourselves how close Mayor Villaraigosa has come to realizing this lofty aspiration, and, just as importantly, what the next mayor must do to fulfill it.

I served in the first term of the Villaraigosa administration as general manager and commission president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and have firsthand knowledge of the environmental ambitions and accomplishments of the administration.

Although it is clear that there is work for the next administration to perform, it is also indisputable that the environmental progress we have made as a city over the last eight years has been nothing short of remarkable. 

However, these noteworthy achievements have gone largely unheralded. Perhaps this is because people do not immediately sense gains such as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, air-quality improvements, green construction, public transportation projects or the development of local water resources, whereas potholes, traffic jams and the city’s fiscal deficits are more tangible, visible issues that overshadow the positive news on sustainability. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the city’s environmental victories have been relegated to the back pages. But this does not make them any less real or any less worthy of celebration.

This article focuses on five areas: energy and climate change, water, air, green buildings and transportation.

1. Energy and Climate Change

The Villaraigosa administration can justifiably claim to have made substantial headway in addressing climate change and energy issues.

In 2007, Villaraigosa issued the GreenLA Action Plan, calling for emissions to be reduced 35 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. Los Angeles is on track to meet this objective. Further, LADWP has already reduced its emissions 21 percent below 1990 levels — far ahead of AB 32 mandates.

Climate change can have serious impacts for Los Angeles. Rising sea levels could threaten coastal areas; hotter, smoggier days are predicted; droughts and fire events are likely to be more prolonged; and water supplies more constrained. The mayor’s recent AdaptLA climate change plan is intended to prepare for the changes that are coming our way. This is a crucial step in adapting to a new reality.

In charting a more environmentally sensitive direction for the city, LADWP is a central player. The Villaraigosa era has seen transformative changes at LADWP, especially during the first term. Examples include the unprecedented four-fold expansion of renewable energy resources leading to the attainment of the 20 percent level in 2010; the record-breaking 19-fold increase in savings from energy efficiency programs; the completion of Pine Tree Wind Farm, the nation’s then-largest municipally owned wind farm; the achievement of steep declines in water consumption levels; and the 2008 Solar Energy Plan, which was the progenitor of the recently adopted landmark Feed-in Tariff Program.

Some critics will complain that, at the start of his second term, the mayor planned that Los Angeles would be coal-free by 2020 and that its renewables portfolio would reach 40 percent by 2020. However, this criticism ignores the fact that LADWP’s renewables were at just 4 percent, and coal accounted for nearly 50 percent of our power consumption, when the mayor took office. Today, LADWP is on track to meet the 33 percent renewables level by 2020 and has announced that it will eliminate coal well in advance of legal deadlines. Given the historical context, the administration and LADWP merit some recognition, although, clearly, the next administration must continue the effort to accelerate the retirement of coal and to expand energy efficiency, renewable energy and distributed energy programs, while ensuring a prudent balance between renewable resources and natural gas.

2. Water

During the last eight years, Los Angeles has cut water consumption by 17 percent, and our per capita use is the lowest of any big city in the United States. This is a phenomenal accomplishment by any standard.

In 2008, the mayor promulgated the Los Angeles Water Supply Action Plan, formulated by LADWP. This much-lauded document constituted, in effect, Los Angeles’ declaration of independence from imported water. Recognizing that 90 percent of our water comes from hundreds of miles away and that its cost will rise inexorably, the Water Supply Plan called for the development of indigenous resources: conservation, wastewater recycling, rainfall capture, groundwater remediation, underground storage.

This plan has been reiterated both in LADWP’s Urban Water Management Plan and in a recent adoption of principles by the LADWP commission that calls for 37 percent of Los Angeles’ water to come from local sources by 2035. These pronouncements are welcome improvements over the “ignorance is bliss” attitudes of the past. Further, in addition to the wins in conservation, incremental progress has been made especially with respect to wastewater recycling and rainfall capture. The work of LADWP and the Bureau of Sanitation (BOS) in this regard should be commended.

However, some would argue that a target of 37 percent 23 years from now is not aggressive enough. UCLA’s recent Vision 2021 L.A. study (Vision 2021) calls for the more ambitious objective of 32 percent by 2021. Certainly, both LADWP and BOS have the talent to expedite matters and would agree that certain actions (e.g., the clean-up of the San Fernando Valley groundwater basin) are urgent. However, much will depend on the ability of the next administration to garner the political will and secure the funds necessary to move forward.

3. Air

Decades of untiring work by many people have yielded significant improvements in our air quality, although we still remain one of the most polluted U.S. cities for ozone smog and particulate pollution. Still the Villaraigosa administration can fairly claim credit for contributing to enhancements in our air quality. This effort is most clearly evident at the port, where air emissions have been cut by more than half. This is due, in large measure, to the mayor’s San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan and its various components, such as the Clean Trucks Program. The port has also made considerable progress in cleaning the water there, although soil contamination continues to bedevil port officials. Again, it will be left to the next administration to fully implement the Clean Air Action Plan and to pursue a zero-emission target for the port.

4. Green Buildings

Over the last eight years, Los Angeles has emerged as a national leader in this area. Vision 2021 reports that the square footage of municipal buildings certified to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards jumped from 9,000 in 2004 to almost 1.8 million in 2010.

In 2008, Los Angeles established the Green Building Program, requiring that most structures larger than 50,000 square feet be built to LEED standards. In 2011, Los Angeles took the leap of introducing new requirements, which incorporated and surpassed the California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen). In addition to the CALGreen mandates on water and energy efficiency measures for certain new buildings, the L.A. County Green Building Program covers not only new projects, but all alterations and additions over $200,000 in valuation, and requires “solar ready” roofs and “electric vehicle ready” features. The Department of Building and Safety (DBS) is to be complimented for its work in this regard.

In 2011, Los Angeles also enacted the Low Impact Development Ordinance, compelling new and redevelopment projects to incorporate rainfall capture designs, thus helping to abate Los Angeles’ urban run-off problem, while augmenting its water supply.

The water fixtures ordinance of 2009 (estimated to save a billion gallons of water over the next 20 years) is worthy of mention as the joint project of LADWP and DBS.

5. Transportation

The Brookings Institution recently acknowledged Villaraigosa and the team that produced Measure R and obtained the low-interest Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan from Congress to fund transportation projects, recognizing this endeavor as one of the Top 10 Most Innovative Economic Development Initiatives.

Today, more transit and highway projects are opening, under construction, or are in the planning stages, than at any time in the history of Los Angeles County.

In addition, 100 percent of MTA buses have been converted to alternative fuels, and Los Angeles now boasts the largest alternative-fuel trash and street sweeper fleet in the United States. Further, in 2013, Los Angeles is set to become the first large U.S. city to synchronize all signalized intersections. Bus and rail services have increased, and CicLAvia events, which temporarily close streets to car traffic, have proven popular. The next administration must continue to pursue policies to dissuade single-passenger vehicle trips.

The gains of the last eight years in the five areas covered above have been concrete and far reaching and merit recognition. Perhaps we cannot yet claim to be the “… greenest big city in America” in every sphere of endeavor, but we are entitled to that distinction in many ways.

Still, much will depend in the commitment of the next mayor to build on these advances. The next administration must push forward to catalyze the transformation of our energy profile, reduce our greenhouse gas footprint, develop local water resources, cut air pollution and bring public transportation projects to fruition.

As the runoff campaign for mayor enters its final stages, let’s pay close attention to how the two candidates address these specific issues. Despite the solid progress we’ve made over the last eight years, the future of Los Angeles’ fragile environment will depend on their answers and their actions.

David Nahai is an attorney and consultant specializing in real estate, energy and water matters. He is the former general manager and commission president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and former chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Board.

New DWP chief David Nahai takes on major challenges


David Nahai is an environmentalist and an attorney, not an engineer, and his major previous management challenge was running a 15-employee law firm. But he is the man Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tapped take on the $304,000-a-year job as general manager of the Department of Water and Power, the nation’s largest — and frequently troubled — public municipal utility. He’s also the first ever to helm the DWP without decades of experience in either the utility business or city government.

The challenges Nahai faces at the DWP are great: The state of California has mandated a greener operation, even as the utility and the region needs new infrastructure. And all this has to be accomplished as rate payer backlashes rise against proposed rate hikes — hikes that Nahai insists are needed to renew the utility.

In addition, the 8,500-person DWP workforce, one of highest paid in the nation, is proving confrontational: Brian D’Arcy, the pugnacious business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ DWP Local 18, has already launched an aggressive mail campaign charging decrepit operations — a situation that D’Arcy (who did not return calls asking for comment) unsurprisingly sees as remediable by more work hours and more hiring.

Nahai admits that after nearly a decade of workforce buyouts and massive retirements, DWP does need more people — a possible future point of agreement with the IBEW chief. Nahai’s predecessor, retired DWP president Ron Deaton, reportedly refused to meet D’Arcy, but in a sign of a new conciliatory attitude, Nahai said: “I’d like to set the direction and get Brian to go along. The union is really indistinguishable from the workforce itself — and that’s our greatest single resource.”

DWP also needs to shift away from considering itself a private corporation, Nahai said. “It’s a public agency, dedicated to the city of Los Angeles and its 4 million residents.” The pioneer century-old, civic-owned utility must now, under law, turn itself into the most environmentally friendly power producer in the nation. Nahai said he’s ready and eager to meet this challenge.

“There is history to be made here,” said Nahai, a slender, precisely dressed 55-year-old who stands just under six feet. “DWP should become a beacon to innovators all over the world.”

Can he make this happen, though? And without high rate increases?

Nahai believes that in the long run, at least, he can — particularly taking into account the cash and human costs of emissions from DWP’s out-of-state coal plants that now must close or convert. As fossil fuel costs go up, the relative costs of solar and wind power decline. But green-originated electricity still costs more than natural gas. And the DWP must also upgrade transmission lines, power poles and transformers that have been deteriorating since the 1980s.

A skeptical City Council has given Nahai just 60 days to prove his proposed 9 percent hike is really needed. “I really hope we can avoid a fight on this,” Nahai said in a recent interview in his 15th-floor corner office in the DWP’s landmark John Ferraro Operations Building downtown. But many believe that a fight is inevitable.

City Council President Eric Garcetti noted that Nahai has inherited a broad DWP credibility gap: After promising no outages last year, for instance, DWP had major blackouts during a relatively cool summer.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ increasingly powerful Neighborhood Councils seem dead set against any rate hikes, whatsoever.

The DWP has been paying lip service to green power for decades, though most of the utility’s prior efforts have fallen short. But these days, failure is no longer an option.

The bill known as AB 32, passed in 2006, means, in Nahai’s words, that the “DWP not just should, but must” turn green. It mandates that “the state’s global warming emissions be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020.”

California is by itself the world’s 12th largest source of carbon dioxide, and the DWP is one of the state’s large CO2 emitters. To meet the 2020 deadline, it has to bring major improvements on line within two years to begin compliance.

Nahai said: “As general manager, I will have no choice but to make the utility comply.” In addition, on the water supply front, DWP must seek out new local water sources, as court decisions reduce the amount of water allowed from outside the region.

For his part, Garcetti sees this as a historic change: “The first [DWP] revolution was the creation of the utility 100 years ago; that made this city possible. Now the second great rebuilding will be to make this utility green.”

To environmentalists, this would be the ultimate goal. Veteran environmental activist, author and former water and power commissioner Dorothy Green said Nahai “is just what they needed.” She recalled that the DWP drifted under enfeebled revolving-door leadership during the mayoralty of James Hahn. This drift climaxed in the billing scandals involving the Fleischman-Hillard public relations firm that resulted in criminal convictions of two PR executives.

In 2005, Villaraigosa appointed Nahai, then president of the state Water Resource Board, to the Water and Power Commission. There, along with former longtime MTA board member Nick Patsaouras (who just replaced Nahai as Water and Power Commission president), he hammered away at what the pair increasingly saw as egregious waste and inefficiency.

Their one-two style contrasted Patsaouras’ brusque bad-cop toughness with Nahai’s lawyerly polish. The two ultimately formed an unprecedented DWP contract oversight committee that shook up its shaky contracting procedures, and the Water and Power Commission’s long decades of benign neglect were obviously over. Nahai regards his two years on the board as boot camp for his DWP general managership.

“I had never even met Nick before, but we got along wonderfully from the beginning,” he said. “It was a great education, working right there in the guts of the department for two years.” In return, Patsaouras recalled, “He was a terrific partner — it was the greatest thing to have David with me on the board.”

Patsaouras, a trained electrical engineer, said he’d be happy to counsel Nahai on any technical problems he might face as general manager.

Power of the Prez; In the wake of war; Children work for a cure


Power of the Prez

Century City attorney and Iranian Jewish activist H. David Nahai was elected president of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commission on Sept. 21. The five-person commission unanimously elected Nahai who was originally appointed to the board that overseas the city’s water and power service by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last September.

“For me it’s a great honor and a significant opportunity because there is so much more the DWP can do, such as renewable energy, finding new water sources, and doing outreach,” Nahai said.

This new position is significant in that Nahai becomes one of only two Iranian Jews currently serving in local government in Southern California, a rare achievement for the Iranian Jewish community which had never been involved in political office in Iran. Indeed, Nahai is no novice when it comes to environmental issues as he practices environmental law and is chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. In January 2005, Nahai was reappointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for an unprecedented third term on the Water Quality Control that overseas water quality in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. In addition, he currently serves as vice chairman of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

In the wake of war

Knesset member Arieh Eldad paid a rare visit to Los Angeles last week and spoke about current challenges facing Israel after the war against Hezbollah.
Eldad, a member of the Israeli Knesset Ethics Committee, served as the chief medical officer for the Israel Defense Forces (brigadier general, retired). He headed the plastic surgery and burns unit at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.

While at Beverly Hills City Hall, Eldad met briefly with Mayor Steve Webb and Vice Mayor Jimmy Delshad and later with Soraya Nazarian of Hadassah International Outreach. He explained about the treatment of burn victims of homicide bombings in Jerusalem. The professor is planning to visit the L.A. area again in December.

Children work for a cure

The Cure FD Foundation held a Sunday Morning of Fun event Sept. 17 to benefit children living with Familial Dysautonomia (FD). The event included a special showing of the “The Sound of Music” and featured free popcorn, raffle prizes, a live auction and brunch items for sale. All proceeds went to fast forward research to save hundreds of children with FD.

Charity Becomes Them

Creative Arts Temple volunteers celebrated Rosh Hashanah by distributing food to the needy on the Jewish New Year. More than 2,500 men, women and children enjoyed a dinner donated by L.A. caterer Joann Roth-Oseary and received blankets, socks, diapers and other necessities as part of the celebration. Celebrities who participated included: Stanley Kamel, Monty Hall, Joe Bologna and Dick Van Patten.

Mazel to Merkel

Herman Merkel, an L.A. resident for 26 years and a former chairman of Our Parents Home in Johannesburg, South Africa, was honored for years of devoted service to the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA). A donation in his honor will fund a major renovation of the JHA lounge, which was named for Merkel at a ceremony on July 11.

Merkel, 89, was deeply committed to serving Our Parents Home for more than 10 years. As a member of the board, he lent his expertise as a civil engineer and was known for the time he spent getting to know its residents. As chairman from 1975-1979, Merkel was a daily visitor at JHA, ensuring that it operated smoothly at all times. The ceremony at Our Parents Home was attended by Merkel’s granddaughter, Karen Berelowitz, of Washington, D.C, family members living in Johannesburg, JHA residents and Johannesburg Jewish community leaders.

Two to Cheer For

Democrats for Israel (DFI) gathered at its annual garden party recently to honor Rep. Adam Schiff and state Insurance Commissioner and lieutenant governor candidate John Garamendi. They used the opportunity to pay tribute to the 33 members of California’s Democratic congressional delegation who supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Hezbollah, Iran and Syria by voting for a pair of resolutions expressing solidarity with Israel and demanding the return of three kidnapped Israeli soldiers.

Schiff was selected for his staunch support of Israel in Congress, and Garamendi was picked due to his tireless work to ensure that European insurance companies honor their commitments to Holocaust survivors.

The well-attended event reiterated Schiff’s belief for the need for the United States to support Israel and commended the strong support of House and Senate Democrats for Israel’s right to defend itself.

DFI President Andrew Lachman praised the two honorees, saying, “We are thrilled that Congressman Schiff and Insurance Commissioner Garamendi accepted these awards and spoke before us today.”

Other elected officials and candidates who attended the Garden Party included Assemblymen Paul Koretz and Lloyd Levine; Los Angeles City Councilmembers Jack Weiss and Wendy Greuel; Democratic Assembly nominees Mike Feuer, Julia Brownley and Anthony Portantino, and Democratic Board of Equalization candidate Judy Chu.

Mayoral Candidates Battle for Jewish Vote


 

“He’s a soul mate in terms of environmental sensitivity and good government,” said Dave Freeman, about mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. Freeman, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), paused for just a moment, then continued in his Southern accent, “I just think he has the ability to advance an agenda more focused on what I consider Jewish values.”

There you have it: A Tennessee environmentalist from an Orthodox family endorsing a Latino mayoral candidate for displaying Jewish values in Los Angeles. This city, with its rich history of strong political-ethnic alliances, may be in a state of reorientation — at least as far as the Jewish community is concerned.

With five candidates in the running, there is no consensus on who will garner the majority of Jewish votes, but all the candidates are making overtures and it’s easy to understand why. With roughly 30 percent of the electorate still undecided in recent polls, and with no candidate reaching 30 percent support so far, the politically active Jewish community could make a big difference.

In recent weeks, Villaraigosa has been leading most polls, and Freeman counts himself among the most ardent backers of Antonio. “When he was the speaker of the state Assembly, he planted trees with me without getting any fanfare or publicity out of it,” Freeman said of Villaraigosa. “As speaker, he brought the Republicans and Democrats together for bond measures, for parks, for schools — he can get people of different points of view to work together.”

Freeman, who was running the DWP when Mayor James Hahn was city attorney, had less flattering comments about the incumbent’s executive abilities.

“I remember clearly how [Hahn] would leave at 4:45 p.m. every day,” he said. “I mean, I respect the fact he wants to be with his family, but [being] mayor is not a 9-to-5 job.”

Hahn, however, can count on his own base of committed Jewish support.

“I’ve known Jim Hahn since he was city attorney, and I’ve basically supported him ever since,” said Hope Warschaw, former national commissioner for the Anti-Defamation League.

Warschaw emphasized Hahn’s two major achievements during his term: Defeating Valley secession and hiring Police Chief Bill Bratton.

“While other politicians were absolute cowards during the secession fight, he stepped up to the plate and had to raise millions of dollars to keep the city together,” Warschaw said. “And he took an incredibly unpopular position and hired Bill Bratton, which I think everyone agrees was a brilliant stroke.”

Warschaw credits Hahn for having no fear of being overshadowed by other competent professionals, an attitude some mistake for noninvolvement.

“Most politicians would not want to hire a Bill Bratton, because he would get a lot of publicity,” Warschaw said.

Hahn’s friend, Patty Glaser, agreed: “I’d rather have a mayor that’s doing a good job than one who is talking about doing a good job.”

But what about Hahn’s personality? He has often been accused of being absent or dull.

“He’s got a great sense of humor; he’s an extremely dedicated father,” Warschaw said. “People who have known him, love him.”

Then, of course, there is Bob Hertzberg, the Jewish candidate in the election who introduced himself to much of the city in a television ad as the 100-foot man recently seen gingerly sidestepping buildings around the city.

“I feel about the candidates that Bob Hertzberg is far and away the most talented [candidate],” said Marcia Volpert, former president of Jewish Family Service, former chair of the Jewish Political Action Committee and the first woman to chair the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC).

Another former Assembly speaker, Hertzberg’s mayoral candidacy has been marked both by big ideas and big hugs. But while there’s no question about his friendliness, putting his policy theories into practice — from breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District to enacting a commuter’s bill of rights — could prove more difficult.

Volpert, who has faith that Hertzberg can pull it off, said, “He has had the leadership experience, and when he was in the [state Assembly] he was able to pull differing points of view together and get legislation passed. I think that bodes well for the city.”

Hertzberg, like Villaraigosa, has been accused by Hahn of being a consummate Sacramento politician, removed from the needs of the city. Volpert sees a bright side to that equation.

“[Hertzberg] is being supported by [California Secretary of Education and former L.A. Mayor] Richard Riordan, and he has worked with Gov. Schwarzenegger,” she said. “We have to work with the people who have clout to get money to make a difference in this town.”

Volpert said Hertzberg’s natural charm and charisma can’t be discounted, qualities that enable him to build good relationships with colleagues, where other politicians face conflict.

“You can’t be mayor by yourself,” she said.

That’s especially true in a city like Los Angeles, where weak mayoral powers put a premium on coalition-building abilities, force of personality or both.

There’s also some Jewish support to be found behind two other challengers, state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Van Nuys) and former Police Chief and current City Councilman Bernard Parks.

“All of them have tried to be friendly,” said Scott Svonkin, chairman of the B’nai B’rith Southern California Public Policy Center. “But Richard Alarcon has created programs to work with the Jewish community.”

Svonkin specifically cited the Fiesta Shalom festival, one of the first joint Jewish-Latino cultural events in Los Angeles.

On policy issues, Alarcon’s ongoing tenure in the state Senate has allowed him to prove his dedication to helping the underprivileged.

“He’s helped create more opportunities for affordable housing than just about any other elected official,” Svonkin said. “Nobody else can say they’ve created as much housing as Richard has.”

“I knew him as a city councilman, and he has always come to Jewish community events. When I was chair of the JCRC or working with B’nai B’rith, Richard has always been a friend,” said Svonkin, who also praised on Villaraigosa for his involvement with the community.

The bulk of Parks’ support is among black voters in South Los Angeles, and he has not been able to recreate anything like the Tom Bradley coalition that made the combination of Jews and African Americans a potent political force. But Parks’ law-enforcement credentials and his pro-business stance have potentially strong appeal for some Jewish voters. Parks insisted that his reception has been encouragingly positive as he’s brought his message to Jewish venues. At least one prominent Los Angeles Jewish activist, Vidal Sassoon, has donated to his campaign.

“You can’t count on the Jewish vote going to ‘X,'” Hertzberg supporter Volpert said. “I think it will be all over the place this time.”

Observers may interpret that phenomenon as a cultural or political maturity, a sign of dissolving ethnic coalitions, or simply a five-way free-for-all.