Little Scandal Becomes Big Deal

The still-simmering flap over forged endorsements for Mayor James Hahn is the classic scandal that didn’t have to be. A little more than a week ago, this incident grew from niche story — something that only Jewish Journal readers might notice — to the week’s hottest local political fracas, with widespread coverage in newspapers and on radio and TV.

And it was the Hahn campaign that made this happen.

This episode began as the tale of an odd mistake. Some of the same names appeared on endorsement lists of Hahn and of one of his challengers, Bob Hertzberg. The Hahn list appeared in published advertisements, including in The Journal. Six people on Hahn’s list complained in a letter that they are not supporting the incumbent mayor. The Hahn campaign noted that its ad was based on signed endorsement letters, but also said that it would remove the six names.

So far so good for the Hahn campaign.

It’s what transpired next that incensed a portion of the Jewish community that could have supported Hahn in the May 17 runoff. At this point, the mayor’s lieutenants had the option of apologizing profusely and carefully double-checking all potentially suspect endorsements, just to be sure.

Instead, some say, Hahn’s campaign staff, notably veteran political adviser Kam Kuwata, adopted an approach that came across as cavalier and insensitive. It started with Kuwata’s presumption that producing the endorsement forms would settle the issue — that citing these forms was all he needed to do.

Journal reporter Idan Ivri showed the letters to the people who purportedly signed them. They said their signatures had been forged. Kuwata downplayed that issue, while insisting that the strange occurrence was limited to those who signed the letter. Yet the problematic endorsements began to grow in number. To date, community leaders have specified 30 false endorsements. As of this writing, The Journal has contacted about one-third of these individuals — all of whom insisted they never endorsed Hahn.

Kuwata cemented this public-relations debacle when he identified the source of the documents as Joe Klein, who died last June at age 69.

So, if you’re keeping track, the Hahn campaign’s first message was: These complaints are no big deal, not worth bothering with. The second tack was to blame a revered member of the Orthodox community, who’s conveniently not around to defend himself.

If Klein had left behind a signed confession attesting to the forgeries, it still would have been bad politics for the Hahn campaign to hide behind his tombstone.

As it happens, many of the bad endorsements were those of people who’d supported Hahn — often at Klein’s behest — in 2001. The 2005 campaign, however, included Hertzberg, a Jewish candidate who appealed to these voters on key issues, not to mention a Hahn who’s been tarnished by ongoing corruption investigations.

The fake endorsement issue didn’t hurt Hahn in the March 8 primary, because the news emerged too late. Hertzberg narrowly missed the runoff. But the flap surely presents a gift to City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who’ll face off with Hahn on May 17.

The damage done is embodied in Dr. Irving Lebovics, a dentist who chairs Agudath Israel of California, an Orthodox group. Lebovics is among those who say his signature was forged on a letter endorsing Hahn. He’s unhappy about that, but he’s especially upset at what he regards as the outrageous vilification of Klein.

“It’s a matter of integrity,” he said. “Integrity is very important to me.”

Lebovics has nothing against Hahn’s performance as mayor; he’ll even allow that Hahn’s been a good mayor, but he’s now leaning toward Villaraigosa. Lebovics attended a hastily called Friday press conference at which he was among four Orthodox Jewish leaders who defended Klein and criticized Hahn. Lebovics declined to state his preference for Villaraigosa while tape was rolling, because he didn’t want the focus to stray from his issue with Hahn’s campaign.

Another speaker was Rabbi Steven Weil of Temple Beth Jacob, who clearly was angry about the alleged forging of his own signature. He, too, evinced no interest in promoting Hahn’s challenger, whose name he pronounced as “Villagarosa” in response to a reporter’s question.

But this event wasn’t entirely without political orchestration. The sound system was provided by the Villaraigosa campaign. And the master of ceremonies was City Councilman Jack Weiss, a Villaraigosa stalwart. Reached earlier by phone, the press deputy for Weiss referred to the press conference as a “Villaraigosa event” that was unrelated to the official business of the council office.

Kuwata of the Hahn campaign fired back at Weiss, calling reporters’ attention to thousands of dollars in fines that Weiss faces for mistakes made in his 2001 City Council campaign. That got reported, too, but didn’t have the legs of the dodgy endorsements, which made it on at least two TV stations’ newscasts, on two radio stations, and into the pages of the Daily Breeze and the Los Angeles Times.

At this juncture, Hahn hopes for a tight race — that would mark an improvement over his lagging second-place primary finish. And if it’s close, last week’s missteps could cost him. Members of Orthodox congregations tend to vote, and they respect their leaders’ endorsements — their real endorsements, that is.

In 2001, Hahn won over substantial numbers of Anglo, moderate and middle-class voters with a campaign that subtly reminded them that Villaraigosa had dark skin. The campaign also painted Villaraigosa as too liberal overall and too dangerous on matters of crime.

In 2005, despite his second-place primary finish, Hahn could yet prevail, but it’ll be more difficult to win with a similar campaign. For one thing, Villaraigosa plans to fire back with City Hall corruption allegations. And now he’s got additional ammunition provided courtesy of the Hahn campaign.

Third-place finisher Hertzberg hasn’t made an endorsement, but his legions already are debating where to go. They include affordable-housing developer Stanley Treitel, Klein’s brother-in-law. Treitel is no Westside lockstep liberal. For one thing, he supports vouchers for private schools, because he’d like government subsidies to help pay for children who attend Orthodox academies.

Could Treitel possibly go for Villaraigosa, the teachers union favorite, the ultimate anti-voucher man?

Yes, he could. And now he does.

The Mayor’s Eyes and Ears

Jennifer Stein wears two hats at City Hall. You could say one of them is a kippah.

The recent Stanford University grad, 23, is the South Valley Area director in Mayor James Hahn’s Office of the Neighborhood Advocate. She is also Hahn’s liaison to the Jewish community.

The Neighborhood Advocate position features a well-defined set of responsibilities. Stein meets with homeowners’ organizations, chambers of commerce and community members from South San Fernando Valley neighborhoods like Sherman Oaks, where she lives, and Encino, where she grew up. She explains and offers advice on the city’s various constituent services, and represents neighborhood concerns to the mayor.

The Jewish liaison job comes with responsibilities of a similar vein, but not nearly so well-defined. Who, after all, represents Los Angeles Jews? What are Jewish concerns?

Stein says she has been in touch with Jewish Federation President John Fishel, and also works closely with The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance. “I’d like to bring more of L.A.’s Jewish community into contact with the mayor’s office,” she says.

Karen Wagener, 55, who served as Jewish liaison under Mayor Richard Riordan from 1999 to 2001, describes the responsibilities of the position as “the eyes and ears” of the mayor in the community, by talking to the mayor about issues relevant to the community and conveying the mayor’s concerns to the community. For example, Wagener helped a Valley community obtain an eruv; she also helped The Federation deal with some zoning problems.

Hope Warschaw, a Jewish community activist and former Hahn campaign worker, described the liaison job in simpler terms. It’s someone “with a name and a face that you can call with a wide range of concerns — traffic problems in front of a synagogue, getting the mayor to a solidarity rally,” she said. “Mainly, it’s a face.” Warschaw described Stein as “very enthusiastic — she will always get you the answers you need.”

Stein’s qualifications for her City Hall jobs stem more from her lifelong political experience than from her Jewish background. Though she recalls attending synagogue services as a child at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and later at Stephen S. Weiss Temple, “I didn’t really get involved with my Jewish heritage until college,” she says.

When she arrived at Stanford, one of the first things she did was to stop by Hillel. “Some of the first people I really bonded with were the Jewish students, and that really began my Jewish connection,” she says.

Politically, however, Stein has been connected all her life. Her father, real estate developer Ted Stein, has been heavily involved in local politics for decades; he once even ran for city attorney — against Jennifer’s current boss, Hahn. After losing that election to the future mayor, Ted Stein has served the city on various commissions, including a stint as president of the Harbor Commission and his current post on the Airport Commission.

Jennifer’s mother, Ellen Stein, is serving her second term as president of the Board of Public Works. Jennifer Stein notes, “I was raised around politics all my life. I remember as a child going to victory parties for city council members. I guess I caught the bug there. There’s nothing better than trying to make your community better.”

Stein’s most important concern as Jewish liaison, she says, is ensuring the free flow of communication and comfort of the community. “Sometimes people feel frustrated that they have no one to turn to in their government,” she says. “I want to make sure that members of the Jewish community always feel comfortable in Los Angeles.”

After only two months in her new position, Stein says she is still working on establishing contacts, especially now, following her recent move from downtown City Hall to Van Nuys offices.

“I’m working right now on doing my own outreach, but the Jewish community — not just leaders, but any people with concerns about the city — should feel free to contact this administration.”

Questions or concerns of the Jewish community may be
addressed to Jennifer Stein at (818) 756-7924, or .