Twice Upon a Time


Â

The adoring crowd, a beaming Antonio Villaraigosa, a message of inclusiveness and leadership — the image could have been from four years ago, when Villaraigosa’s campaign for mayor energized much of Los Angeles.

But this time, Villaraigosa also got the more votes than the other guy, and then some, scoring an astounding 59 percent, to make incumbent James K. Hahn a one-term mayor.

Under a clear night sky, framed against a canopy of downtown skyscrapers, Villaraigosa projected energy and hope amid cheers that drowned out question marks and rumblings of unease in his very different, second-time run for mayor.

Across town in Hollywood, incumbent Mayor James Hahn got his first taste of political defeat, without ever admitting defeat. His campaign was the quixotic victim of perceived insufficiencies: a candidate with not quite enough money, too little charm and, to critics, a shortage of achievement, purposefulness and ethical fiber.

Polls had suggested a Villaraigosa win, but the 19-point spread stunned politicos. Villaraigosa led among Jews and Latinos; Valley residents, Eastsiders and Westsiders — pretty much the entire city (and 48 percent of African Americans) chose Villaraigosa. Jews accounted for 17 percent of the total vote and 55 percent of them chose Villaraigosa. For Valley Jews it was 54 percent; 58 percent on the Westside, according to L.A. Times exit polling.

Straightaway, Villaraigosa sought rhetorically to knit together a disparate metropolis that is frequently disengaged and clannish.

“We are all Angelenos tonight,” he said at midnight. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. It doesn’t matter whether you grew up on the Eastside or the Westside, whether you’re from South Los Angeles or Sylmar. It doesn’t matter whether you go to work in a fancy car or on a bus. Or whether you worship in a cathedral or a synagogue or a mosque. We are all Angelenos and we all have a difference to make.”

This was vintage Villaraigosa, the hard charger of four years ago, who inspired excitement and loyalty even while losing to Hahn. The 2005 Villaraigosa campaign, however, differed tellingly from that of 2001; it was more bruising to Hahn and exceedingly cautious in staking out what Villaraigosa intends to do.

By Election Night, no one needed polls or returns to deduce the winner. The Villaraigosa event had the air of a multicultural coronation, with table after table of free tamales, Korean noodles, sushi and barbecue. Two blocks of Boylston Street were cordoned off. The press had its own filing patio; VIPs had a private indoor shindig. The stage setup resembled a presidential campaign rally, with a huge American flag as backdrop and an arch of red, white and blue balloons.

By 9:30 p.m., the streetscape swelled and bobbed with celebrants even as a line of well-wishers stretched around the block, waiting to get through four security screening stations.

At Hahn headquarters, at Element in Hollywood, no metal detectors were needed; this, in contrast, was a party searching not for weapons, but a pulse, looking more like a decently attended art-gallery opening than a political rally. The TV screens steadfastly refused to show anything but the Hahn-for-Mayor logo. There was no press filing area; reporters took interview subjects to a smoggy outdoor smoking patio on the side. Straight back from there, in a private area, anyone could catch glimpses of a calm and genial Hahn standing under a pepper tree, waiting it out with family members and his closest supporters. The party room itself could have seated the audience for a small dance recital, but the bar was long enough, sporting at least five shelves of spirits.

Bobbi Fiedler, the Republican former school board member and former member of Congress, looked like she needed a trip to the bar. She refused to call Hahn’s defeat, but her face foretold enough. She called Hahn “a man who has been working hard getting the job done as opposed to tooting his own horn.”

Hahn backers also included Evelyn Fierro, a San Pedro public affairs specialist and self-described liberal Latino, who had supported Villaraigosa in 2001. She lauded Hahn’s decision to fire black Police Chief Bernard Parks, a move that angered many black Hahn supporters in South Los Angeles.

Hahn had “the guts to stand up to people and bring in the best police chief [Bill Bratton, who is Anglo] in this country,” Fierro said, “knowing it was questionable politically. But he did what was best for the city. And this is how they’re rewarding him.”

Over and over again, Hahn was portrayed by the faithful as underappreciated, especially, they said, when compared to the more photogenic Villaraigosa.

“Our television society is taken by a flashy smile and charismatic personality, and can’t quite accept somebody who is low-key, smart and hardworking,” Fierro said. “Mayor Hahn deserves a second chance and the only reason he won’t make it is that he’s a low-key personality. What does that say about the citizenry of Los Angeles? How shallow can you be?”

But you didn’t have to love Hahn to fault the Villaraigosa of 2005, said David Hamlin, a public-relations consultant with ties to L.A.’s progressive community.

“I think you’d have to conclude that the guy everyone was excited about has decided it’s more important to win than to lead,” he said.

City Controller Laura Chick, in contrast, gave city voters, including Jewish ones, credit for deducing the better choice. She’d endorsed Villaraigosa in 2001, but backed Hahn for reelection early on, when Hahn looked unbeatable and before others entered the race.

“I thought Jim Hahn would be elected to a second term,” said Chick in an interview during the Villaraigosa bash, “and I wanted to show him that he could have confidence that I would be at his side.”

Instead, she lost confidence in Hahn, accusing him of resisting changes to city contracting practices, which had come under fire amid allegations that private firms made political donations to improve chances of winning city business. Recent voter-approved changes to the city charter, Chick added, “made the mayor of Los Angeles the No. 1 person on the firing line of accountability. What Jim has done is try to distance himself from that accountability…. The mayor’s staff, the mayor’s commissioners, the mayor’s general managers were opposing [reforms], and the mayor did nothing to change that.”

As for Villaraigosa, Chick gives an edge to the 2005 vintage over the Villaraigosa of 2001.

“He is a man who has been tempered and mellowed and humbled by the taste of defeat,” Chick said. “He’s also had hands-on city experience for two years as council member and understands much better the dynamics of city politics and the problems facing us.”

Villaraigosa’s success among Jewish voters in polls leading up to Election Day was no surprise to Chick.

“The Jewish community has always been interested in progressive reform and Antonio is a leader in those kinds of politics,” said Chick, who is Jewish. “And the Jewish community has tasted firsthand being the underdog. It identifies with Antonio as a member of a minority ethnicity with shared experiences.”

“But maybe, most importantly,” she added, “the Jewish community is very involved in civic life in Los Angeles, involved in giving back. I think they have identified in Antonio an elected official who can maybe correct some inequities that stand in the way of our city being truly great.”

Jews also need to be pragmatic about building coalitions in a city with a declining Jewish presence, noted Attorney Andrew Friedman, at the Villaraigosa rally.

“Twelve years ago, there were seven Jewish city council members,” Friedman said. “Today there’s only three. If we want our agenda to be accomplished, we must build bridges to all the other minorities.”

For some left-of-center progressives, Villaraigosa’s inclusiveness strayed too far right for comfort. Villaraigosa’s backers included property owners who oppose unionizing security guards, a top priority on labor’s agenda. Some property owners, in fact, made a point to side with Villaraigosa over Hahn. In the end, Villaraigosa’s fundraising swamped Hahn’s, though the mayor had his millions, too, as well as the backing of the County Federation of Labor.

All told, it was topsy-turvy and melancholy season for the powerful political apparatus of the County Federation of Labor. On Tuesday, most of the rank and file ignored their leadership’s directive and voted for Villaraigosa, who, after all, made his name as a labor stalwart. The result was a bizarre mirror image of 2001, when much of the labor leadership had enthusiastically backed Villaraigosa, but a plurality of union members voted for Hahn. Notably missing from the Hahn party was County Fed leader Miguel Contreras, an architect of labor’s rise in Los Angeles, who died this month at 52 of a heart attack. Contreras was a close friend of Villaraigosa’s, but had backed Hahn because Hahn delivered on his commitments to organized labor.

Villaraigosa’s “just win” strategy sounds defensible enough to Democrats who ponder the Al Gore or John Kerry administrations that might have been. But the alternative in Los Angeles was not George W. Bush, but an ideologically compatible fellow Democrat, who was enough of a coalition builder to earn the simultaneous support of labor and the Chamber of Commerce.

Hahn never did persuade enough people that Villaraigosa was too risky to elect. But Villaraigosa’s flirtation with the moneyed establishment put a scare into some longtime leftwing supporters who probably voted for him anyway. Members of the moneyed establishment, for their part, probably still regard Villaraigosa as slightly scary, but at least they went to bed Tuesday night knowing they had backed the winner. Hope and opportunity can work in mysterious ways.

Villaraigosa still has his true believers, of course, including Jewish attorney Julie Gutman, who felt devastated by the 2001 loss to Hahn.

“Antonio is a consensus-builder,” she said, “a unifier. He brings people together. He has the energy, leadership and vision to make Los Angeles the best city in this country.”

David Finnigan contributed to this article.
Â

Civil Rights Goes Beyond Ethnic Lines


When the nation’s largest and oldest Mexican American civil rights group selected a new leader recently, the committee that recruited her included the organization’s chairman, a man who is neither a Mexican American nor an immigrant. Meet Joe Stern.

For Stern, the immigrant experience began at home. Growing up in a Cleveland suburb, he remembers his maternal grandfather regaling him with tales about coming to America as a poor Jewish immigrant from Austria and making his way here, despite anti-Semitism and the challenges of scratching out an existence in a new land. Arriving penniless in New York, Stern’s grandfather eventually made his way to Ohio, where he went on to open a successful supermarket chain.

His grandfather’s travails and triumphs helped the young Stern develop a lifelong empathy for immigrants. He decided that one day, he would somehow smooth the rocky road newcomers often face in the United States, a country whose attitude toward immigrants often rises and falls with the vicissitudes of the economy.

Today, 54-year-old Stern is a partner at the blue-chip New York law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP. He lives comfortably on the Upper West Side, jets around the globe and runs marathons.

But the abiding love of the underdog and quest for social justice Stern learned at his grandfather’s knee never left him. That’s why he contributes to such civil rights groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Defense Fund. It’s also why he serves as chair of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a civil rights group fighting for educational equality and political advancement for the nation’s 40 million Latinos.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Stern would at first blush seem an unlikely candidate to hold such a prominent position in the nation’s foremost Latino civil rights organization. Although he heads Fried, Frank’s Latin American practice, Stern speaks little Spanish, took only a few courses on Latin American history in college and has no Latino roots.

Still, Stern said the similarities between Jews and Latinos outweigh the differences; both groups prize family, self-improvement and have firsthand experience with the dislocations of immigration. For Stern, Judaism’s emphasis on justice and making the world a better place have given him a strong foundation for his advocacy work.

"I don’t think you have to be Jewish to have a sensitivity to the most recent wave of immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Latin America, but I think our immigrant experience may help," he said. "Again, I don’t think you have to be Jewish to have a passion for civil rights, but it doesn’t hurt. MALDEF is one of the foremost civil rights organizations in the country, and I do really believe that when anyone’s rights are denied, we’re all in danger."

Stern first got involved with MALDEF through his activist law firm, which has a longstanding relationship with the group. A director since 1991, he has worked overtime lately, playing an important role in the recent hiring of Ann Marie Tallman as MALDEF’s president and general counsel.

"Joe’s really stepped up and done right for this institution," MALDEF board member Frank Quevedo said of Stern’s efforts in finding a new leader, who beat out 80 candidates and is expected to attract more corporate support.

Tallman’s appointment represents MALDEF’s break with the "last ties to any notion of ethnic nationalism and ethnic provincialism," said Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute. Although the group has long taken money from businesses and foundations, Tallman, an ethnically mixed attorney who speaks almost no Spanish and hails from the corporate world, symbolizes a more mainstream MALDEF, he added.

Stern, in his 13 years with the organization, has held a variety of positions, including heading the organization’s fiscal and fund-raising committee. He became chair in 2002, just as the group opened a new office in North Carolina to serve the northeast. Stern’s charm, intellect and ability to bring people together have earned him the respect of his MALDEF colleagues, board member and Washington attorney Thomas Reston said.

"It’s quite evident from anyone who talks to him that his is not a rote, by-the-numbers interest in civil rights. It’s a deeply felt passion and a deep commitment to fairness," said Reston, who successfully litigated on behalf of MALDEF in the mid-1970s to expand the Voting Rights Act to cover parts of California and the Southwest.

Stern’s commitment to Latinos and civil rights is matched only by his newfound dedication to Judaism. Bothered by his ignorance about his own religion, he began taking classes at a local synagogue and became fascinated with the Bible and its meaning. At the age of 49, Stern had a bar mitzvah.

"I figured I should at least do what a 13-year-old does, and I’m very happy I did. It was a public way of embracing being Jewish," he said. "Judaism has made me a richer, deeper person."

Is Demography Destiny?


The new U.S. census figures have generated banner headlines this month, though no one seems to have a clue what those numbers portend. The big news, of course, is that America’s Latino population has ballooned almost 60 percent in the past decade, surpassing 35 million. More than 43 percent of Californians younger than 18 are now Hispanic, compared with about 35 percent a decade ago. In both the city and county of Los Angeles, Latinos have replaced whites as the largest ethnic group.

"The Anglo hegemony was only an intermittent phase in California’s arc of identity, extending from the arrival of the Spanish," Kevin Starr, the state librarian, told The New York Times. "The Hispanic nature of California has been there all along, and it was temporarily swamped between the 1880s and the 1960s, but that was an aberration."

Since most Jews are white, we find ourselves being a kind of minority squared, a minority within this new white minority. But Jewish groups have long seen this trend coming. They began their outreach to the Latino community years ago and have stepped up efforts in the recent past. What they have discovered is a community much more complex than the demographers’ numbers would lead us to believe. The word Latino hardly describes the tremendous linguistic, cultural, economic, political and national diversity of the region’s "non-white Hispanics." In Los Angeles, demography is not destiny but a test, perhaps a triumph, of democracy.

Now consider Israel. There are 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and 300,000 Jews. For Israel to incorporate largely Palestinian areas would mean the certain dissipation of the Jewish character of the state, either through the democratic process or by enforcing an apartheid-like hegemony over a non-Jewish majority. Thus Israeli leaders from Yitzchak Rabin to Benjamin Netanyahu have sought out a compromise with Palestinians that would essentially trade land for security. The United States’ former lead Mideast negotiator, Dennis Ross, has said that demographics makes an eventual rapprochement and agreement inevitable, although Yasser Arafat seems determined to prove him wrong.

On Saturday night we’ll read the Passover story. "Behold," said Pharaoh, "the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply." If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know "dealing wisely" was Pharaoh’s way of saying, "Kill them." So Moses led us away, to multiply elsewhere. Does Arafat see himself as Pharoah, hoping to drive the Children of Israel into the sea? Or does he imagine himself Moses, leading a tribe that will eventually outnumber its enemy? In Israel, demography is destiny.

These refelctions on head-counting come at a time when human genome decoders have determined that at the genetic level, the concept of race is scientifically meaningless. "Race is a social concept, not a scientific one," Dr. J. Craig Venter, head of the Celera Genomics Corporation in Rockville, Md. told The Times. "We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world." It turns out that .01 percent of our genes is reflected in our external appearance: in other words, in our obvious Black-ness, Caucasian-ness or Latino-ness.

Jews, of course, are not a race, despite Hitler’s best efforts to categorize and exterminate us as one. We belong to a religion and a culture that embraces all races. There are black Jews and Latino Jews, and though the mind boggles, there is nothing other than a century of animosity to prevent there being Palestinian Arab Jews as well. To be a Jew is not, at the end of the day, a question of race, nationality, skin color, genetics or birth. It is a matter of what you believe and how you behave.

In this light, the admonition of the ancient rabbis against counting Jews seems sublime. When all the head-tallying and label-fixing is over, we must remember that quantity is less important than quality. In the end, it is not bodies that matter most, but souls.

Latinos and Jews


Sunday, March 12. It’s a warm, sunny day. A wonderful day to drive up to Malibu. So why am I sitting here in Wilshire Boulevard Temple/West listening to six earnest men? They seem intent on telling me (and others assembled here) how important and necessary it is for Jews and Latinos in L.A. to come together.

Jews and Latino’s share many things, Xavier Becerra, the Congressman from L.A.’s 30th district, who just returned from an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel, reminds us. Some in our communities must deal with immigration and with English as a second language. We each have a deep concern for our families and for the elderly in our midst. But we live apart, a great geographic divide separating us, almost as though we were citizens of different countries.

He’s right of course. The other panelists are also bright and appealing — Antonio Villaraigosa, the speaker of the State Assembly (he and Becerra are running for mayor in the 2001 election); Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, American Jewish Committee West Coast director; Dr. Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute; David Abel, a political activist who is also chair of Speaker Villaraigosa’s Commission on Government Finance; and Steven Windmueller, director of Communal Services at HUC (actually a keynote speaker).

They all explain why we need to connect more. That our hope is in joining together. We Jews have organization, wealth, political savvy. We have clout. But the Latinos have the numbers, and they are organizing. We have much to offer one another. And of course there is the unspoken: Perhaps one day soon they will overtake us.

There are maybe 40 people who have forsaken sun to gather together. My subversive side peeks out. Why am I here, I write in my notebook.

The forum, to be sure, is filled with high purpose and ringing words. But the more words I hear, the wider the chasm appears. I look around. People seem interested, but the numbers are small. Several weeks ago more than 400 gathered to listen to academics and a few rabbis discuss intermarriage and Jewish identity at USC’s Institute for the Study of Jewish Life in America. I see few academics here. Few leaders from the different Jewish communities; few from The Jewish Federation, Michael Hirschfeld, director of The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, a notable exception. I know: It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and those not here are wisely spending the day with family and friends.

Lots of words, I scribble in my notebook. But not much that’s going to set us on the road towards friendship; or deep connections. Nothing I hear sounds as though it will change my relationship with anyone in the Latino community, unless I decide to work for the election of Becerra or Villaraigosa.

I rationalize my impatience: I have a low tolerance for pep talks and exhortation. I want something focused more on action, on concrete suggestions that I can argue or agree with; something with an outcome. I jot down some of my own thoughts. I offer these to the panelists.

1) Let the JCRC have joint Latino-Jewish programs on a regular basis, with guest speakers (which already occurs), but also with many Latinos present in the audience. A joint session means something more than Latino and Jewish speakers. It means an assembly of men and women, Jewish and Latino, sharing ideas, points of view and a kosher lunch.

What can we discuss? Education and ways to teach English as a second language. Problems with the INS. The Rampart Division scandal. Also, if we must, the Pope, the Catholic church and the Holocaust.

2) Develop a set of programs, especially for children, at the Jewish Community Centers in the Valley and in L.A. Don’t just announce that the Center is open to all people who live nearby. Initiate after-school activities and recruit children and families within the different Latino communities.

3) Work with the Israeli consul general. He wishes to launch an outreach program directed towards Latinos. The realpolitik here has to do with Israel and Latin America. Cultural contact seems to be the wedge that Consul General Yuval Rotem has in mind. Rotem’s new director of Cultural Affairs, Kobi Oshrat-Ventura, has a Sephardic background and is eager to engage the Latino artistic community. Here universities, art galleries, the Skirball, USC’s Jewish Studies Institute look like appropriate venues.

4) Embark upon joint school endeavors. Take as a model The Milken School and the Israeli schoolchildren in Tel Aviv, who now have student exchanges, weekly e-mail communications (as part of the school curriculum), and joint planning on the part of teachers.

5) Arrange for the Latino schoolchildren to interview their Jewish counterparts (along with their families) and produce a documentary about Jewish lives; and of course engage the Jewish students in a similar way, so that they produce a documentary depicting their view of the Latino world. That’s a starting point for dialogue and interaction.

6) Instead of serious Sundays attending to a panel of smart, thoughtful men explaining what we need to do, perhaps we could actually engage with one another directly. Even in a modest way. Maybe organize monthly Sunday brunches in private homes, so that we cross borders. One month a Jewish, the next a Latino home. Keep the same core groups, but expand them each month. It’s called developing social networks. I’ll come on a sunny Sunday afternoon; heck, I’ll even give one of the brunches… outdoors. — Gene Lichtenstein