Blocking Moderates

Political analysts agree on one thing: The Nov. 2, 2004, California congressional and state legislative elections were the most anti-demo-cratic and frightening results yet of the so-called “safe seats” scheme, in which the winners are known long before Election Day.

Thanks to the “safe seats” scheme, none of California’s 53 congressional seats changed from Republican to Democrat or vice versa on Nov. 2. Nor did any of the 100 Sacramento legislative seats up for grabs. In fact, the outcomes were almost all known months earlier because voters have become irrelevant.

That’s not choice or democracy, it’s tyranny. But the “safe seats” scheme has festered because the media fails to explain what “gerrymandering” is and how it hurts democracy.

Simply put, leaders of the Democratic Party and Republican Party in California cut a deal between themselves, behind closed doors, in which they agreed to carefully separate voters into blocs of Democrats and blocs of Republicans. After separating voters block by block, they drew lines around us on a map and called the crazy resulting shapes “voting districts.”

Once herded into “voting districts,” we were then spoon-fed a pre-selected insider from either the Democratic or Republican Party who had absolutely no chance of losing — no chance — on Nov. 2. This ensured that the politicians didn’t have to compete on ideas, vision or policy in order to win our votes.

If you live in the Los Angeles coastal strip, when you went to your polling place Nov. 2, you saw very, very few Republicans voting. And not just because fewer Republicans live among the coastal types. Republicans have been ghettoized into specially drawn “voting districts” so their pesky votes won’t disrupt the preset plan by a pre-anointed Democrat to grab the political office in your area.

On the other hand, if you live in the Inland Empire, when you walked into your polling place you rarely brushed past a Democrat. Sure, Democrats live among the inlander types. But they’ve been ghettoized into specially drawn “voting districts” so that their pesky votes don’t disrupt the preset plan by a pre-anointed Republican to grab the political office in your area.

It’s pure corruption, although no money changes hands. A civic figure in Los Angeles once uttered this Orwellian truism: “Voters no longer pick the candidate.” Instead, candidates wielding block-by-block computer modeling “pick their voters.” It almost makes your skin crawl.

Horrified by the Orwellian state legislative and congressional results on Nov. 2, Ted Costa of the People’s Advocate, who launched the Gray Davis recall, is linking up with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others to stop politicians from divvying us up. They will fight to pass a ballot measure that hands this job of “redistricting” to a panel of nonpartisan judges.

Republican consultant Arnold Steinberg says past reform efforts have been stopped at the ballot box by huge Democratic spending campaigns. “In theory, a new measure for safe seats does have potential but it has to be well-drafted and with a competent campaign this time,” says Steinberg. “My optimism is guarded.”

If it does succeed, political moderates who have long been absent from California politics will run for office in the resulting “mixed” voting districts based on natural geography.

Why should you care? For one thing, a nascent movement of pro-business, pro-choice, moderate Republican Jews in California political life is likely to take off like a rocket.

In 2002, Robert Levy, a pro-choice Jewish Republican, ran for the House of Representatives in the 27th District in the San Fernando Valley. One of four moderate Republican Jews who ran in Los Angeles that year, Levy lost to Jewish Democratic incumbent Brad Sherman.

Levy, a longtime lawyer who volunteered as a judge pro tempore in the Superior Court of Los Angeles, boasted an impressive resume, years of service, fresh ideas and an engaging personality. And not a prayer of winning.

Levy couldn’t get serious press coverage. The Los Angeles media correctly prejudged that, despite Levy’s obvious appeal, a Republican could not possibly win the “safe” Democrat-gerrymandered 27th District.

Sherman, Levy’s rival, told me in 2002 that he was “scared at first” by Levy’s credentials. But after the media marginalized Levy, Sherman raised $450,000 to Levy’s $20,000 in campaign funds. Sherman won long before voters ever voted.

Connie Friedman and Michael J. Wissot were other moderate Jewish Republicans who ran in the San Fernando Valley and got shut out, beat by partisan liberal Democrats Lloyd Levine and Fran Pavley. But remember, safe seats also keep moderate Democrats from having any chance to win in carefully gerrymandered Republican areas, such as in the San Joaquin Valley.

Safe seats have created a terrible divide. Most members of the House of Representatives from California, as well as the 120 members of the Sacramento state Legislature, grew increasingly hard left and hard right. They were handpicked for office by the uncompromising special-interest groups who drew up the mapping lines that herded voters into our separate worlds.

It’s a pretty neat setup.

Because Jews play a much larger role in California politics than their modest population would suggest, if voters agree with Schwarzenegger and Costa to halt the gerrymandering, California will see moderate Jewish Republicans increasingly hankering for their place in the sun.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist. She can be reached at

Congress Remains Pro-Israel

Pro-Israel activists say they are confident their legislative priorities will be able to get through the new Congress, which is now under Republican control. In the final election returns, which came early Wednesday morning, a predominance of pro-Israel lawmakers retained their seats, and several new faces emerged, many of whom pro-Israel officials called promising.

The new Congress will take office at a critical time in U.S.-Israel relations, with Israel entering a heated election campaign, prospects for peace with the Palestinians at a standstill and a U.S.-led war against Iraq looming. The congressional approach to Israel and the Middle East is a significant component in those relations.

While American Jewish leaders were closely watching the poll results, there was not much concern: Officials had said they were comfortable with the candidates from both major parties in most of the congressional races.

"Everyone seems to be very good nowadays," said Morris Amitay, a veteran Jewish activist who is treasurer of the pro-Israel Washington PAC.

While the Jewish community is predominantly Democratic, Jewish groups have had much success getting legislation passed in a Republican House. Prior to the election, many said they believed they would have success no matter which party controls the Senate.

Support for Israel "is a bipartisan issue," one American Jewish leader said. "Congress is overwhelmingly pro-Israel."

Another senior pro-Israel official said his organization had spoken during the campaign season to virtually all the nonincumbent candidates who won Tuesday, and that they expected the 108th Congress to be even more supportive of Israel than the outgoing body.

Many of the candidates that the pro-Israel community targeted for defeat were eliminated in primaries or were not seeking re-election.

Republican Norm Coleman, who narrowly defeated his last-minute Democratic challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, in Minnesota, was opposed by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations as a possible Bush administration appointee two years ago because he is a "ardent supporter of Israel."

The former Jewish mayor of St. Paul, he received strong support — financial backing from the Republican Jewish Coalition and its supporters.

"He’s a passionate, Jewish representative," Brooks said.

Among other Senate results of note:

  • Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) defeated the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Max Cleland, in Georgia. Chambliss had criticized Cleland for being reluctant to speak out against comments made by ousted Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) that were deemed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Chambliss is considered to have a strong record in the House, stemming from his work as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism.
  • Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will fill the seat of Sen. Strom Thurmond, the retiring senior senator from South Carolina, having defeated his Democratic challenger, Alex Sanders. Graham spoke last month at the Christian Coalition’s rally for Israel in Washington, and is believed to be a strong supporter of the Jewish state.

The 108th Congress will get down to work in early January as both Israel and the Palestinians prepare for elections of their own, and the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq is still an unknown. Against this backdrop, pro-Israel advocates say their agenda for the next two years will focus on legislation that did not get passed this year. Those measures include:

  • An additional $200 million in aid to Israel is expected to be tackled by the lame-duck Congress later this month. That will be wrapped into the foreign aid bill, which includes $3 billion in economic and military aid for Israel.
  • The Palestinian reform bill, dubbed the Arafat Accountability Act, would deny visas to Palestinian Authority officials, restrict travel of Palestinian officials and freeze the American assets of Palestinian leaders.
  • The Syria Accountability Act would ban military and dual-use exports to Syria, and ban financial assistance to U.S. businesses that invest in Syria.

Jewish officials say a Republican majority in Congress could move the flow of legislation faster than in a divided body where partisan issues are paramount.

However, the Republican-led House of Representatives still has had to battle with the White House on several bills related to the Middle East, with the Bush administration complaining that the bills tie its hands and make it harder to implement foreign policy. But House Republicans have been able to prevail, pushing through a pro-Israel resolution last spring that called on the United States to provide additional aid to Israel and condemning "the ongoing support of terror" by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders.

Other variables, such as the changing makeup of the Israeli government after the Labor Party’s departure last week and upcoming Israeli elections, could affect congressional action on the Middle East.

U.S. action against Iraq could change things as well. If the United States attacks Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime, lawmakers are expected to rally around the flag in support of the president. This could push other Middle East issues off the agenda and make it difficult for Jewish groups to pursue legislation. However, Congress would be likely to offer strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself if attacked by Iraq in the course of a U.S.-led war.

Congressional officials say the Middle East portfolio is expected to come under the auspices of the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). If the Middle East subcommittee remains separate, possible Republican chairpersons include Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a strong Israel backer, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a lawmaker who has frequently voted against pro-Israel resolutions and foreign aid.

Agencies Survive Budget Battle

For Jewish community-affiliated agencies that receive money from the state, the last two months of past-deadline legislative wrangling over the budget has been a nail-biting time, with some organizations awaiting word on half or more of their annual funding.

"We’ve gotten by without severe cuts to this point," said Jessica Toledano, director of government relations for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC).

For Jewish agencies that rely on state general fund dollars, it is clear that the waiting game has just begun. State Controller Kathleen Connell has predicted multibillion dollar deficits next year. In addition, the new budget relies on billions of dollars from the federal government, which in the past have failed to materialize. That may force legislators to cut money currently scheduled for both Jewish and non-Jewish community services.

"Over a period of 30-40 years, many of the agencies created by the Jewish community have become reliant on public dollars, because the state has recognized that they can offer a quality service," said Federation President John Fishel.

Some of the services offered by Jewish agencies will be hit harder than others in the current budget. Among the hardest hit is the youTHink program by the Zimmer Discovery Children’s Museum of the Jewish Community Centers.

The youTHink program, which uses the arts to teach social issues, did not receive the $750,000 it requested from the state. The request represented approximately half of the program’s annual budget.

Esther Netter, the Zimmer’s executive director, remained hopeful that the program will find the money it needs to continue its programs, but said she understands why the funding was cut. "They’re trying to deal with the most critical needs of the state," she said, "They can hardly deal with extras."

JCRC’s Toledano said they are already searching for ways to fund the youTHink program.

Not every Jewish organization lost out in the new state budget. "The Museum of Tolerance seems to withstand a lot of the pressure on the budget," said Rabbi Meyer May, the museum’s executive director.

The museum will continue to receive its annual $2 million allocation for police officer diversity training, as well as funding for teacher training and major exhibits. May said the museum’s programs are "not in danger at all." However, he expressed concern for alternative education and arts programs like youTHink that are endangered by the lack of state funds.

For now, most Jewish service agencies, like other social service agencies across the state, will find themselves somewhere in the middle, with funding reduced, but not so sharply that programs will be cut. Jewish Family Services (JFS), which contracts with Los Angeles to provide a number of programs to clients in the city, is one such organization.

According to Paul Castro, JFS executive director, "There are not cuts so significant that they will impair our bottom-line ability to serve clients." Though JFS will receive less money from the state for service programs such as Linkages, which helps elderly and disabled adults live independently, Castro said that, "ultimately, we can live with it."

The Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) does not receive a large sum from the state, but it does rely on state vocational rehabilitation counselors to refer some of its most needy clients. The state counselors will have less money to spend on serving clients, so JVS said it expects to serve fewer people. "When funds are reduced, clients just sit on a waiting list; the ones on the waiting list are the most employable, the ones with the least severe disabilities," explained Vivian Seigel, JVS CEO.

Jewish organizations said the budget funding could have been worse, but they fear that it might still deteriorate further. This year, lobbying efforts made the Jewish community’s priorities known. In May, more than 200 Jewish activists gathered in Sacramento for the annual lobbying mission of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee (JPAC), a coalition of Jewish community organizations.

Led by JPAC chair Barbara Yaroslavsky, the lobbying mission focused on four legislative priorities. One , the Linkages program, will face some reduction in funding.

A second program on the JPAC list, the Naturalization Services Program that assists legal immigrants in obtaining U.S. citizenship, retained nearly all of its $8 million allocation.

Two legislative actions sought by the lobbying group passed. The Hate Crimes Victims Justice Act, which limits lengthy continuances in cases involving hate crimes, stalking or career criminals, passed in the Assembly and Senate unanimously. A resolution expressing solidarity with Israel also passed unanimously the day after JPAC’s lobbying mission.

State money for Jewish agencies does not go to programs specifically serving Jews. Jewish service agencies contract with local governments to serve Jews and non-Jews in need. When they lose funding, the Jewish community loses what Yaroslavsky calls "a wonderful vehicle for developing relationships with other communities."

Jewish service agencies fear that people in need will lose services like medical and mental health care, educational opportunities and job training. "You either raise taxes or cut services. There’s no magic potion," said Scott Svonkin, who watches the state budget as B’nai B’rith’s public policy chairman and as chief of staff to Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-W. Hollywood). "While this year was very difficult," he said, "we still face challenges next year. Fortunately for the Jewish community, we have a friend in the governor’s mansion."

Friends in the Legislature and in the governor’s mansion will be important because, as Svonkin said, "Basically, the same choices will be on the table next year."