Mud That May Not Stick
For more than a generation, racial and ethnic politics have dominated Los Angeles’ mayoral elections. That is, perhaps, until this year, which might be the first election of Los Angeles’ emerging post-ethnic era.
Although no doubt frustrating to the various candidates, this development is a promising one for Los Angeles as a whole. It is far healthier in this polyglot mess of a city if people can run for office based on their persona, qualifications and ideology, instead of their lineage. Better to be a confused and cacophonous democracy than one divided along communal lines.
Much of the evidence comes from the earliest polling. It appears that none of the leading ethnic candidates against white-bread Mayor James Hahn — Antonio Villaraigosa, Bernard Parks, Bob Hertzberg or Richard Alarcòn — are winning overwhelming and immediate support from their ethnic compadres. People may come around in the end to vote that way, but at least they seem to be giving a benefit of the doubt to the guys from other tribes.
Perhaps nothing is more illustrative than the relatively tepid support Villaraigosa is gaining from Latinos this time around. Last time, they gathered around him like the second coming of Cesar Chavez; this time, they seem more skeptical and pragmatic. This time, according to the Los Angeles Times Poll, he is garnering roughly half the amount he got last time.
Indeed, arguably the most powerful Latino in town, Labor Council boss Miguel Contreras, has chosen to back his dutiful and proven servant, the mayor, rather than his own compadre. Contreras would rather be the big boss of Los Angeles than its most important Mexican. Alarcòn fiesty candidacy, if not gaining votes, is also diluting the kind of Chicanismo message that propelled Villaraigosa the last time.
Similarly, Parks is not exactly proving to be a redux Tom Bradley. African American voters may be disillusioned with their choice last time, Hahn, but they are not flocking blindly to the former police chief. Parks arguably the most conservative of the candidates, is making some inroads where Hahn, the white Protestant, should be, that is, among Los Angeles’ remaining Republicans.
As for the Jews, they are even more confused and confusing than ever. By the laws of ethnic politics, they should be rallying en masse around former Assembly Speaker Hertzberg. Yet he so far has won the support of perhaps only one-fifth, with as many supportive of liberal firebrand Villaraigosa.
What’s behind these developments?
For one thing, ethnic politics are now increasingly trumped by factors of age, income and even geography. Take the Jewish vote. Ten years ago, a Zev Yaroslavsky candidacy would have brought a massive united Jewish turnout, which might have been enough to elect him mayor. Today, many Jews, particularly younger ones, vote based on something other than ethnicity, according to Arnold Steinberg, a longtime Los Angeles political consultant and pollster.
“We are a long way from a time when having a Jewish mayor would be seen as a great source of pride,” Steinberg said.
In other words, Jews are established enough, secure and rich enough not to feel the need to have one of theirs running city hall.
Ultimately, Steinberg believes we will see a more nuanced breakdown in the ultimate Jewish vote. Hertzberg, once he gets his middle-of-the-road message out, can expect to do well with more conservative Jews in the San Fernando Valley and among the more religiously oriented. These are people who tend to be more middle class, and who feel belabored by the city’s ultraliberal politics, high taxes and regulatory regime.
These represent very much the same subgroups that rallied to Richard Riordan in 1993 and 1997. Yet at the same time, there are many Jews, particularly on the Westside, who may opt for Villaraigosa. Their votes, suggested David Lehrer, former long-time head of the Anti-Defamation League, may be more swayed by the pull of liberal politics and an emotional desire for a hip, dynamic Latino mayor than anything else.
“There are people who support Hahn because of his father, and there’s people who want Villaraigosa because of his liberal politics,” Lehrer said. “It’s the same old politics now but without the ethnic overlay. The Jewish factor doesn’t matter the way it used to.”
But it’s not just Jewish identity that doesn’t factor in. If anything, the post-ethnic concept even more reflects the growing presence of Latinos and Asians in the city. These groups tend to be divided between native born and immigrants, each of whom has a somewhat different perspective. Recent arrivals may tend to judge people more on ethnicity; second- and third-generation people, particularly those born after the Chicano movement, may tend to support candidates for nonethnic reasons.
Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who represents a very ethnically mixed East Valley district, said she found that many Latinos supported her in her last election for reasons that had more to do with her approach on issues than on ethnicity.
“I got 50 percent of the vote in some Hispanic areas,” said Greuel, a non-Jew married to a Jew who is raising her young son Jewish. “They are about traffic, public safety — the same things everyone else wants.”
Then there is the intermarriage and inter-mixing factor. Today, about 5 percent of Angelenos are of mixed race. This number is likely to go up, given the roughly 30 percent-40 percent of second-generation Latinos and Asians who marry outside their ethnic groups. Today, suggested ethnic marketing expert Thomas Tseng, young people of all ethnicities choose from a similar menu of music, food and cultural-lifestyle choices.
“People are divided not by race so much as by their preferences,” observed Tseng, co-founder of the New American Dimensions marketing firm. “You are less an African American or a Latino than someone who is a rocker, a pop music fan or a hip-hop person.”
Translated into political terms, this means ethnic politics is blurring as people interact more with people of different backgrounds. In the Valley, now arguably the most racially diverse part of the city, many neighborhoods that were exclusively Anglo, now have many Latinos and Asians.
Valley Jews certainly are not immune to this process. Hertzberg himself is married to a Latina, and many younger Jews are more likely to have Hispanic, Asian and African American friends than their parents. They are as likely to identify with their cultural proclivities, ideological preferences or neighborhood as with their ethnic group.
For the candidates seeking to dethrone Hahn, this shift to a less-racial or lineage-based politics may prove a bit irritating. But for Los Angeles’ future, this post-ethnic trend may prove exactly what the doctor ordered.
Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of “The City: A Global History” to be published by Modern Library in April.
This is the third in Sheldon Teitelbaum’s series of interviews with the leading mayoral candidates.
Trust current mayoral candidate and State Assembly Speaker Emeritus Antonio Villaraigosa to come up with a uniquely strategic location for his storefront headquarters. True, as the ostensible heart of his Valley constituency, the corner of Van Nuys and Sherman Way is pretty much a no-brainer. But there is something elegantly opportune about the fact that it also sits astride the Valley’s first and, so far, only Krispy Kreme.
Like the parent company, Villaraigosa has been around for quite some time, a “big tent” pol and crusader for consensus whose alliances span a broad gamut of communities and interests, including the Westside libs and the city’s billionaire boys’ club. The one thing he has that Krispy Kreme lacks is the imprimatur of kashrut that he has earned during six years of public service. By virtue of his long-standing support for various Jewish causes and institutions in this city, some regard him as perhaps the race’s most authentic landsman. Not surprisingly, our discussion focused mainly on Jewish themes and issues.
Sheldon Teitelbaum: Been a busy Sunday?
Antonio Villaraigosa: I was at West Angeles Church this morning for a fellowship. I don’t do drive-by fellowships. Most electives, when they go to synagogues or churches, they drop in for a half-hour, get introduced, eat and leave…
ST: What do you do, take out a membership and contribute to the building fund?
AV: No, I just stay the whole time. Beginning to end.
ST: Where do you get your gregariousness?
AV: My mother. Growing up the 1950s and ’60s, my mother had whites, primarily Jews in City Terrace, blacks, Asians, gays over for dinner all the time. She knew everybody. She had a very broad network of friends. She really educated her kids about issues of tolerance and inhumanity. She was a breed apart.
ST: The Journal just ran a piece by our own Marlene Adler Marks in which she appears to have anointed you the “Jewish” candidate of this race. How does it feel to have been co-opted into the tribe?
AV: I think there’s an acknowledgment that in my six years of public life, I’ve worked hard to represent and reach out to the Jewish community. I’m proud of the fact that I put together almost $15 million spearheading state funding for the Museum of Tolerance, $2 million for the Skirball Museum, $2 million for the Jewish Federation building and the Zimmer Museum. I was the author of a hate crimes reporting bill that I worked with many Jewish leaders and other civil rights leaders to require hate crime reporting in our schools. I was the author of a bill to exempt from state taxes Californians who were part of the slave camp legacy during the Nazi Germany years. I have a long history of working in the community.
ST: Apart from bridge-building for political gain, what pulls you to these causes?
AV: I believe that if government is going to work, it’s got to represent all communities. A leader in an L.A. as diverse as this one has to work around the clock to reach out to as many different communities as possible.
ST: Are you trying to appeal to that liberal/progressive bent still reflected in the Jewish urban demographic?
AV: Oh yes. There’s no question that who I’ve been politically has resonated among the more progressive elements in the Jewish community, and not because of my outreach, but my role in the crafting of legislation in the last six years.
ST: Have folks in the Latino community looked askance at this love affair?
AV: No question. I sided and supported [school board candidate] David Tokofsky and was criticized and vilified by some. I said then that we have to get beyond the idea that the only ones who can represent the community are the people who come from the community. We have to support the best candidates, whoever they may be and from whatever community. The same when I supported Bob Hertzberg for [State Senate] speaker. Many people know Bob was my roommate. I said he should be the next speaker because he was the most qualified… after me. There were legislators who were very angry and critical. They thought Latinos had some kind of monopoly on the speakership. I said no, that’s not the way it works.
ST: Speaking of Boyle Heights, I found myself wondering recently if it wasn’t in danger of becoming our answer to Poland — a place with anti-Semitism and no Jews. What is it in the 21st century that would impel a couple of Latino kids to paint a virulently anti-Semitic mural on a wall facing some main thoroughfares?
AV: I think what’s wrong is that there’s an incredible lack of understanding. Only when you remember and educate people of the horrors committed by man against man are we able to learn from those experiences and create a better world for us. It’s important for there to be curricula that focus on human relations and that really work to create the context for the important discussions that need to occur at a very young age emphasizing our humanity and commonality.
ST: I’d remind you that there are communities in this country in which anti-Jewish sentiment became more a problem of the educated than of the working classes and poor…
AV: That’s amazing. It’s hard for me to relate because I grew up in a home diametrically opposed to anything like that. When I did my hate crime reporting bill last year right after the shootings at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, I brought together rabbis, human relations experts and civil rights [leaders]. And I said I’m not interested in doing a big press conference but in something you all think makes sense. They said we needed a statewide human relations commission that works as a clearinghouse and as an infrastructure of human-relations support from the state. And we needed a hate-crimes reporting mechanism that requires our schools to track hate crimes. L.A. Unified and other districts are really not doing a good job of tracking hate crimes. I put both bills together. One wasn’t signed, the other was.
ST: Do you have a sense of the Jewish community as a one-issue demographic?
AV: This community has always been more tolerant than others, but I believe that every community has to continually work to address the bias and intolerance among us. This is something all of us have to work on continually — the stereotypes. I can’t tell you how many times I walk into a place and people say, “‘How come you people don’t speak English?” All of us in the great experiment that I think L.A. is have to continually work to build the bridges. I was part of a Latino-Jewish round table and a black-Latino round table 20 years ago. We need to engage in these conversations about how we build shared communities and focus on the common struggles we have.
ST:I understand that Haim Saban is one of your contributors and supporters. Haim is a stand-up guy. But as someone who has put education as their first priority, what do you tell parents and educators who may regard companies like Saban Entertainment as the anti-Christ?
AV: I don’t accept that thinking. My children have watched his shows, and they’re good kids. If there was a show I didn’t like as a parent, I have the opportunity to turn it off. Haim is a wonderful, generous human being. He is committed to creating a better community for more people here. He sees me as someone who is committed to expanding the definition of public safety to creating a better safety net and improving the quality of life for more people. We have a lot in common, not to mention our shared “Sephardic” background.
The more time I spend trailing the Los Angeles mayoral candidates, the more I find myself musing about rehabilitating the commissariat as a form of government. Or, failing such "Red Dawn"/"Red Alert" scenarios, perhaps we might seek something akin to the national unity administration now under contemplation in Israel. I say this not just to be provocative — well not only. It just strikes me as a huge waste of precious talent, integrity and commitment to be forced by a winner-takes-all electoral system to have to pick just one of these outstanding people for mayor while jettisoning the others.
How very novel to feel this way about an impending election, considering the impulse to hold one’s nose that attended the major elections we’ve experienced since the summer in Canada, the U.S. and, most recently, Israel. I’m almost sorry that, as a permanent resident and faithful taxpayer, I do not have the right to vote.
The current mayoral dog-and-pony show wended its way to Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino this week for what the candidates now purport to be only the 27th (and not, as I reported last week, the 40th) of some 80 prospective face-offs. Trailing after them, I found myself deeply moved (as often I am) by Rabbi Harold Schulweis’s deft assessment of the unusual embarrassment of electoral riches facing us.
"The people who are with us this evening," he intoned, "are men and women who have chosen a career of service to the community. They know that there are no civilizations without cities, and they know that it is their task to see to it that cities remain civilized. For as it is said, ‘Crave for the well-being of the city, because without just governance, a man will swallow up his neighbor.’"
There was certainly no danger of such in this crowd, not least because it is the esteemed rabbi’s enlightened custom that participants who may not be properly introduced begin programs of this nature by embracing those on one’s immediate left and right for a vigorous round of "Hineh Ma Tov." Having made the acquaintance of a fellow Montreal expatriate in this fashion, I recommend this most Californian practice, and would ask the candidates to consider adopting it for future City Council meetings. I would suggest this for the Knesset as well, but I also think of myself as a realist.
In many respects, as I have noted, the candidates for the April election and June runoff share a common sense of the ills that plague this city. In addition, they seem to agree, in a broad sense, on those measures necessary to remedy them. Judging the candidates by their word, no matter who is elected, we can expect renewed emphasis on establishing neighborhood councils, demands for greater personal accountability by city department heads (including the police chief), common-sense solutions to pressing traffic and noise problems, and sustained efforts to improve the school system.
Last week, some may recall, I asked why the candidates for mayor, whose powers have traditionally been restricted to matters of budget, appointing commissioners and exercising veto privileges, spend as much time as they do calling for educational reform. The answer, I learned from State Controller Kathleen Connell and Councilman Joel Wachs, rests in the potential efficacy of the mayor’s office as a bully pulpit.
Mayor Riordon succeeded in placing school reform on the municipal agenda. The other candidates, with almost no exceptions, say they will do whatever they can to maintain this momentum. The result could be a spate of new charter schools, greater parental oversight of teachers and principals, widespread after-school and pre-kindergarten programs, and if real-estate broker and current Parks and Recreation Commissioner Steve Soboroff has his way, the eventual replacement of L.A. Unified by neighborhood school districts.
In addition, the candidates appear to share a sense that while the police department must be held accountable for Rampart, the city’s first priority must be to bolster sagging morale, stem the loss of personnel, and reverse a rising crime rate and attendant decline in arrests.
Why, asks Antonio Villaraigosa, were 68 line officers implicated in the Rampart abuses, but not a single captain, commander or deputy chief? Why, added Wachs, was Chief Parks, who already makes a quarter-million dollars a year, secretly awarded a merit raise of $30,000? How long, asked Soboroff, can we retain a police chief when 85 percent of the force is unhappy with their work, leadership and conditions of employment?
The remedy for this set of ailments, they all attest, lies in establishing greater accountability at the top; fairer disciplinary procedures at the bottom; increased civilian oversight; emphasis on community policing; inducements for police to reside within city limits; flexible work schedules; pensions in line with those of comparable sectors; and most of all, a police chief committed to genuine reform.
If the candidates differ, they do so most glaringly in matters of style. And style, as Connell observed, is an integral component of any municipal administration.
Villaraigosa stresses the need for consensus, for bringing a disparate and polarized population together around common goals and visions. Soboroff wants less talk and more action, preferably the kind that costs nothing but makes for greater efficiency. He is a real-estate broker, and his thing is "closing." Connell emphasizes her experience running a major governmental enterprise, and her successes in holding large and unwieldy institutions to account. Wachs will continue to push for greater transparency in government, and an end to City Hall’s pandering to special interests.
They are all serious in their intent, and I believe each of them, as I think did most in attendance that evening. No, I did not conduct an exit poll to make that call. It was enough to discern the only discordant note of the evening, when Soboroff implied that his rivals were motivated by the kind of job seeking triggered by term limits. This crowd wouldn’t have it. Indeed, there was some hissing. But it virtually kvelled when Wachs recounted how his own parents, who once belonged to VBS, had labored 29 years before to help him gain office.
"Some of you remember how my mother ran the headquarters, because we only had $24,000 to campaign with, and how my father stood in front of Gelson’s and the markets handing out cards that said ‘Vote for my son Joel.’ When the campaign was over, the late Art Seidenbaum did a half-hour special on KCET, not about me, but about the role my mother and father played in the election.
"When it was done — and I’ll never forget this — they asked my father and mother, ‘What do you want out of all this?’ And my father said, ‘I want he should be a good boy.’"
He is. They are all good people. And we are blessed for it.