Jews Must Choose
By what criteria should Jewish voters select Los Angeles’ next mayor? The March 8 election is looming as a referendum on first-term incumbent James K. Hahn.
As professor Raphael J. Sonenshein of California State University, Fullerton noted in an earlier Jewish Journal column, the Jewish community seems split mostly among three candidates.
More conservative, Valley-dwelling voters are especially drawn to attorney and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg. Centrists, city employees and others closer to the power structure tend to favor Hahn. Westsiders and progressive Jews again may lean toward the charismatic last-minute loser of the 2001 campaign, Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa.
But splitting the vote is nothing new in this predominantly Democratic community. To some, the 25-year-old divisions over mandatory school busing remain unresolved. Recently, Republican upstart Arnold Schwarzenegger carried lots of Jewish voters in the Valley — many of whom had backed Valley secession.
For the undecided, what are the desiderata of a mayoral candidate?
“The most important thing is to get to the polls,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel. “It’s sad in a way that this has to be stressed, but this is something that fewer and fewer people are doing.”
“While we pray for the peace of our city, it matters for Jews [to vote] in order to be a part of our larger community,” she continued. “Unfortunately, nowadays, not everyone takes this obligation for granted. This year is the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in America; it needs to be remembered how since then we’ve earned the privilege of electing our leaders.”
Longtime Democratic powerhouse Carmen Warschaw doesn’t hesitate to take sides. She supports Hahn.
“He’s done a good job,” Warschaw said, “and the problems with his administration,” those reported grand jury investigations and so on, “are the same ones any large-size administration has.”
It also matters to her that Hahn is a longtime supporter of Israel and Jewish causes. Hahn’s term will be remembered for his defeat of Valley secession and his decision to hire Police Chief William Bratton.
Businessman and publisher David Abel is a self-described policy wonk going way back, but that’s just one reason he favors Hertzberg, who is similarly inclined. He sees Hertzberg as “someone who will fight for the survival of the community. This city is at a turning point.”
The voter needs to pick someone who can put the entire city before everything else, Abel said, adding, “Someone who can say ‘no’ to his friends and take on the local power centers.”
Los Angeles’ mayor lacks legal authority over the local school system. But Abel asserted that Jewish voters should expect the next mayor to confront and transform the ungainly Los Angeles Unified School District.
After sitting 18 months on the citizens advisory panel for the school bond, Abel said, he grew to doubt that city schools can be greatly improved in the school district’s present form.
“Reforming East Germany was easier,” he said.
As Abel sees it, it is the next mayor’s job to make this happen. This, added Abel, is the best way to maintain Los Angeles’ eroding middle-class population.
Villaraigosa is the choice of Washington-based commentator Harold Meyerson, who spent most of his career in Los Angeles and still writes about L.A. politics. He said voters should take a more affirmative view. He doesn’t see the L.A. middle segment as eroding, but potentially increasing: “Antonio Villaraigosa wants to build up the middle class.”
Meyerson envisions Villaraigosa helping to bring the low-wage worker into the middle class through city policies and negotiations that are pro-labor. Meyerson noted that Los Angeles is usually rated the nation’s top manufacturing city. So some of corporate America must already be accommodating itself to city hall’s social agenda.
Many union leaders have concluded that this social agenda has made progress under Hahn. That’s why most of the unions are endorsing the incumbent.
For his part, Hertzberg emphasizes what he calls the city’s negative attitude toward business. He implies that being aggressively pro-labor could cost the city jobs.
For Geller, these divides over crucial issues underscore the importance of the election to Jews and everyone else.
“These are not specifically Jewish issues,” she said. “But they affect everyone. They move beyond ethnic politics and make us one community. This is the most important thing for voters to remember.”
Marc B. Haefele is news editor of the Los Angeles Alternative Press and comments on local government for KPCC-FM.