L.A. mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel’s coalition building

Mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, born and raised Christian, is married to a Jew. The couple’s 10-year-old son studies Hebrew and is being raised in the Jewish tradition. The family attends synagogue.
January 23, 2013

Mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, born and raised Christian, is married to a Jew. The couple’s 10-year-old son studies Hebrew and is being raised in the Jewish tradition. The family attends synagogue.

“So with all this Jewishness around you, why haven’t you taken the next step and converted?” I asked.

“Well, we have definitely talked about that,” Greuel, currently the city controller, said. “It certainly is a part of my perspective of something I would like to do.”

There is an unusually strong Jewish affiliation among the candidates in this year’s mayoral election. City Councilman Eric Garcetti’s mother is Jewish; he is Latino on his father’s side. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who is African-American, converted to Judaism while in college.  Also in the race are two non-Jews, Kevin James, an attorney and talk-radio host, and Emanuel Pleitez, who was born in South Los Angeles, raised in El Sereno, and graduated from Stanford. Pleitez ran and lost for Congress in 2009 after working on the Obama Treasury Department transition team.

This election is about candidates trying to build coalitions. It’s crucial for them in order to capture enough of the multiethnic, geographically sprawling Los Angeles electorate to finish in the top two in the March 5 primary and advance to the May 25 runoff.  Their appeal must cross ethnic and philosophical lines, uniting diverse supporters. But each of these candidates is starting from what they perceive as their base. 

The liberal Garcetti is taking advantage of his Latino roots and fluent Spanish, while also noting he considers himself part of the Jewish community. Pleitez speaks of his up-from-poverty background while battling Garcetti for Latino support. Perry, who has represented largely African-American and Latino South Los Angeles as well as the central city, is using those constituencies as a base while hoping to take advantage of her religious affiliation.  Republican James is aiming for conservative stretches of the San Fernando Valley, but also broadening his appeal by talking of his years as chairman of AIDS Project Los Angeles. Greuel, born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, is going after the Valley electorate, plus adding other elements of the city’s ethnic mix. She hopes to revive the coalition of African-Americans and Jews that elected her political hero and former boss, the late Mayor Tom Bradley, who was African-American. 

I asked Greuel about Judaism when we talked last week. 

Greuel told me that when she and her husband, Dean Schramm, a lawyer, were dating, “Late one night, he asked me the question, ‘How did I feel about the religion of my children and would I be opposed to raising our child Jewish?’ And it was an immediate response, ‘I’d be happy to, yes, of course, I would raise our child Jewish. He asked me last night,” she said, referring to the night before our interview, “ ‘You responded so quickly, I’ve never even asked you why you did that.’ ”

Greuel said she told him, “Because I believe in the Jewish tradition and religion, the values that the community have are important to me. About giving back, about the good moral values, about being part of a community.”

I asked her if she and her husband discussed her converting.

“My husband has always been at a point where he would love to have that happen,” Greuel said. “We’ve been a little busy, getting married, having a child and getting elected.  It is something we have talked about doing, particularly as my son started religious school, and it is something that is a very important issue in our lives, particularly for our son.”

Also influential was a trip she and her husband took to Israel. It was, she said, “very emotional and transformative, and it was one of the times I thought, ‘This is the next step in my understanding and embracing of the Jewish tradition and Israel.’ ” It’s important, she said, “to have the mayor of the second-largest city in America standing up for Israel.”

Greuel’s father was raised in the Congregational Church and “we would go there and to a Presbyterian church in the Valley. We didn’t necessarily go every Sunday, but it was part of that life.”

Greuel grew up near the Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills and had friends who belonged to it. Another Jewish connection was from her non-Jewish mother. “She was married once before to someone who was Jewish,” Greuel said. “So she swore there was some Jewish part of her. Her name was Golda Alice. She went by the name of Alice… My mom used to tell me that she always thought I would marry a nice Jewish boy, and I did.”

As a young aide in the office of Mayor Bradley, Greuel hung out with Jewish colleagues in an administration with many Jews and African-Americans. 

She said she learned from Bradley, “It’s about bringing everyone to the table. …  It is all about being a coalition builder, and that’s what I have learned at every level in my life.  And, again, I think [that’s] why I have had such a close relationship with the Jewish community; we have worked together on housing, homeless issues … child care and health services for the seniors. Those are all things I did in the mayor’s office that had a close relationship to the many Jewish organizations in L.A.”

Greuel also saw the Bradley coalition crumble — first in 1985, over the mayor’s  belated condemnation of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader with a taste for anti-Semitic rhetoric, when Farrakhan was speaking in Los Angeles, and in 1992, when ethnic alliances broke apart during the riots after the Rodney King verdicts.

Although those events may now seem distant history, they show the challenges that leaders face in forging political and social coalitions in this city of many ethnicities. And sometimes the ethnic groups themselves are divided from within, as we have seen in the Jewish community at times over matters such as Israel and the last presidential election.

Forging coalitions will likely be a tough calling for a candidate who, as a young woman, started in Tom Bradley’s office and now wants to continue his legacy in even more challenging times.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

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