Jewish state legislators ready to make an impact

Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

Eitan Arom
Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

In 2012, when Marc Levine and Richard Bloom were running for the California State Assembly, both were wildly outspent and widely expected to lose. Their losses would have meant an Assembly without any Jews.

Instead, both Democrats pulled off surprise victories — in the Bay Area and Santa Monica, respectively. Since then, the ranks of Sacramento’s Jewish legislators have swelled. By the time Levine assumed the chairmanship of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus in December, the number of Jews in the Assembly was up to five.  In the state Senate, Jews now outnumber the California Latino Legislative Caucus eight to five, and make up 20 percent of the total body.

“We’ve come back a long way from that point in 2012,” Levine told the Journal.

Among the cadre of legislators sworn in last month are a number of new Jewish faces, including three Southern California Democrats: Sens. Henry Stern from Malibu and Josh Newman from Fullerton and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman from Glendale.

As they approach their work in Sacramento this year, Jewish lawmakers assume an outsized importance. California is seen as an important battleground for issues such as immigration and climate change that are putting progressive states seemingly at odds with the incoming presidential administration. And at the center of California’s progressive politics, members say, is the Jewish caucus.

The caucus “plans to act as a convener of communities that have concerns and fears about the incoming administration,” Levine said.

Although the caucus technically is bipartisan, it has only one Republican member — Assemblyman Jeff Stone of Riverside. It works closely with caucuses representing causes important to Blacks, Latinos, women and Asian Pacific Islanders.

“You’re going to see us over the next few months roll up our sleeves and defend the Muslim community, who are going to be targeted, or defend the immigrant community, who are going to be targeted,” Stern said.

Different members bring to that effort their various legislative interests and expertise.

In 2015, Levine successfully introduced two bills protecting immigrant children, and he told the Journal he will continue legislating on that issue.

Stern, an environmental lawyer from Malibu, which prizes its clean air and water, expects to focus on bolstering the state’s climate protection and clean energy laws.

“If Rick Perry and Rex Tillerson try to undo that stuff, we’re going to have to go to battle with them,” he said, referring to President-elect Donald Trump’s picks to lead the Energy and State departments, respectively.

“The world changed the night I was elected. … It makes the job that much more serious and the pressure, the gravity of the work that much greater,” he said.

For Friedman, that means protecting government funding for programs such as homeless services and health care.

“Under a Trump presidency, I’m not sure what that holds in terms of funding for a lot of the safety-net programs that really serve as, you know, the stopgap for issues like homelessness and indigent health care and mental health,” she said.

An active member of Temple Sinai of Glendale, Friedman said she comes from a Jewish family in New York where political activism has long been front and center.

The affiliation between Jews and politics is long and well known, but may have reached a high-water mark in Southern California.

“Our area produced an incredible list of Jewish leaders, each of whom I really look up to,” said Sen. Ben Allen, who represents West Los Angeles and assumed the role of vice chair of the Jewish caucus last month.

“A liberation message is at the core of our tradition. … It’s at the heart of who we are as people, and I think that’s why you see so many Jews run for and participate in government,” he said.

Last month, the Jewish caucus convened for its retreat at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, where members heard from Andy David, Israel’s consul general to the Pacific Northwest, and UCLA student president Danny Siegel, who is Jewish.

Among other issues, members discussed how to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, Allen said.

The caucus is in a position to build on an anti-BDS bill signed into law last year.

“That was a great success for the caucus,” Levine said.

Since then, the caucus has advanced not only as a legislative force but also as a political one. For the first time, during the recent elections, the caucus, through a public affairs committee, supported the campaigns of prospective members, giving $3,000 each to Friedman, Stern, and two Northern California candidates, Marc Berman and Scott Wiener, who won election to the state Senate and Assembly respectively.

The large Jewish delegation could offer a chance for Jewish organizations to have their issues addressed in the capital.

“California is the only state that has a Jewish caucus in their state legislature,” said Julie Zeisler, associate director of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC), which advocates in Sacramento on behalf of Jewish organizations. “So that makes us as a state very unique. And it makes JPAC as an organization feel as though we have, in a way, an ear in the legislature.”

For Stern, the caliber of Jewish lawmakers in Sacramento is just as important as their number. “It’s not just how many, it’s who.”

He added, “It’s a harrowing time for the Jewish people in California, in America, and you know, certainly in Israel. Just having foundations of power — but really ethical power, the good kind, [can be] an important counterweight to all the kinds of darkness around the globe.”

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