August 17, 2019

The role of L.A.’s Jewish electorate is changing

What do the recent city elections that saw Jews step into the three top citywide offices — mayor, city attorney and city controller — mean for the role of the Jewish community in Los Angeles?

The remarkable political success of Jews in Los Angeles since the election in 1953 of Roz Wiener (later Wyman) to the City Council stands in contrast to the complete absence of Jews in local offices here during the half century before. The rise in Jewish pols came in tandem with the overall progressive surge in Los Angeles. But even more important, Jews, with their high voter turnout, have had a disproportionate impact on a city electorate marked by lower and lower turnout. Despite a declining Jewish share of the population, Jewish candidates continue to do well.

Only one City Council district, the 5th, is almost always certain to elect a Jewish member (although Paul Koretz’s election in 2009 was quite close). Yet, in the new council, Jews will still hold three of the 15 council seats, with Koretz joined by two Valley members, Mitch Englander (12th District) and Bob Blumenfield (3rd). While three is below the high point of Jewish membership on the council of some decades ago, it is far from the collapse of Jewish office holding that some feared.

The citywide wins of Eric Garcetti for mayor, Mike Feuer for city attorney and Ron Galperin for city controller, however, are a new high for the Jewish community. Garcetti is the first Jewish candidate to win election as mayor. (Starting with Ira Reiner’s election in 1977, three Jews have held the controller’s office.)

The strength of Jewish women as a political force here is an untold story in the rise of Jewish office holding in Los Angeles, as their political activism is one of the distinctive features of the Jewish community. (I will be speaking at the Autry National Center on Nov. 17 as part of a panel on this topic.) To date, six Jewish women have served on the Los Angeles City Council, and one of them, Laura Chick, went on to be elected city controller. Wendy Greuel, who also served on the council and then as controller, is not Jewish, but she is married to a Jewish activist and they are raising their son as a Jew. California’s two U.S. Senate seats are held by Jewish women, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. The current decline of women’s representation on the council is a real loss to all communities, but is especially surprising among Jews.

Los Angeles’ politics are changing in ways that have altered the role of the Jewish community. For decades, Jews served as the glue that linked a dominant and at times resistant white majority to a rising minority community. With the increased political mobilization of minority groups, communities of color have less need of that mediator role. They have the numbers and the confidence to speak for themselves. It still matters that the majority of Jews are likely to vote in tandem with minority communities in state and national elections, but Jewish support is no longer a necessity for minority access to political leadership at the local level. (One exception is the absence of Asian-American elected officials at Los Angeles city hall, an issue that might generate fruitful dialogue between these two groups.)

While there was much concern about the dullness of this spring’s mayoral race, I see a silver lining in the blurring of racial and ethnic lines that helped keep the turnout down. None of the candidates, except Jan Perry, had a solid hold on one of the city’s racial and ethnic blocs. Strong support from one group — such as Perry got from the black community — often creates greater incentives for voter turnout than an election in which the major candidates go around the city trying to build a core base of support. 

If a runoff between two well-liked and capable candidates without firm racial or ethnic bases lacked a certain spark, how about two well-known candidates with strong and conflicting bases? Had Zev Yaroslavsky run, he would have been the Jewish candidate and, by extension, perhaps the white candidate. He might have faced a well-known Latino candidate, perhaps Alex Padilla. If you want to know how that might have looked, even in the likely event that neither candidate would want it to play out that way, check out the race in the Valley in 1998 between Richard Katz and Richard Alarcon for the California State Senate that took on overtones of Latino-Jewish conflict.

So what is the Jewish role in Los Angeles politics now? The continuation of the role of a Democratic-leaning (if not always down-the-line liberal) white constituency in a diverse city remains important. Perhaps the next civic role of the Jewish community will be to help the city develop a more participatory and involved electorate. Jews have always stood for political reform and have voted in large numbers. The city needs continuing electoral reform, and a group that opposes the inertia and cynicism that so cripples our democratic system can continue to make a major contribution to Los Angeles.