August 17, 2019

Still a Jewish seat in 3rd District?

The campaign to succeed long-serving L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in the 3rd District reveals much about how Los Angeles Jewish politics is evolving. The 3rd Supervisorial District, which covers portions of the Westside and the Valley, has had a Jewish incumbent since Ed Edelman won the seat in 1974; upon his retirement in 1994, Edelman was succeeded by Yaroslavsky. 

The black-Jewish coalition of the Tom Bradley days and the strong Jewish identification of many political candidates during that era have now given way to a more fluid role for the Jewish community in an increasingly diverse city and county. Jews continue to win political offices (including all three citywide posts in 2013), but there are fewer reliably “Jewish seats” than before, and greater variety in the Jewish identity of candidates.

With Yaroslavsky, now 65, termed out in 2014 and apparently heading toward retirement from elected office, the leading candidates to succeed him so far are Sheila Kuehl and Bobby Shriver (a member of the Kennedy clan and brother to Maria). 

When Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters examined the race thus far (not including other candidates who may appear before the March 7 filing deadline), he noted that, “As yet, no Jewish candidate has emerged for what has traditionally been a Jewish seat. Kuehl, whose mother was Jewish but who was raised as a Catholic, may qualify because, as she said, ‘I feel like both but have attended way more Friday night services than Masses.’ ”

In fact, the 3rd District is falling into the pattern of Jewish elected office in Los Angeles, which is continuing electoral success, but fewer “Jewish seats.” In the L.A. City Council, whereas there used to be several districts very likely to elect Jews, now there is only the 5th District, covering the area from Fairfax throughout the Westside and into the South Valley. The county’s vast 3rd Supervisorial District will certainly elect a Democrat, but not necessarily a Jewish candidate.

When Yaroslavsky passed on the run for mayor in 2013, the three leading mayoral candidates had connections to Judaism -— Eric Garcetti through his Jewish mother, Jan Perry by conversion and Wendy Greuel by marriage. Yet none embodied the ethnic identification that has marked Yaroslavsky throughout his extraordinary career in Los Angeles city and county politics. 

Yaroslavsky’s political identity was forged in his only competitive election — his 1975 upset victory over Mayor Tom Bradley aide Frances Savitch, in the 5th City Council District. Rosalind Wiener (later Wyman) had been elected to that seat in 1953, the city’s first Jewish elected official of the 20th century, and then was upset by Ed Edelman in 1965. Edelman moved on to the County Board of Supervisors in the 3rd District, becoming the first Jewish person elected to that body and setting up a 1975 special election in the 5th District. Yaroslavsky was only 26 years old, and he drew upon a grass-roots Jewish community that had fewer ties to the leaders already deeply enmeshed in the Bradley coalition. 

I studied this 1975 special election closely in the research for my book on the Bradley coalition (“Politics in Black and White,” 1993). Essentially, the contest boiled down to a split between “Fairfax and Bel Air,” with Yaroslavsky representing the former and Savitch the latter. Even as Jews were forging a historic coalition with African-Americans, Yaroslavsky’s insurgent victory revealed a deep grass-roots constituency among Jews who wanted to make sure the Jewish community’s own legitimate interests were protected. Yaroslavsky had gotten his political start while a student at UCLA, and then afterward a leader in the battle in bringing freedom to Soviet Jews. As with every ethnic group, there was the need to balance self-protection for the community with an outreach to coalesce with other groups.

Yaroslavsky’s deep base in the Jewish community made him, over time, an anchor of Jewish politics in Los Angeles. He also became a highly respected and formidable elected official, an expert on the budget and on growth and environmental issues. He was frequently mentioned as a mayoral candidate but never entered the race.

Today, however, Jewish politics in Los Angeles is no longer characterized by either a central role in liberal interracial coalitions fighting against a conservative regime, nor is it any longer predominantly an ethnic politics reflected in “Jewish districts electing Jewish candidates.” In some ways, however, Jewish political success can be seen now as greater than ever, with all three citywide officials elected in 2013 being Jewish. The fluidity of today’s L.A. politics requires, if not coalition, at least productive and friendly contact with African-Americans, Asian-Americans and, particularly, with Latinos, whose dramatic increase in participation has altered the calculations of all other groups. At the same time, Jewish political interests, including support for Israel, will require not only broad public support, but also an active Jewish community that speaks for itself.

Jews are no longer an outsider group on the rise, as was the case during the ascent of the Bradley coalition; they have attained a degree of incorporation that makes political success possible even without a base of Jewish voters. The Jewish community today is experiencing the benefits and the costs of being well-established and more integrated into a community that was many decades ago hostile both to Jews and to the Democrat-leaning values that were central to Jewish politics. The political identity for this new era will need new ways to express the community’s values and interests, find and keep friends and allies, and share in the governance of this changing city and county.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.