September 23, 2019

Yaroslavsky, a ‘canny change agent’

When we think of Jews involved in Los Angeles politics, we often divide them into two camps: liberal Democrats and Jewish Republicans. Liberal Democrats, as we picture them, are integrated into the broader progressive movements of Los Angeles. They are linked with multiethnic coalitions going back to the Tom Bradley days and are likely secular and upscale. Jewish Republicans tend to strongly criticize President Barack Obama on Israel, and though they are rarely as socially conservative as the Republican Party’s base, they often feel marginalized by the general belief that Jews are liberal.

To understand the remarkable career of Zev Yaroslavsky, who completes his long run as a Los Angeles city councilman and Los Angeles County supervisor on Nov. 30, one must go beyond such simplistic analysis and consider that there is also a Jewish Democratic base that is not quite as liberal as the image of Jews in politics, yet which is strongly Democratic, Jewish-identified and a bit localistic. That is where Yaroslavsky came from politically, and his ability to articulate and channel that point of view has made him one of the city’s and the county’s most important historical figures.

In 1975, the 26-year-old Jewish activist took on the political establishment in a race for L.A.’s 5th City Council District seat, then held by Ed Edelman, who had just been elected to fill the seat in the 3rd District of the County Board of Supervisors. Yaroslavsky ran the Southern California Council on Soviet Jewry, a small but highly effective organization that had a big impact on the Los Angeles Jewish community. Without people quite realizing it, the energetic UCLA graduate had developed his own constituency, without being connected to the Bradley coalition. 

In the primary, Yaroslavsky ran against former councilmember Rosalind Wyman — the first Jew elected to office in 20th-century L.A. and who had previously occupied the seat — and Frances Savitch, a close aide to the newly elected Mayor Bradley. The Black-Jewish coalition behind Bradley was on its way to making interracial history and seemed unbeatable.  

Yaroslavsky and Savitch edged out Wyman in the primary to face each other in the runoff. When I was working on a book on the Bradley coalition, I looked at voting returns from the 1975 race, and I could see that Yaroslavsky had the flatlands around Fairfax, while Savitch had the hillsides, like Bel Air. Yaroslavsky won handily. In fact, that runoff was the last seriously contested race he ever faced.

Yaroslavsky joined a city council filled with unusual characters, in a city government dominated by Bradley and City Council President John Ferraro. At the time, I was working as a council deputy in the office of Bradley ally David Cunningham of the 10th District, and I watched Yaroslavsky in fascination. He was like a rocket, appearing at council meetings followed by TV cameras, a fairly unusual occurrence at City Hall.  

Not being part of the Bradley coalition, Yaroslavsky took on the mayor once, unsuccessfully, and as he ruefully told a Los Angeles Times reporter, got his first lesson in power at city hall. But he soon became a canny change agent, particularly in leading the bitter and successful fight to limit Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) surveillance of civilians and to eliminate the use of chokeholds. He earned the loathing of then-Police Chief Daryl Gates, who referred to “Zev and his Marxist friends.” A shared willingness to challenge Gates and the LAPD brought Bradley and Yaroslavsky closer together.

Yaroslavsky’s role changed in the mid-1980s, when he joined forces with Councilmember Marvin Braude of the 11th District (west of the 5th District, centered in Brentwood, also with a large Jewish population) to champion a slow-growth movement that was increasingly popular on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. The slow-growth movement led to a real break with the Bradley forces, who were concerned that it would stifle development in the south and east sides of the city and that it would divide the Westside-Southside Bradley coalition. In 1986, Yaroslavsky and Braude (along with Hollywood’s councilmember Joel Wachs) led the popular and successful movement to pass the landmark Proposition U, to limit the height of buildings outside downtown.

The battle against growth solidified Yaroslavsky’s historic standing with his base constituency and further strengthened his ties to the formidable political combine of Democratic Congressmen Henry Waxman and Howard Berman. But it also foreshadowed Yaroslavsky’s later difficulties in connecting with the growing minority political forces in the city. In 1988, the Waxman-Berman team made clear their preference that Yaroslavsky challenge Bradley in 1989. But after a disparaging memo about Bradley emerged from the Berman camp, Yaroslavsky chose not to enter the race.

Yaroslavsky again passed on the mayor’s race in 1993, a year in which his chances might have been the best he would ever have. A year after a massive civil disorder, the city was in despair, turning against Bradley’s liberal coalition and its hopeful successor Michael Woo, but was not ready to go hard right. Even Republican Richard Riordan, who ultimately won the city’s top seat, said he would only be “tough enough to turn L.A. around.” A Democrat not tied to the current regime would have been a perfect fit. I remember watching Yaroslavsky moderate a debate between Riordan and Woo at a synagogue and having the distinct impression that Yaroslavsky could have beaten both of them (running from the center-left against Riordan, and from the center-right against Woo).  

In any case, his skill as a representative meant that if a citywide race was not in the cards, he could easily move into a seat in Congress if such a position would open up.  

Instead, Yaroslavsky succeeded Edelman to the county board in 1994. Following another easy election, Yaroslavsky joined a board that had already become more Democratic with the entry of Gloria Molina in 1991. He became the swing vote, the centrist Democrat on a Democratic-majority board. He would trade the tremendous visibility he had enjoyed as a councilmember and potential mayoral candidate for much more power, exercised less visibly. In a profile on the eve of the 2013 mayoral race, when he was once again being mentioned as a candidate, Rex Weiner, writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, called him “the most powerful American Jewish politician you’ve never heard of.” 

On the immensely powerful county stage, Yaroslavsky played a central role in building the still-emerging system of mass transportation for the county, especially in the San Fernando Valley. He was also a determined and effective ally for the arts community; he shored up support for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and played a key role in getting the Walt Disney Concert Hall built, all the while generating county support for many other Los Angeles performing-arts venues. He continued to promote open-space conservation, and what had been a divisive debate over growth within the city became a major set of victories limiting development on hillsides and other areas.

Yaroslavsky may have been at his most effective leading the budget-conscious board majority that took great pride in helping the county to avoid cyclical crises. The county’s ability to withstand the Great Recession that began in 2008 without having to make major cuts certainly reflected the budget role Yaroslavsky had begun taking on the City Council, which reached fruition on the Board of Supervisors. As a keen student of county government operations, he might well have become a successful elected county executive if that much-needed reform had ever gotten off the ground.

Yaroslavsky’s electoral strength was indicated by the importance his endorsement could have had in the 2014 race to succeed him. With Waxman endorsing Sheila Kuehl, Bobby Shriver’s best hope for an upset rested with getting Yaroslavsky’s backing. When he  stayed neutral, Shriver’s hill was too steep to climb.

With Jerry Brown re-elected as governor in 2014, we were reminded that even in an era of term limits, with politicians racing from office to office, some politicians of substance can pass through several incarnations while maintaining their political strength. Brown, once the iconoclastic young governor who alternately outraged and fascinated those in the power structure in the 1970s, now is the wise adult in the room, governing a California more stable than he found it.  

Like Brown, Yaroslavsky made his mark in the 1970s as a challenger to the status quo, even one dominated by his fellow Democrats. Forty years later, he leaves public office an accomplished and popular legislator and a representative. Yaroslavsky evolved from a firebrand councilmember to a smart manager who knows his constituency and has made an indelible mark on the city and county of Los Angeles. 

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