Indeed, a breakfast meeting held on Oct. 19 by the American Jewish Committee provided a warm reception for the city councilman, who spoke on the topic of Jewish-Latino relations -- a topic whose pitfalls he knows all too well.
In last spring's primary, Alarcon campaigned for the Democratic Party's nomination against former assemblyman Richard Katz. The candidates were running to replace state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal, a former Jewish Community Centers president who was ineligible, under term limits, to run again. The campaign was generally polite, at least for your average political race in Los Angeles.
However, just days before the June primary, the Alarcon forces sent out a political mailer that falsely linked Katz to the intimidation of Latino voters in a 1994 Orange County campaign. When Alarcon subsequently won the June primary by a narrow margin, the mailer became an incendiary device, setting off lawsuits and countersuits between Alarcon and Katz and inflaming leaders of both the Jewish and Latino communities (the latter of which found fault with at least one mailer sent out by Katz).
While both politicians later dropped their suits against each other, the question of political power in the San Fernando Valley -- and whether one minority can effectively represent another -- remains.
In an August interview, Alarcon said that he was "deeply disappointed" by the response to the election.
"I don't think the general community understood; they thought this was a Jewish seat when the population in that area is about 52 percent Hispanic. In the 39th Assembly District (a part of the 20th Senate District), Jews are involved in the teaching and business ranks, but they don't live there, and that was my opponent's misperception as well."
As for the offending mailer, Alarcon said that he didn't think the piece made any difference in swinging the election his way.
"I find it disheartening that all the work we'd done (on the campaign) is now seen in the light of a mailer that went out to 18,000 Latino voters who were going to vote for me anyway."
Alarcon did not seem too concerned that the primaries caused a dip in his support from Democratic Jewish voters.
"They'll be hard-pressed to vote for a Republican with no real experience, or for a Libertarian," he said.
That hasn't stopped Republican candidate Ollie McCaulley from doing his best to woo Jewish voters, including persuading the AJC to allow him to speak before the Oct. 19 gathering. His 10-minute speech covered all the bases of black-Jewish relations, including the long history of Jewish participation in working for civil rights.
Alarcon began his remarks by saying that he was disappointed the meeting had become "infused with political undertones." But if there are any lessons he's learned from his bout with Katz, it is to tread cautiously in the Jewish community. Leader in the polls or not, it will still take that community's support to ensure his continued success in politics. So Alarcon focused the bulk of his remarks on the commonalities between Los Angeles' various ethnic minorities, and how diversity, while difficult, gives the city strength.
"We need to establish a dialogue between our communities. There is much that we can learn from each other about taking pride in our ethnicity while embracing American principles," Alarcon told the group. "Why would I have a problem with the Jewish community when I'm working so hard to represent them?"
Why, indeed . -- Wendy J. Madnick, Valley Editor
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