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Jewish Journal

Hugs From Hertzberg

California's next Assembly speaker is strengthening ties between Jews and Latinos

by Tom Tugend

March 23, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Robert M. (Bob) Hertzberg will be sworn in as speaker of the California Assembly, the state's second most powerful political post, at 9:30 a.m. on April 13.

The ceremony was originally scheduled for April 26, but, he notes, "I looked at the Jewish calendar and said, I can't do this, that's the seventh day of Passover."

Hertzberg is ensconced in a booth at a fast-food chicken place on Beverly Drive, talking rapidly and taking slow bites of a late lunch. He has come from a meeting with Israel Consul-General Yuval Rotem and is heading for an appointment with Hollywood power player Michael Ovitz.

The 45-year old speaker-elect is young, energetic, forward-looking and attuned to the digital age.

Yet he retains some of the characteristics of the traditional politician. He is a hearty man, who hugs people on the slightest provocation. ("I call him Bobby Hugsberg," says a close friend, outgoing speaker Antonio Villaraigosa.)

More to the point, Hertzberg is a master consensus- and coalition-builder, proven when the Democratic legislator was unanimously elected speaker by the usually partisan assembly.

Whether by chance or instinct, Hertzberg cut his political teeth by apprenticing himself to politicians who personified the ethnic diversities that characterize California's population and political life.

After an introduction through his father, a prominent constitutional lawyer, Hertzberg first worked with Mervyn Dymally during his successful 1974 run for lieutenant governor. He followed by enlisting in the congressional campaign of another African-American politician, Julian Dixon.

Although Hertzberg still works with the legislative Black Caucus -- whose number and influence have been declining -- and the rising Asian community, his main coalition-building efforts have been focused on present and future Latino office holders.

In a state with 11 million Latinos, one-third of the population now and projected to become a majority within 25 years, it doesn't require too much prescience on the part of a Jewish politician nowadays to seek Latino allies.

The difference is that Hertzberg started cultivating and working with Latinos more than 20 years ago, when they had barely begun to sense their future power.

The alliance extends to his personal life through his marriage to Cynthia Ann Telles, a physician, teacher and former city ethics commissioner.

Her father served as U.S. ambassador to various Latin-American countries under three Democratic presidents, and she is an influential Los Angeles Latina in her own right.

Characteristically, Hertzberg and Telles met at a trans-ethnic political party eight years ago, when they served as co-chairs of a Jewish National Fund dinner honoring then-dean of Latino politicians, Congressman Ed Roybal.

It's the second marriage for both of them, with Hertzberg bringing two sons to the union, and Telles one. His boys, David and Daniel, attend day school at Stephen S. Wise Temple, and her boy, Raymond, is enrolled at St. Paul's parochial school in Westwood.

The two parents have also found a solution to the Christmas/Chanukah dilemma. "We celebrate both," says Hertzberg.

Although the representation of Jews serving on the Los Angeles City Council and Board of Education greatly exceeds their percentage in the general population, Hertzberg is concerned about the future, and not just because of shifting demographics.

"I'm worried about the Jewish community staying involved in urban and state issues, which we must do to remain a viable coalition partner," says Hertzberg. "I spend a lot of time trying to convince Jewish kids to go into politics. It's not easy when they can make a lot of money in the dot com world. Maybe after they've made their pile, some will jump into politics."

Hertzberg thinks that one of the biggest challenges facing California is to close the "digital divide" between those in step with the new technology and those being left behind.

"The world is being reinvented, and so are newspapers and government," he declares. "This is not the time to sit on your tochis."

Hertzberg estimates that he puts in an average 100-hour work week, but he shuttles between Sacramento and his Sherman Oaks home two or three times a week. He tries to reserve Friday night and much of the weekend for his family, with Saturday evening dedicated to his spouse as "wifey night."

If he can find the time, Hertzberg hopes to finish a popular history of Los Angeles, with lots of photos and vignettes. "It's such a fascinating place," he says. "Did you know that during the Civil War, Catalina was occupied by the Union army?"

Hertzberg gets high marks for his relationship to the Jewish community from Michael Hirschfeld, director of The Jewish Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee. The two men are planning a trip to Israel for legislators, to be led by Hertzberg.

But public policy analyst and columnist Gregory Rodriguez expresses some skepticism that Hertzberg's vision of a Jewish-Latino partnership responds to reality.

The WASP elite has largely abandoned the city, Rodriguez reasons. Its place has been taken de facto by a "reluctant" Jewish elite, that doesn't really want to acknowledge its true power.

Waiting in the wings is the "aspiring" elite of Latinos, but, warns Rodriguez, just because Jewish and Latino politicians work together doesn't mean the grass-roots Latino community is being reached.

He sees a major disconnect between Latino legislators and the people they represent. In a recent poll, only some 6 percent of Latinos could identify Villaraigosa, arguably the most prominent Latino politician in California.

"Bridge building between communities is all very well, but let's not mistake ties between legislators as reality," says Rodriguez, who is a fellow with the New American Foundation.

Congressman Xavier Becerra is an old friend of Hertzberg and suggests jokingly that his hugging prowess points to some Latino blood coursing through the speaker's veins.

Becerra rates the Latino-Jewish coalition in Congress as quite effective, and credits it with persuading the White House not to buttress a dictatorial regime during the civil war in El Salvador.

The congressman grants that there will be competition between Jews and Latinos for public office, but, he says, "That's democracy, not hostility."

Urban analyst Joel Kotkin evaluates Latino-Jewish cooperation in California as more realistic than "the obsession of Jews in the northeastern states with Black-Jewish relations.

"Latinos and Jews now live cheek by jowl, especially in the San Fernando Valley," Kotkin says, and they interact closely in the garment and service industries. "Walk into a Jewish deli, and 90 percent of the workers are Latinos," he says.

African-American State Sen. Kevin Murray, whose district includes large chunks of Orthodox and Russian immigrant Jews in the Pico-Robertson area, as well as the Jewish Federation building and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, does not believe that the black-Jewish coalition is dead.

"It may not be as close as during Mayor Tom Bradley's time, but the Black Caucus in Congress is still the Jews' best ally in supporting Israel," he says.

Even Murray acknowledges that the "political landscape is changing" due to the growing number of Latinos, but he believes that it will take another generation before there is a real shift in the balance of political power.


Robert M. Hertzberg (D) will be sworn in as speaker of the California Assembly on April 13.

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