Does it matter to you what ethnicity the next L.A. mayor will represent? In the upcoming April primary, there are two Jewish candidates, long-time city councilmember Joel Wachs and real estate broker Steve Soboroff. And there are two Latino candidates, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra.
Yet the front-runner in the field of six is James Hahn, whose father, Supervisor Kenny Hahn, was himself a beloved liberal institution, a one-man ethnic bridge builder. Hahn fils' virtual lock on the black vote is a family inheritance, left over from the days before Martin Luther King, Jr. (The other contender is state Controller Kathleen Connell, whose moribund political prospect attests that this is certainly not the Year of the Woman.)
Jews, a traditional swing vote, are key to the primary. In voting, we always reflect an image of ourselves, but what image will that be?
Eight years ago, in the first mayoral election following the Tom Bradley era, Jewish voters were high with entitlement. Major Jewish communal institutions had played a crucial role in police reform. There was a general perception that the black-Jewish coalition was still strong enough to bring a Jew to the top municipal office.
The perception was wrong. When the King riots crossed Olympic Boulevard, the black-Jewish coalition was left in shards. In that '93 primary, former Assemblyman Richard Katz duked it out with Wachs. Wachs ran strong, splitting the Jewish vote along both Valley/city and Republican/Democratic lines and single-handedly assuring Richard Riordan's victory. That primary demonstrated that the "Jewish vote" could be split like any other.
That split continues today with Soboroff vs. Wachs.
Soboroff, a Republican and an energetic civic booster active in the Pacific Palisades Jewish community, is appealing to voters as Riordan II, portraying himself as a nonpolitical businessman above the ethnic urban fray. From a Jewish perspective, his campaign is hardly the "Jolson Story," but remember, Riordan himself won 50 percent of the Jewish vote against Mike Woo.
Wachs is another matter. With his reputation as a scrappy streetfighter, taking on Police Chief Bernard Parks in the Rampart scandal and trying to limit taxpayer commitment to mega-events like the Democratic National Convention, Wachs is the eternal unknown.
Will he make the cut? Though Mark Mellman's mayoral poll of 800 likely primary voters shows Wachs in a dead heat with Hahn at 15 percent, the Los Angeles Times poll published last week showed Wachs slipping to 11 percent and Hahn way ahead at 24 percent. Yet among every important group, including Democrats and women, Wachs remains a contender. In a city fighting Valley secession, a Republican with the reputation of fighting for the underdog can never be counted out.
On the other hand, there's the past, represented by Jimmy Hahn. Though civil rights seems like ancient history, there are some who will be swayed by a familiar name and TV ads that artfully evoke a local urban dynasty.
Finally, there's the future, symbolized by Villaraigosa. A good case could be made, and many in the Jewish community are making it, that Villaraigosa is the "Jewish candidate." The Times poll shows that Villaraigosa has nearly as much support among Westsiders as does Soboroff, who lives in the Palisades, and Hahn. Villaraigosa, the strongest liberal in the field, enjoys the support of kingmaker Eli Broad, as well as Jewish activists like Howard Welinsky. Support for Villaraigosa asserts that he is not merely a "Latino" candidate, the favorite son of Los Angeles' fastest rising political minority. He is also a knowledgeable politician who could shape a new multiethnic coalition to which Jews must belong.
There are so many ethnic wildcards in this race that the real bettor's conflict is between diverging scenarios. If Soboroff digs deep into his own fulsome pockets, the race could become a referendum of Riordan's performance; a Hahn-Soboroff runoff could be the result.
I guess someone could argue that Villaraigosa and Hahn will kill each other off, leaving Los Angeles to struggle between the centrist visions of Soboroff and Wachs.
Or, more likely, we are seeing a reconfiguration of the '93 primary; this time, Soboroff and Wachs canceling each other in the vote-heavy Valley. In that case it would be Hahn and Villaraigosa left standing for a left-of-center runoff.
That would be something.