"Wow," said Zev, taken aback. "Thanks."
Big surprise? Please. Maybe the location, but certainly not the question. Everywhere Zev Yaroslavsky goes these days, that issue is sure to follow. The man many experts pick as most likely to win what promises to be next year's hard-fought mayor's race hasn't decided whether he even wants to run, and his indecision is creating a cottage industry in grumbling, pleading and second-guessing.
Count among the pleaders those who see a Yaroslavsky mayoralty as a chance -- perhaps the last chance -- to put a brand name, home-grown Jewish-American with a dedication to social causes in a very public and powerful seat. (Despite their contributions to civic life, a Jew has never been mayor of L.A. There's been a police chief, a sheriff, and city council members by the bushel. But never an elected mayor.)
Among the grumblers are those, like Schwartz, who wonder how long they're supposed to keep saying no to the fund-raising appeals of other candidates, whose supporters are friends and associates. "I told Zev I'm losing a lot of friends because I keep turning down invitations to contribute," said Schwartz.
The pressure is not just coming from the street (or the men's rooms). There are aides who would like to move up to the mayor's office with their boss, and power brokers who want to know which horse to back.
The pundits have all but written him off. On a radio call-in show, one veteran city reporter dismissed him as "Hamlet," Shakespeare's terminally indecisive Dane. And what of the true insiders, the men and women who have known Zev going back to his days as a Fairfax-district activist for Soviet Jewry? "Here's how it is," says Paul Goodwin, a pollster. "Someone will tell me, 'I just had lunch with Zev and he's said he's not running.' Then someone else will tell me, 'I just had lunch with Zev. He's running.'"
Yaroslavsky hasn't announced and isn't tipping his hat. "There's lots of talk," says Adi Liberman, chief of staff for Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, "because if Zev runs, it changes the race dramatically." The next election for mayor will be held April 10, 2001, with a run-off vote June 5. That's well over a year away, so most of the chatter now is among the inside-the-freeway types. But the field is filling up, and the observers are already assessing which of the unusually strong candidates can reach beyond a strong base to build the coalition that a mayoral win in L.A. demands. In this, all the leading candidates are vulnerable to Zev.
Businessman Steve Soboroff's base is the Valley -- he's especially strong with Republicans there and on the Westside. But Zev's former fifth district included parts of the Valley, and he is seen as more moderate than Left. City Attorney James Hahn has strong support among black voters -- a relatively small voting base-- and L.A. power brokers, but Zev can easily compete with him on the latter. Councilman Joel Wachs, who, like Soboroff, is Jewish and has loyal Valley voters, would face a tough fight against another candidate with strong Jewish support; former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa needs to reach beyond strong Latino support to the Westsiders who Zev has served for years. Observers expect Zev to get the lion's share of the Jewish vote. How much Wachs and Soboroff and other candidates will take is unclear. "When he declares," says political consultant Rick Taylor, a longtime Yaroslavsky friend and advisor, "he becomes a front-runner immediately."
A year and a half is too early to call and far too early for polls -- far more voters knew who Councilman Michael Woo was a year and a half before he was trounced by Riordan. What matters most, say the experts, are name recognition and fund-raising ability. In a city where local television news stations barely cover local politics, having the money for ads and publicity is crucial. Here again Zev has enormous advantages. Only James Hahn, son of the late County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, can compete with Zev for name ID. And Zev's fund-raising ability is legendary. "He could raise as much in one fund-raiser as other candidates have already spent," says Joe Cerrell of Cerrell Associates, Inc., a political consultation firm.
Cerrell is among those Zev-watchers who can't figure why he hasn't declared. "Sometimes I wonder what the hell is the matter with him?" he said.
Yaroslavsky doesn't have to give up his seat to run. He can lose and still have one of the most powerful jobs in local politics. And stable too: unseating an incumbent supervisor (there's no term limits) is harder than finding an Angeleno who can name all five of them.
But the mayor of Los Angeles is an increasingly powerful position that comes with a national bully pulpit. "The mayor is the focal point of government," says Taylor, "not the Board of Supervisors." Perhaps, say some observers, the ambitious Zev wants to skip City Hall and run for Congress, but the area's two representatives, Howard Berman and Henry Waxman, have never appeared ready to make room.
There's also the effect of a campaign on one's personal life. Yaroslavsky and his wife Barbara have two grown children, and their life has been free from the rough and tumble of campaigning since Barbara ran unsuccessfully for her husband's Fifth District seat. Declaring for mayor would change that. "It's not a slam dunk for him," said one close ally. "It's going to be a fierce battle. It's going to expose his comfort level for campaigning."
If he doesn't run now, says the common wisdom, the chances of a non-Latino winning a citywide election eight years from now deteriorate, as Latino voters grow in number and activism. But political analyst Gregory Rodriguez thinks this argument may not be definitive. Latino voting patterns, he maintains, are "not terribly tribal." David Tokofsky represents a mostly Latino district on the School Board. Yaroslavsky, he said, could do an end run around Latino power brokers who are unlikely to endorse him and appeal directly to Latino voters, "a la George W. Bush in Texas," said Rodriguez.
(Rodriguez was flipping channels a few weeks back when he spotted Zev on a Spanish-language interview show, "Santana Live!" "I said to myself, 'God! He's got to be running,'" said Rodriguez.)
All these factors together add up to one tough decision. "Zev is good at policy decisions but not so good at personal ones," said a friend. Look at how swiftly he acted to shut down the state's largest gun show in the aftermath of the North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting. And how he made politically costly choices to kill the underground Metrolink project in the Latino Eastside and to cut back on county hospital beds.
But waiting for Zev to run hard for mayor is one of L.A.'s longest-running soaps. Then again, said the friend, he ran for City Council for the first time in 1975, when he was 28. "He had no business running then, and he did it. He wasn't indecisive then."
The image of Young Zev marching for Soviet Jewry, then bucking the establishment to take a City Council seat almost three decades ago remains in the minds of many Jewish voters. It's not just ethnic flag-waving. Zev has used his power to find solutions to social problems. Like Brooklyn's Dov Hikind and Noach Dear, who also speak fluent Hebrew, Zev's Jewishness is part and parcel of his persona. "He thought that then and he thinks it now," said one advisor. "His ideology is shaped by his Jewishness. He has a tikkun olam sense of his job and of local government. He'd want to be a successful mayor who people know is Jewish."
Jewish voters seem to know that about Zev, without discounting the strong Jewish ties of Wachs and Soboroff. "He is the L.A. Jewish politician, and every one who is Jewish and who is involved in politics has at some point had a relationship with him," said pollster Goodwin. That helps. Jews are perhaps nine percent of the electorate, but about 20 percent of likely voters. (With Latinos, those stats are about flipped, for now.) If Zev could take the Jewish vote, another few percentage points could get him into the run-off. It won't be easy, but no one -- pundits, grumblers, insiders -- thinks Zev couldn't do it.
So, will he?
"It's an ambition he's always had," said long-time friend Taylor. "It's something he's always wanted." Several Zev associates think he'll announce shortly after the New Year.
If he does, least surprised would be those observers with what passes in this city for historical memory. In 1989, when he made a half-hearted bid for mayor against Tom Bradley, Yaroslavsky also had a hard time deciding whether to enter the race. He did, three days before the filing deadline. The deadline for the 2001 race? January 16, 2000.