February 1, 2007
Key Jewish California lawmakers return to powerful roles in new Congress
(Page 2 - Previous Page)When the Republicans are in power in Washington, the Jewish political world is usually on the outside looking in, except in matters regarding Israel. With the exception of Israel, the Jewish political orientation (pro-science, pro-choice, favoring economic equality and internationalism) is completely at odds with the contemporary Republican agenda in national politics.
Republicans have made inroads with Jewish voters when the Democrats are perceived as less supportive of Israel and when Republicans run socially moderate candidates, but when Democrats put forward strongly pro-Israel candidates, Jewish voters are much harder to wrest away.
California's Jewish political leadership is in a position to have a significant impact on the battle for the White House. Over the course of the 20th century, California went from being an outpost of the national Jewish community, dwarfed by New York state's Jewish population, to its position today as the second-largest agglomeration of Jews in the nation. It has also gone from a reliable Republican bastion to a largely predictable Democratic state.
The core of Jewish political strength in California is the Los Angeles area. A half-million Jews, with high levels of education and extraordinary voter turnout in a region where relatively few whites have strong ethnic ties, adds up to a big political force. This power has largely been exercised within the Democratic Party, the ancestral and continuing home of the vast majority of American Jews, with occasional forays into the Republican camp. (The most recent Republican to do well with Jews is Schwarzenegger, the socially moderate governor; before him, it was the equally moderate former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan.)
More than 80 percent of Los Angeles Jews count themselves as Democrats. From Fairfax to the ocean, highly competitive seats in the state Assembly and Senate, as well as the U.S. Congress, have been won and held by Jewish candidates.
There are really two different and overlapping Jewish political forces in Los Angeles. There is the highly successful local and regional politics that has led to significant Jewish office holding. Then there is the Hollywood connection, wealthy donors and big names whose interests are much more in national than local politics. With the changing political climate in Washington, both are coming into play and will probably cross over.
Two local politicians, Berman and Waxman, built the famous Waxman-Berman machine in the 1970s that placed candidates into Assembly and Senate seats. (Not all of their favored candidates were Jewish; they also aided the careers of a number of minority candidates.)
Berman became a marvel at creative redistricting. Waxman and Berman helped Tom Bradley win the mayoralty in 1973 but were ultimately more successful in Sacramento than in Los Angeles. One of their local allies did do very well, when Zev Yaroslavsky, who won a L.A. City Council seat as a 26-year-old firebrand in 1975, moved on to the county Board of Supervisors.
In 1974, Waxman went to Congress with the Watergate class, and Berman joined him in the 1982 elections, another strong Democratic year during the Reagan recession. While Berman retained his influence in the California redistricting process, Waxman became known for his work on Capitol Hill.
Waxman and Berman toiled in opposition to Republican White Houses. Waxman used the committee system to hold hearings, to conduct investigations and to be in all ways a pain in the neck to conservative Republican presidents. Waxman re-invented himself, shedding the image of "boss" (always an exaggeration anyway) to become one of the heroes of American progressives with his remarkable legislative skills. And things seemed likely to get even better in 1992, when Democrats finally won the White House.
In 1992, California voters made history. First they voted for the Democratic candidate for president, Bill Clinton, in a shift from past patterns. No Democrat had won California since 1948, save Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 landslide.
The Clinton-Gore ticket in 1992 was supremely appealing to Jewish voters. The Democratic candidates were pro-Israel, socially liberal and ideologically centrist, while the George H.W. Bush White House was seen as less supportive of Israel.
Astoundingly, California voters also elected two Jewish women as U.S. senators, Feinstein and Boxer, who were on the same ballot because of an uncompleted term. Feinstein and Boxer were both from Northern California but differed politically. Boxer has been much more the liberal, Feinstein the centrist. Their prospects seemed limitless, as did the hopes for a long-term Democratic majority.
The majority lasted for exactly one Congress. In 1994, the Republicans threw the incumbent party out of power. When George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001, outsider status was complete, as Republicans ruthlessly ensured that Democrats had nothing to do with national policy, and Bush's strongly pro-Israel policy threatened to attract Jewish voters.
Democrats in Congress began to despair that they would never be able to play a role on the national stage again. Then 2006 changed the layout.
Once considered Republican territory, California is now a pillar of the Democratic Party in national politics. The massive fundraising base in Hollywood and on the liberal Westside draws presidential candidates as much as the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Once all that money came from New York astate, much of it from Jewish donors. That monopoly is now a duopoly.
While Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has a lock on the Jewish funders in New York state, the massive Hollywood and Westside Los Angeles constituency is still divided and open to competition. If an insurgency forms against the Clinton candidacy, it will take root out here, far from the Washington establishment. In February, Dreamworks executives will host a fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Even moderate Republican presidential candidates, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and maybe Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, will find a very receptive audience among a number of Jewish Los Angeles donors.