October 2, 2003
A Few Jews Focus on Props, Too
With a few notable exceptions, Jewish politicians, activists and community leaders are getting into the controversies over Propositions 53 and 54 late and lackadaisically, having focused most of their attention and fundraising efforts on the recall election.
Proposition 54, The Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI), backed by University of California regent Ward Connerly, bans the state from classifying people according to race, ethnicity, color, or national origin.
Supporters maintain it would move society closer to a color-blind society, while opponents maintain it would impede the collection of data needed to redress discrimination.
Though opponents claim it would also block collection of data that could be helpful in addressing genetically transmitted diseases such as Tay Sachs, which affects Ashkenzic Jews, supporters say the measure would not affect health-related issues. The state's independent legislative analyst said the matter is unclear.
Among Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the Progressive Jewish Alliance oppose Proposition 54.
Jewish politicians including U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Con. Howard Berman (D-26th) and Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss oppose it as well.
The statewide Jewish Public Affairs Committee, a coalition of mostly Federation-based groups, has not taken a stand on RPI, though the San Jose/Silicon Valley Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) unanimously passed a resolution opposing it.
"There's been a trend among JCRCs of not wanting to get involved in controversial measures," JPAC Director Coby King said. "Federations don't see how taking a position benefits them."
For many groups, RPI brings dangerous echoes of the highly controversial Proposition 209, a 1996 initiative designed to dismantle state affirmative action programs based on sex or race. That ballot measure caused considerable division between liberal and more conservative Jews. "A lot of people feel [Proposition 54] is not worth the risk," King said.
Democrats for Israel's Howard Welinsky said his organization follows the Democratic party position on such measures, and the party opposes it. Welinsky, who sits on the California Post-Secondary Education Commission, said Proposition 54, "will make it impossible to determine if there are civil rights violations or equal opportunity violations."
The Southern California chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition has not taken a position on RPI, said the chapter Chair Bruce Bialosky, because members have been so focused on the recall. But Bialosky, speaking for himself, said he would support it. "As long as we continue to classify people by race," he said, "we are going to continue to think of them by race."
If Proposition 54 is getting relatively attention, Proposition 53 is going positively unnoticed. If it passes in Tuesday's recall election, Proposition 53 will set aside up to 3 percent of the annual state budget for repairs of California's infrastructure of highways, hospitals and libraries.
"One of the tenets of the Jewish religion is to improve our community, to leave our community a better place than we found it," said State Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge). Richman, who is Jewish, helped create the legislation that later led to Proposition 53. "If California is going to be successful in the future, then we need to ensure that the proper infrastructure is in place," he said.
The measure's supporters include the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the California Chamber of Commerce and Caprice Young, former Los Angeles Unified School District president. Opponents include the California Tax Reform Association and the Congress of California Seniors.
State Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) said he finds himself, "smack dab in the middle," about supporting Proposition 53, formerly known as the "Funds Dedicated for State and Local Infrastructure" state constitutional amendment.
"The basic concept is that we have not done enough and are not doing enough ... to pay for the infrastructure needs of the state," Koretz said. "When you have a surplus, this would trigger some of that surplus money to go to infrastructure. It's one of many initiatives that can strain a state budget left with fewer and fewer options. I see its pluses and its minuses."
On the left, Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) director Daniel Sokatch called Proposition 53, "another conservative, far-right fake fix-all. It's not going to solve any problems, just shift the problems around."
Despite no formal endorsement, RJC of Southern California Executive Director Michael Wissot spoke supportively of Proposition 53.
Richman said Proposition 53 protects against pulling funds out of the state education budget and transferring that money to rebuild roads, hospitals, libraries and state buildings.
The assemblyman added that from the 1960s through the 1970s, California politicians regularly poured 15 percent to 20 percent of annual state budgets into building the state's extensive freeway system -- plus hospitals and libraries and other public entities to be covered by Proposition 53.
But since 1990, Richman said, "our state has spent two-tenths of 1 percent of the General Fund annually on infrastructure. There's no question why our roads are congested why they're crumbling. This money is specifically going to infrastructure projects and capital outlay, not for operations."
Koretz also noted that, "There are Jewish values, I would say, on both sides of this issue. It's really a compelling case of what do you do right? We can never do everything right. It's a question of are you more concerned about social services or are you more concern about the long-term effects of the state crumbling?"
"I'm actually leaning in favor of it," the assemblyman said. "I think the pluses and minuses are about equal. People need to think this through themselves."