Jewish Journal


February 4, 2009

Candidates Seeking Out Support of Iranian Jews


left to right: Sam Keywanfar, Michael Hakim, Paul Naficy in 2007 during the State of the City speech at Graystone Mansion. Photo by Karmel Melamed

left to right: Sam Keywanfar, Michael Hakim, Paul Naficy in 2007 during the State of the City speech at Graystone Mansion. Photo by Karmel Melamed

Iranian Jews, as well as other Iranian Americans, are being courted for contributions and political support in the run-up to the March 3 elections for Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles city council races, but nearly two years after Beverly Hills City Councilman Jimmy Delshad was sworn in as the first Iranian American mayor in the United States, a hoped-for bounce that would find more Iranian Jewish candidates entering area races has yet to materialize.

Two out of 12 candidates running for three spots on the Beverly Hills City Council are Iranian Jews. But the showing is weak compared to 2007, when half of the six candidates competing for two seats in Beverly Hills were Iranian Jews.

And despite its large Iranian Jewish constituency, none of the six candidates running for Jack Weiss’ Fifth District seat on the L.A. City Council is an Iranian Jew. Instead, the City Council candidates are appealing to the extended Iranian Jewish community for its large voter turnout and financial strength.

While political organizing is taking place in the Iranian Jewish community, it’s still struggling to establish its political identity after three decades in Southern California and lacks a Berman-Waxman-style machine that could nurture consistently viable candidates.

David Rahimian, 27, an Iranian Jewish political activist and a former special assistant to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said that while the recent presidential race and city elections have energized a small but growing group of his peers, getting them to consider running for office is a tough sell.

“The one hump members of our community need to get over is that you won’t get rich working in this [political] field. But the rewards of being able to see a positive community impact far outweigh any form of compensation,” he said.

Political activity among Iranian Jews is a fairly new concept. The community in Iran was largely barred from government involvement or elected office by Iran’s Muslim majority until the early 20th century. In Los Angeles today, a younger generation of Iranian Jewish professionals is working with local organizations like 30 Years After to get out the vote and connect with politicians who wish to court the community for support. The recent election of President Obama has also sparked political interest among young Iranian Jews.

“I would say the community interest in politics is now higher than ever, especially because we are coming off of a presidential election that saw record turnout of both already registered and newly registered voters,” Rahimian said.

But without the historical precedent represented in the last Beverly Hills City Council election, Delshad also sees the community’s political enthusiasm waning.

“I don’t see as much excitement this time around among the Persians,” Delshad said. “Last time I ran, it was different because there were only two open places on the council, with three Persian candidates running — and you’ve got to remember that there was real excitement in the community about my mayorship if I were elected.”

His successful grass-roots campaign in 2003 first energized Beverly Hills’ Iranian Jews and catapulted Delshad into office, making him the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States. The Beverly Hills City Council rotates the job of mayor annually among its members in order of seniority, and when Delshad was re-elected in 2007, his turn came up and he made national headlines by becoming the first Iranian American mayor in U.S. history. His term on the five-seat Beverly Hills City Council will end in 2011, and Delshad said he has no plans to run for a third term.

Delshad has not endorsed any of the 12 candidates vying for the three City Council seats in March, saying he wants to avoid any potential ill will that could arise in the future.

For their part, the two Iranian Jewish candidates running in Beverly Hills are concerned about being tied to criticism Delshad has weathered from a small but vocal group of non-Iranian Beverly Hills residents who accuse him of favoring mass development in the city.

One of the Iranian Jewish candidates in the Beverly Hills City Council race is Fran Cohen, the city’s Architectural Commission chair. Touting an architecture background and business experience, Cohen said she is qualified to handle the challenges of new real estate development in Beverly Hills.

“I believe our City Council needs someone with my background in architecture and urban planning to analyze the development projects that come before the council and come up with a consensus on development projects,” said Cohen, who has also worked in a Massachusetts state office for urban development. “I’m not a politician. I’m just one of the community members who cares about the city, has volunteered her time to improve the city.”

The second Iranian Jewish candidate running for the Beverly Hills City Council, Michael Hakim, is a 30-something property manager making his second run for the seat after losing in 2005. When it comes to development issues, Hakim wants to see the city make transportation a priority.

“We need to improve the traffic situation by investing in better regional public transportation coming into the city, having more subterranean and above-ground parking and having minibuses that easily will pick up people from the parking structures to the stores and other areas in the city,” he said.

Since his defeat in 2005, Hakim said he has increased his involvement with city community groups.

“I see young people who want to have greater participation in the city,” he said. “I want to encourage them with after-school programs or youth job programs…. If they see a young person like myself on the council, they will be more willing to get involved.”

Despite a weak showing from Iranian Jews on the Beverly Hills ballot, voter turnout could help the candidates’ chances. In Beverly Hills, Iranian residents account for between 20 percent and 25 percent of all registered voters. According to official February 2007 Beverly Hills city election results, Delshad and the two other Iranian Jewish candidates for the City Council received more than 50 percent of the total votes cast.

With the highest concentration of Iranian Americans in Los Angeles living in the city’s Fifth District, which stretches from Westwood to Sherman Oaks, only two of six candidates for that City Council seat have reached out to Iranian Jews and other Iranian voters in the district.

Former California Assemblyman Paul Koretz has been campaigning actively among local Iranians of various religious backgrounds. He has not only set up his campaign headquarters in the community’s Westwood stronghold but has also appeared on local Persian-language radio and television stations.

“During my political career I’ve come to know the Persian community very well,” said Koretz, who also served on the West Hollywood City Council. “They have an incredibly rich history; they’re very talented and successful individuals, and they’re an asset that the city needs to fully utilize and to listen to.”

While Delshad won’t support a Beverly Hills candidate, he has given his endorsement to Koretz. Other local Iranian Jewish leaders are lending political support to Koretz based on his prior City Council support of improvement projects to Temple Beth El, the synagogue of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in West Hollywood.

Alex Helmi, an Iranian Muslim business owner in Westwood, said Koretz’s message of embracing local Iranian Americans and addressing their needs has resonated within the community, because many Iranian Americans in the Fifth District have long felt neglected by outgoing City Councilman Jack Weiss.

“Mr. Koretz has been the only candidate to approach us with an open heart, and we need new leadership on the council who, unlike Weiss, will listen to us and actually do what he promises,” said Helmi, who will be hosting an Iranian community fundraiser for Koretz on Feb. 10 at his Westwood rug shop.

Koretz campaign officials said he not only plans on speaking to several Iranian synagogues in the area but will also be speaking at a West L.A. mosque in order to reach other Iranian voters in the district.

Adenna Bleich, a former a field deputy and Jewish community liaison for Weiss, has also been courting local Iranian Jews in her bid for the Fifth District seat. Last November, Bleich spoke at a lunch event hosted by 30 Years After to reach younger voters in the community.

“I plan to continue the friendship and outreach [with Iranians] I began as a City Council field deputy, where I made it a point to attend events in this community and even put together the first Iranian American Town Hall, with all the heads of the city departments,” said Bleich, who is an Orthodox Jew.

As to whether she’s concerned about her connection to Weiss hurting her support from within the Iranian community, Bleich said she is running on her own record of experience in city government and had endorsements from a number of local Iranian rabbis and community activists.

“I am running for City Council because I know that we can do better and make this beautiful city even more lovely, more efficient and more successful,” Bleich said. “And I want the Iranian community to be partners in this important effort.”

Listen to Karmel Melamed’s podcast about the Iranian Jewish candidates for the Beverly Hills City Council race on his Iranian American Jewshere.

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