June 14, 2001
A week after the L.A. mayoral election, believe me, I too would rather be discussing the Lakers vs. the 76ers than the meaning of the Jewish vote. But I went out on a limb for former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa against the ultimate winner, City Attorney James Hahn, on the grounds that supporting the man who would be the first Latino mayor in 129 years was the right, "liberal" thing to do. According to the Los Angeles Times exit poll, Jews went for Hahn 54-46, exactly the same as the general electorate.
What happened, it turns out, makes sense. There were two Democratic candidates on the ballot, so similar on policy they even caused split in the local union movement. Jews, like other liberals, split, too. Of course not all Jews are liberals. The city attorney, campaigning to his right in ways both logical and regrettable, was able to pick up 79 percent of registered Republicans, among them Jews.
Yet Hahn won the most liberal Westside districts of Los Angeles, which have the largest Jewish populations. He did this with support of those over 65, with bedrock FDR politics, by 2 to 1. As I heard frequently this past week, you could be a self-proclaimed liberal and even a Nation magazine subscriber and still vote for Hahn.
Even before the Hahn ad about the Vignali pardon, Villaraigosa's polling numbers were shrinking due to Hahn's masterful use of the former assemblyman's voting record on crime bills. Frankly, I think Hahn got a free ride, because Villaraigosa never played offensive. He assumed he had the advantage with a deeply compelling story about a boy from East Los Angeles who rose from poverty to leadership. But it wasn't enough.
Time and again I heard Jewish voters say in the last days how "mayoral" Hahn looked. I was so worried that Hahn was replaying Sam Yorty's race-baiting, I didn't know what they were talking about. But the past never duplicates itself perfectly. Villaraigosa energetically cast himself as a coalition builder in the Tom Bradley mode. But Bradley was a former policeman whose character and conservative credentials were unimpeachable.
As Villaraigosa weakened, Hahn drew strength. Boring Jimmy Hahn was not the man I saw dancing and cheering his own victory at the Westin Bonaventure June 6. His father gave him his name, but the voters gave him his office.
The Jewish split has its advantages: At this time, Jewish voters are standing at the political center of Los Angeles, neither more or less liberal than the average voter, neither more or less optimistic about what's right and wrong in this great city.
"It's that time in our city," said Hope Warshaw, a longtime political consultant and one of Hahn's biggest supporters. "The voters want to stay the course. The neighborhoods are coming back. There's economic prosperity. Yes, traffic is bad and the school system needs fixing, but with some tinkering around the edges, things are good."
Warshaw, whose family has been to the L.A. Jewish community what the Hahn family has been to Los Angeles, was critical of my early dismissal of Hahn.
"I'm thoroughly surprised that the electorate chose so wisely," Warshaw told me. "They voted for moderates who are concerned with public safety. Jimmy Hahn is not a huge risk-taker. But he's committed to working with all segments of the community."
Hahn takes office during a sea change at City Hall. A new city charter gives the mayor increased powers. Term limits have done their work, and most of the councilmembers are newcomers. From a Jewish community perspective, the change will be dramatic: Joel Wachs is leaving and Laura Chick has gone to the controller's office. The number of Jewish representatives on the council has slipped in the last four years from seven to three (assuming Jack Weiss' 280-vote victory over Tom Hayden is confirmed).
This makes the matter of coalition and how we build it all the more important. This election proves that an effective governing coalition in this city can't exist without blacks, who will play a huge role in the Hahn administration.
Villaraigosa hoped he could convince the African American community that their ultimate self-interest was in friendship with the rising Latino majority and its Jewish liberal friends. One day, a Latino mayoral candidate will make that case, but not against someone named Hahn. In the meantime, there's a word for those who would tell black voters what's in their interest. It's chutzpah.