March 24, 2005
Little Scandal Becomes Big Deal
The still-simmering flap over forged endorsements for Mayor James Hahn is the classic scandal that didn't have to be. A little more than a week ago, this incident grew from niche story -- something that only Jewish Journal readers might notice -- to the week's hottest local political fracas, with widespread coverage in newspapers and on radio and TV.
And it was the Hahn campaign that made this happen.
This episode began as the tale of an odd mistake. Some of the same names appeared on endorsement lists of Hahn and of one of his challengers, Bob Hertzberg. The Hahn list appeared in published advertisements, including in The Journal. Six people on Hahn's list complained in a letter that they are not supporting the incumbent mayor. The Hahn campaign noted that its ad was based on signed endorsement letters, but also said that it would remove the six names.
So far so good for the Hahn campaign.
It's what transpired next that incensed a portion of the Jewish community that could have supported Hahn in the May 17 runoff. At this point, the mayor's lieutenants had the option of apologizing profusely and carefully double-checking all potentially suspect endorsements, just to be sure.
Instead, some say, Hahn's campaign staff, notably veteran political adviser Kam Kuwata, adopted an approach that came across as cavalier and insensitive. It started with Kuwata's presumption that producing the endorsement forms would settle the issue -- that citing these forms was all he needed to do.
Journal reporter Idan Ivri showed the letters to the people who purportedly signed them. They said their signatures had been forged. Kuwata downplayed that issue, while insisting that the strange occurrence was limited to those who signed the letter. Yet the problematic endorsements began to grow in number. To date, community leaders have specified 30 false endorsements. As of this writing, The Journal has contacted about one-third of these individuals -- all of whom insisted they never endorsed Hahn.
Kuwata cemented this public-relations debacle when he identified the source of the documents as Joe Klein, who died last June at age 69.
So, if you're keeping track, the Hahn campaign's first message was: These complaints are no big deal, not worth bothering with. The second tack was to blame a revered member of the Orthodox community, who's conveniently not around to defend himself.
If Klein had left behind a signed confession attesting to the forgeries, it still would have been bad politics for the Hahn campaign to hide behind his tombstone.
As it happens, many of the bad endorsements were those of people who'd supported Hahn -- often at Klein's behest -- in 2001. The 2005 campaign, however, included Hertzberg, a Jewish candidate who appealed to these voters on key issues, not to mention a Hahn who's been tarnished by ongoing corruption investigations.
The fake endorsement issue didn't hurt Hahn in the March 8 primary, because the news emerged too late. Hertzberg narrowly missed the runoff. But the flap surely presents a gift to City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who'll face off with Hahn on May 17.
The damage done is embodied in Dr. Irving Lebovics, a dentist who chairs Agudath Israel of California, an Orthodox group. Lebovics is among those who say his signature was forged on a letter endorsing Hahn. He's unhappy about that, but he's especially upset at what he regards as the outrageous vilification of Klein.
"It's a matter of integrity," he said. "Integrity is very important to me."
Lebovics has nothing against Hahn's performance as mayor; he'll even allow that Hahn's been a good mayor, but he's now leaning toward Villaraigosa. Lebovics attended a hastily called Friday press conference at which he was among four Orthodox Jewish leaders who defended Klein and criticized Hahn. Lebovics declined to state his preference for Villaraigosa while tape was rolling, because he didn't want the focus to stray from his issue with Hahn's campaign.
Another speaker was Rabbi Steven Weil of Temple Beth Jacob, who clearly was angry about the alleged forging of his own signature. He, too, evinced no interest in promoting Hahn's challenger, whose name he pronounced as "Villagarosa" in response to a reporter's question.
But this event wasn't entirely without political orchestration. The sound system was provided by the Villaraigosa campaign. And the master of ceremonies was City Councilman Jack Weiss, a Villaraigosa stalwart. Reached earlier by phone, the press deputy for Weiss referred to the press conference as a "Villaraigosa event" that was unrelated to the official business of the council office.
Kuwata of the Hahn campaign fired back at Weiss, calling reporters' attention to thousands of dollars in fines that Weiss faces for mistakes made in his 2001 City Council campaign. That got reported, too, but didn't have the legs of the dodgy endorsements, which made it on at least two TV stations' newscasts, on two radio stations, and into the pages of the Daily Breeze and the Los Angeles Times.
At this juncture, Hahn hopes for a tight race -- that would mark an improvement over his lagging second-place primary finish. And if it's close, last week's missteps could cost him. Members of Orthodox congregations tend to vote, and they respect their leaders' endorsements -- their real endorsements, that is.
In 2001, Hahn won over substantial numbers of Anglo, moderate and middle-class voters with a campaign that subtly reminded them that Villaraigosa had dark skin. The campaign also painted Villaraigosa as too liberal overall and too dangerous on matters of crime.
In 2005, despite his second-place primary finish, Hahn could yet prevail, but it'll be more difficult to win with a similar campaign. For one thing, Villaraigosa plans to fire back with City Hall corruption allegations. And now he's got additional ammunition provided courtesy of the Hahn campaign.
Third-place finisher Hertzberg hasn't made an endorsement, but his legions already are debating where to go. They include affordable-housing developer Stanley Treitel, Klein's brother-in-law. Treitel is no Westside lockstep liberal. For one thing, he supports vouchers for private schools, because he'd like government subsidies to help pay for children who attend Orthodox academies.
Could Treitel possibly go for Villaraigosa, the teachers union favorite, the ultimate anti-voucher man?
Yes, he could. And now he does.