April 12, 2001
Just when we thought it was safe to proclaim the mayoral campaign free from the kind of race-baiting that has tainted previous runs for City Hall, we get this bogus automated telephone message, falsely attributed to Republican candidate Steve Soboroff, attesting to his supposed reliance on "Jewish money."
The reference to this particular canard came at the end of the message, probably because its authors -- who at press time have remained unknown, thanks to the dearth of regulations governing telephone campaigning -- understood that anyone dumb enough to listen to an automated message in its entirety would also be dumb enough to believe that "the Jewish community" is backing any single candidate.
But then, as Gregory Rodriguez, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan New American Foundation in Washington, suggests, there was no dearth of otherwise politically astute Angelenos quick to blame Jewish interests for an earlier telephone attack directed against Antonio Villaraigosa. "Who would have guessed it came from the Morongo Indian tribe?" he remarked to The Journal.
Probably no one, considering how out of whack the playing of the ethnic card has been in this race. There's the African American community's Great White Hope, James Hahn.
Between Xavier Becerra and Antonio Villaraigosa, the Latino candidates, Villaraigosa, if polls are to be believed, enjoys as much standing within the Jewish community as among Latinos. This just goes to show, says tribal observer Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow with a Pepperdine University public policy institute, just how wimpy American Jews are when it comes to holding down the communities that have propelled some of its members to office.
"The only places Jews live in this city," he said, "are where their money allows them. Of course, that was also true, traditionally, of New York." Translated, this means that with the exception of maybe Howard Berman's congressional seat, Jews simply don't have that many seats left to lose to the Latino electorate. Jews aren't running as Jews or voting as Jews, and there aren't that many "Jewish" districts left up for grabs. So why bother attacking Jews as Jews, unless out of habit?
Soboroff, for his part, appealed mainly to more conservative voters and disaffected Valleyites -- most of whom cannot be presumed Jewish -- while Wachs' appeal was to the arts crowd, which hardly sounds like a sure-fire ticket to the upper reaches of City Hall, even if there wasn't a writers' strike looming. The fact that the race's two Jewish candidates openly detest each other (not that there is any love lost between former bosom buddies Villaraigosa and Becerra) only muddies the ethnic waters now coursing in the L.A. River.
Since ethnicity doesn't seem to be the governing factor in anything, except perhaps the incidental outcome of the winner's personal background, to understand who might benefit from the phony phone-call smear, you'd think we could look instead at who's bankrolling the candidates. Except that that makes matters even more confusing.
Villaraigosa gets his backing from the AFL-CIO, wealthy Westsiders, and the Sierra Club. It doesn't make any sense that his supporters would risk alienating the maybe one-third of the Jewish vote that at the time appeared to be going his way. On the other hand, there may be some residual resentment within some fringe elements of the Latino community against his purported brown-nosing of some Jewish interests and power brokers. But members of this fringe group would launch this kind of attack only if they were desperate, which the polls said they shouldn't be.
As for Hahn, outside of South Central, no one seems to be fired with enthusiasm for his candidacy. This leads us to ask: What percentage is there for an African American attack against a Jewish candidate on behalf of a white guy, when it is clearly the Latino community that outnumbers every other minority community in Los Angeles, including Caucasians?
And as for the Jewish candidates, Soboroff gets his money from his own back pocket, and maybe some of the pickings from mentor Dick Riordan's table, while Wachs never raised any serious money to speak of. If this is what the perps of this otherwise pernicious phone ad consider Jewish money, they might do better to recall the old folk tale about the cooks who, upon demanding payment for the tantalizing aroma of their food, were rewarded with the clinking of their prospective clients' coins.
As a brazen newcomer to urban politics, I am probably wrong when I tell you that this telephone ad strikes me as a red herring, the mewling vestiges of a bygone era that no longer resounds in a city so atomized by class and sprawl that, as of last Monday, many people still had no clue whom to vote for or, for that matter, why they should vote at all.
Up until The Phone Calls, there had been, as Jewish Federation Government Relations Committee Chair Lindsay Conner pointed out, "a delightful lack of ethnic appeals in this campaign." Conner added that people, moreover, didn't seem to be "using race, ethnicity or religion to make their choices."
On the other hand, what may hold for the first part of this election may not survive the run-off. What started as the cowardly, anonymous idea of a few could turn into a full-fledged campaign strategy, unless Tuesday's winners make a concerted and public effort to disavow the ethnic card. Otherwise, as a responsible journalist, I have to wager that all bets are off.