April 19, 2001
Shape of Things
The real Jewish mayoral vote wasn't a liberal's dream.
The spirit of the Jewish left is cackling these days. At a time when the Jews' world leader is Ariel Sharon and many of the people's most well-known luminaries here in America are identified with resurgent Reaganism -- from Dennis Prager and Michael Medved to William Kristol -- the old socialist tradition won big last week.
Or did it? The media, Jewish or liberal -- and frequently both -- have been beside themselves with glee that so many Jews supported leftish Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor. Yet a review of the exit polls show that barely one in four actually cast ballots for the charismatic former Assembly speaker. Is this a Bradleyesque landslide? Are happy days here again for the Jewish left?
To be sure, a poll of non-Orthodox Jewish activists, media types and academics would have shown an overwhelming preference for Villaraigosa. But how about the three-quarters who voted for the more conservative candidates; most importantly the nearly 50 percent who voted for past and present Republicans, Joel Wachs and Steve Soboroff?
The reality is that Villaraigosa essentially recaptured less than the vote that went for Tom Hayden against Republican Mayor Richard Riordan last time. This is not an insignificant faction of the Jewish electorate, but it is hardly dominant. These Jews are the left hard-core -- the militant feminists, enviros and that hardy band of unreconstructed social Democrats.
Yet what about the vast majority who split between the other, more centrist candidates? I think their votes will be critical to both Villaraigosa and Hahn, although many may simply throw up their hands or hang out at Art's Deli on Election Day, if they can hold onto their lunches.
For the record, Villaraigosa ultimately will win the majority of the Jewish vote, including perhaps my own. Jews generally like their politicians empathetic, smart and articulate and tend to be more forgiving of personal sins than more conventionally conservative Christians. Witness the community's unceasing love affair with Bill Clinton.
Villaraigosa is all these things and more, although he likely lacks the total intellectual brilliance of the man from Hope. He is presentable, amiable and subtly promises to do that thing that Jews through the ages have sought out -- protect us from our traditional fear of a new dominant demographic group, particularly one that we are not too familiar with.
Hahn brings none of these things to the Jewish community. He is a dull bulb whose only asset is his illustrious last name and whose only chance of winning lies in portraying Villaraigosa's weak record on public safety and his somewhat tainted personal life -- including admitted marital indiscretions. He also could raise his old, and not severed, ties to radical Latino groups, some of whom occasionally spout vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric.
But basically it won't wash. Villaraigosa is many imperfect things, but he is no anti-Semite. Nor has he ever, as did Richard Polanco in the infamous Richard Katz race in the East Valley, tried to use anti-Jewish sentiments to advance his political career. Like Tom Bradley before him, Villaraigosa can be counted on as a shield against any simmering hostility among the emerging Latino majority.
This is the good part of Villaraigosa, but there are many dangers as well. For one thing, his close ties to both the militant wing of organized labor and the far-out enviro-nimbies (many of whom are Jews as well) present a challenge to Los Angeles private sector economy, which is the bread and substance of our community. Jewish media types and academics hate business, but this is how we have lived for over a millennium.
Particularly threatened will be those Jewish interests that our community's self-appointed machers barely recognize. These are largely Sephardic and frequently Orthodox Jews who play a major role in many of Los Angeles' "old economy" industries, such as textiles, garments and jewelry, as well as retail trade.
They could be in big trouble when the leftist theoreticians -- who denounce their industries as dirty and exploitative -- get control of City Hall.
It's not only these people who could be losers under the new regime. It's also the other people who own businesses and work in these industries, many of them Latino. The $12-an-hour cutting job at an apparel firm may seem like borscht to UCLA graduate students, but it is a big step up for someone who came here a decade ago from San Salvador, much as it was for my own grandfather when he got to New York from Latvia.
Unfortunately, most of our Jewish leaders don't have any real feel for these realities. To some, Latinos simply are now the new fashionable "people of color." They entered the liberal Jewish consciousness about two or three years ago and only now exist as something akin to serious people, after serving dutifully as gardeners and maids.
You will hear some talk about a shared history in East Los Angeles. But for the vast majority of Los Angeles' Jews and Latinos, the mythology surrounding Boyle Heights -- formerly Jewish and now totally Latino -- is about as much part of their family history as the Golden Age in Spain.
As someone who has written about, worked with and been personally connected to Latinos for more than two decades, I believe we should both acknowledge their ascendancy and their complexities. Like Jews, Latinos are made up of many subgroups and, more importantly, individuals. There is a small but growing underclass and also a rising middle class. Many are as liberal as the most passionate LA Weekly reader, but on the whole, they tend to be more conservative than Jews on such issues like abortion and gay rights.
Nor should we deceive ourselves that what we want, they might also. Many Jews, particularly the affluent and heavily digitized Westsiders, don't want economic growth and like strict controls on development. They hate traffic and more people, and they also already have theirs. Latinos, as a whole, have more need for a robust brick-and-mortar economy, for more housing, shops and factories. This is a conflict within its base that the Villaraigosa regime will have to deal with after the takeover.
These are the cards that history has dealt us and all Angelenos. For better or worse, it is Villaraigosa who has emerged now as the first great symbol of the Latino rise to power. We should accommodate ourselves to this. But we should recognize also that Latinos -- like Jews -- speak with many voices and that over time, they will further evolve into something more complex, diverse and ultimately more American. Just like us.