If you were aching for a sandwich on Fairfax Avenue last Monday, you might remember pushing through a crowd of reporters. That day, three prominent Jewish politicians, often yelling over passing traffic noise, gathered in front of Canter's Deli to publicly endorse City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa's bid to become the mayor of Los Angeles.
Reps. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Fifth District City Councilman Jack Weiss have decided to side with Villaraigosa early in this campaign. There are more than five months left until the mayoral election.
In the battle to secure the Jewish vote for mayor, Villaraigosa's alliance with these three leaders could affect candidate Robert Hertzberg's chances of success on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley.
"He is a true coalition builder," Berman said of Villaraigosa. "This is not a politician who looks first at ethnicity or religion or even party."
The emphasis at Canter's was Villaraigosa's appeal to all constituencies in the city, and neither the endorsers nor Villaraigosa pointed to the Jewish community by name.
But the image of the coalition-builder has been central to this phase of Villaraigosa's campaign, and his supporters are quick to reinforce it. A few days after the endorsements, Weiss recalled to The Journal a story about Villaraigosa. "Antonio came with me to Rosh Hashanah morning services this year, and as is often the case, they went much longer than anyone had anticipated," he said. "As we entered the first overtime period I turned to him and said, 'I'm sorry this is taking so long, I would understand if you need to go.' And Antonio turned back to me and he said, 'Look, I don't do drive-by fellowship. I'm here for the long haul.'"
"That's the kind of cross-ethnic partnership that we need to make Los Angeles the leading city of the 21st century," Weiss said. "That's the promise of his candidacy."
All three endorsers emphasized Villaraigosa's character, public policy acumen and vision. Villaraigosa called Berman and Waxman "giants of public service" and said he was honored to have their support.
"Ultimately, people are going to vote on the candidate himself," Villaraigosa said about the endorsements, "But make no mistake about it, everybody in this race would love -- salivate -- to have the endorsement of these three individuals."
Hertzberg's campaign said it was neither worried nor surprised by the endorsements.
"We have very strong community support, especially at a grass-roots level," said Adeena Bleich, representative for the Hertzberg campaign.
"We want people to free-think," she said. "I don't think that the Jewish community is going to march and say, 'Oh, Berman, Waxman, Weiss [endorse Villaraigosa] -- we're there.' I think that's really insulting to the community."
Hertzberg, should he win the election, would be the first Jewish mayor of Los Angeles.
In the meantime, the Hertzberg campaign also sent its supporters an e-mail explaining the endorsements in its own view. The e-mail has garnered attention on some Los Angeles political Web sites for its somewhat sharp tone.
"Given that Bob is the only private citizen running for mayor, he never expected to get the support of career politicians," the e-mail reads. Though he currently holds no elected office, Hertzberg is in fact the former speaker of the California Assembly, a position he held until term limits forced his exit.
The e-mail continues: "This endorsement was about political payback for favors past (like Antonio helping Berman carve a safe seat for himself) and future (Weiss wanting Latino support when he runs for city attorney)...."
"Bob is out in the neighborhoods, working for change where it matters," the e-mail asserts.
"I'm a little surprised at the Hertzberg campaign's critique of [the endorsers] as career politicians," said political consultant Donna Bojarsky, who is supporting Villaraigosa.
"Lord knows, Hertzberg has made public service a cornerstone of his life, for which I admire him. But to try to hide that is problematic," Bojarsky told The Journal.
Bojarsky is confident that the endorsers wield enough grass-roots clout to actually affect their constituencies' mayoral votes.
"These politicians [command] tremendous respect," she said. "What Howard and Henry think is extremely influential in the Jewish community."
But longtime Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg was more equivocal in his assessments.
"The endorsements represent a plus for Antonio and will help him in the Jewish community, but, in the end, more significant matters will decide the race," Steinberg said.
Steinberg agreed that Villaraigosa's securing these endorsements hurts Hertzberg more than Mayor James Hahn.
"But the reality is [Berman and Waxman's] influence has been declining for years," he said. "It would be nice for Bob to have them, but their effect is more on perception and momentum."
Hertzberg can feel comfortable in at least one respect, though: he holds the lead in fundraising among the mayoral challengers. Based on the last report to the City Ethics Commission on Sept. 30, Hertzberg had raised more than $1.1 million while runner-up Villaraigosa weighed in at about $640,000. Hahn dwarfs both with more than $2.2 million in contributions.
Hertzberg's donors include TV mogul Haim Saban; Nancy Riordan, wife former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, and homebuilding magnate Bruce Karatz.
Villaraigosa's contributors include Warner Bros. executive and Democratic activist Howard Welinsky and Henry Cisneros, former secretary of housing and urban development under President Clinton).
As the election nears and more endorsers and contributors weigh in on the nine-candidate mayoral fray, loyalties across the city will undoubtedly become clearer.
Both supporters of Villaraigosa and Hertzberg have said they doubt the Jewish vote will automatically go to a Jewish candidate or simply follow in the footsteps of Jewish endorsers.
"I think it's a sign of political maturity," Bojarsky said. "We can afford to decide who we think should be the best mayor."