As the Oct. 7 recall election enters its frantic home stretch, the evening of Sept. 26 found Gov. Gray Davis sitting on the bimah at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, participating in Rosh Hashanah services.
This was no last-ditch campaign ploy -- Davis has attended High Holiday services at the synagogue for years and, according to election experts, most Jews seem likely to vote "no" on the recall to keep the beleaguered governor in power. Despite Davis' lack of charisma and reputation as a fundraising machine beholden to monied interests, many consider him a trusted supporter of Jewish causes who deserves to keep his job.
Because of that devotion, Jews have been slow to embrace the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to replace Davis should the recall succeed. Bustamante, who defied the wishes of Davis and the Democratic establishment by jumping into the fray, has further alienated some Jews by appearing to focus more on winning votes for himself than on defeating the recall.
Many Jewish Democrats publicly support Bustamante, though some privately lash out at him for undercutting Davis. The governor has so far refused to endorse Bustamante as a replacement candidate, much to the lieutenant governor's chagrin.
"I am not a Democrat, but have plenty of friends who are and they were incensed at what they perceived to be the actions of an opportunist and not a loyal party member [Bustamante]," said Lee Alpert, an attorney who held several high positions in former Mayor Richard Riordan's administration.
Bustamante, in a written statement, told The Journal that he entered the race because he thought Democrats needed an "option besides voting no on the recall." If elected, he promised to continue Davis' policies of protecting the environment and abortion rights in California.
Bustamante also said he cares about Israel, promoting tolerance and diversity and "representing those who often have no voice in government."
Those positions seem to have resonated with several prominent Democratic politicians.
Former state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg said Bustamante has long-favored funding for senior centers, health-care for the indigent and other issues popular among Jews. In his view, Bustamante is a friend of the Jews.
"In all my dealings with him behind closed doors and everywhere else, I've never detected anything, zero, zip, but wholehearted support for our community," he said.
Still, Bustamante's refusal to take a strong public stand against some of the more radical ideas espoused by MEChA, a Latino student group to which he belonged and whose founding documents call for the return of the southwestern United States to Mexico, has raised red flags.
"I think he's a terrible candidate whose best qualification is that he has a good radio voice," said Republican political consultant Arnold Steinberg. "I think he's a provincial, parochial candidate who refuses to reach out."
Steinberg, who is not advising any of the recall candidates, said Bustamante's reticence about MEChA could be read as an attempt to pander to Latinos or could mean that he "believes some of that crap."
When asked about the student group's more controversial writings, Bustamante said he doesn't believe California and the western United States are occupied territories.
"I joined MEChA as a young Latino college student at Fresno State and have [had] no affiliation with the group in over 30 years," Bustamante told The Journal.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he thought Bustamante, Davis and Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger are all friends of the Jewish community and supporters of Israel. Hier, whom Bustamante appointed to serve on the One California Commission, applauded the lieutenant governor's hard work and dedication and his rise from humble beginnings in the San Joaquin Valley to the pinnacle of state politics.
Hier said Bustamante should do more to clarify his views about MEChA. Current MEChA chapters still use the group's 1960s symbol of an eagle clutching dynamite.
Hertzberg said he thought the MEChA flap was little more than an attempt for political opponents to tarnish Bustamante.
Howard Welinsky, chair of Democrats for Israel, echoed the former assembly speaker. Welinsky, who has known Bustamante for a decade and talks to him monthly, said the lieutenant governor has repeatedly helped his Jewish constituents.
After a white supremacist group set fire to three Sacramento-area synagogues, for instance, Bustamante told a group of concerned citizens that "we are all Jews," Welinsky said. Bustamante also scrounged up nine passes to the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, and gave them to Jewish groups so members could watch Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew tapped as Al Gore's running mate, deliver a keynote speech.
Overall, Bustamante has failed to make much of an impression on Jewish voters and doesn't electrify the community like such other politicians as Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University Fullerton. Even so, Jews typically vote Democratic, and will probably choose Bustamante over the actor Schwarzenegger and conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, he said.
Even Jews expected to vote for Bustamante seem more passionately against the recall than for him. Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss said he viewed Bustamante's candidacy as a "Democratic backup plan" but thought his candidacy was almost an afterthought.
"I think the central issue is not the replacement issue, but the recall itself," he said. "The recall is such a bad idea and so poisonous to government that that's been my main focus."
Not all Jewish Democrats are sold on Bustamante. The lieutenant governor has taken millions from Indian tribes, which has drawn unfavorable comparisons to Davis' fundraising profess and political pandering. A Superior Court judge recently ruled that Bustamante had broken campaign laws by soliciting large gifts of more than $21,200 for an old campaign fund and then transferring $4 million into a new fund to pay for advertising.
Bustamante said that without donor support he could not compete against the "millionaire" candidates, presumably alluding to Schwarzenegger. Publicly financing elections would "alleviate some of the pressure candidates feel to raise the large sums to remain competitive," he said.
Carmen Warschaw, former Southern California chair of the Democratic Party and a board member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said Bustamante's candidacy has left her cold. Warschaw wouldn't divulge how she plans to vote, except to say she doesn't support Bustamante, McClintock or Davis.
In an attitude shared by many Jews, Lee Wallach said Davis deserved to serve out his term. Wallach, president of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California, added he would vote for Bustamante just in case, although his heart was with Davis.
Bustamante "has not had as long and as close a relationship with [the community] as Davis has," he said. "But Bustamante will still pass the type of progressive legislation that is of interest to both Jews and environmentalists."