February 24, 2005
Mayoral Candidates Battle for Jewish Vote
"He's a soul mate in terms of environmental sensitivity and good government," said Dave Freeman, about mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. Freeman, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), paused for just a moment, then continued in his Southern accent, "I just think he has the ability to advance an agenda more focused on what I consider Jewish values."
There you have it: A Tennessee environmentalist from an Orthodox family endorsing a Latino mayoral candidate for displaying Jewish values in Los Angeles. This city, with its rich history of strong political-ethnic alliances, may be in a state of reorientation -- at least as far as the Jewish community is concerned.
With five candidates in the running, there is no consensus on who will garner the majority of Jewish votes, but all the candidates are making overtures and it's easy to understand why. With roughly 30 percent of the electorate still undecided in recent polls, and with no candidate reaching 30 percent support so far, the politically active Jewish community could make a big difference.
In recent weeks, Villaraigosa has been leading most polls, and Freeman counts himself among the most ardent backers of Antonio. "When he was the speaker of the state Assembly, he planted trees with me without getting any fanfare or publicity out of it," Freeman said of Villaraigosa. "As speaker, he brought the Republicans and Democrats together for bond measures, for parks, for schools -- he can get people of different points of view to work together."
Freeman, who was running the DWP when Mayor James Hahn was city attorney, had less flattering comments about the incumbent's executive abilities.
"I remember clearly how [Hahn] would leave at 4:45 p.m. every day," he said. "I mean, I respect the fact he wants to be with his family, but [being] mayor is not a 9-to-5 job."
Hahn, however, can count on his own base of committed Jewish support.
"I've known Jim Hahn since he was city attorney, and I've basically supported him ever since," said Hope Warschaw, former national commissioner for the Anti-Defamation League.
Warschaw emphasized Hahn's two major achievements during his term: Defeating Valley secession and hiring Police Chief Bill Bratton.
"While other politicians were absolute cowards during the secession fight, he stepped up to the plate and had to raise millions of dollars to keep the city together," Warschaw said. "And he took an incredibly unpopular position and hired Bill Bratton, which I think everyone agrees was a brilliant stroke."
Warschaw credits Hahn for having no fear of being overshadowed by other competent professionals, an attitude some mistake for noninvolvement.
"Most politicians would not want to hire a Bill Bratton, because he would get a lot of publicity," Warschaw said.
Hahn's friend, Patty Glaser, agreed: "I'd rather have a mayor that's doing a good job than one who is talking about doing a good job."
But what about Hahn's personality? He has often been accused of being absent or dull.
"He's got a great sense of humor; he's an extremely dedicated father," Warschaw said. "People who have known him, love him."
Then, of course, there is Bob Hertzberg, the Jewish candidate in the election who introduced himself to much of the city in a television ad as the 100-foot man recently seen gingerly sidestepping buildings around the city.
"I feel about the candidates that Bob Hertzberg is far and away the most talented [candidate]," said Marcia Volpert, former president of Jewish Family Service, former chair of the Jewish Political Action Committee and the first woman to chair the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC).
Another former Assembly speaker, Hertzberg's mayoral candidacy has been marked both by big ideas and big hugs. But while there's no question about his friendliness, putting his policy theories into practice -- from breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District to enacting a commuter's bill of rights -- could prove more difficult.
Volpert, who has faith that Hertzberg can pull it off, said, "He has had the leadership experience, and when he was in the [state Assembly] he was able to pull differing points of view together and get legislation passed. I think that bodes well for the city."
Hertzberg, like Villaraigosa, has been accused by Hahn of being a consummate Sacramento politician, removed from the needs of the city. Volpert sees a bright side to that equation.
"[Hertzberg] is being supported by [California Secretary of Education and former L.A. Mayor] Richard Riordan, and he has worked with Gov. Schwarzenegger," she said. "We have to work with the people who have clout to get money to make a difference in this town."
Volpert said Hertzberg's natural charm and charisma can't be discounted, qualities that enable him to build good relationships with colleagues, where other politicians face conflict.
"You can't be mayor by yourself," she said.
That's especially true in a city like Los Angeles, where weak mayoral powers put a premium on coalition-building abilities, force of personality or both.
There's also some Jewish support to be found behind two other challengers, state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Van Nuys) and former Police Chief and current City Councilman Bernard Parks.
"All of them have tried to be friendly," said Scott Svonkin, chairman of the B'nai B'rith Southern California Public Policy Center. "But Richard Alarcon has created programs to work with the Jewish community."
Svonkin specifically cited the Fiesta Shalom festival, one of the first joint Jewish-Latino cultural events in Los Angeles.
On policy issues, Alarcon's ongoing tenure in the state Senate has allowed him to prove his dedication to helping the underprivileged.
"He's helped create more opportunities for affordable housing than just about any other elected official," Svonkin said. "Nobody else can say they've created as much housing as Richard has."
"I knew him as a city councilman, and he has always come to Jewish community events. When I was chair of the JCRC or working with B'nai B'rith, Richard has always been a friend," said Svonkin, who also praised on Villaraigosa for his involvement with the community.
The bulk of Parks' support is among black voters in South Los Angeles, and he has not been able to recreate anything like the Tom Bradley coalition that made the combination of Jews and African Americans a potent political force. But Parks' law-enforcement credentials and his pro-business stance have potentially strong appeal for some Jewish voters. Parks insisted that his reception has been encouragingly positive as he's brought his message to Jewish venues. At least one prominent Los Angeles Jewish activist, Vidal Sassoon, has donated to his campaign.
"You can't count on the Jewish vote going to 'X,'" Hertzberg supporter Volpert said. "I think it will be all over the place this time."
Observers may interpret that phenomenon as a cultural or political maturity, a sign of dissolving ethnic coalitions, or simply a five-way free-for-all.