A Los Angeles rabbi has retracted his charge that Mayor James Hahn's reelection campaign was "dishonost and manipulative" in claiming endorsements from Jewish community leaders. Rabbi Steven Weil says he now believes that Hahn volunteers within the Jewish community were to blame, and that Hahn's professional staff had nothing to do with it.
In recent weeks, eight prominent Jews have come forward alleging that their signatures were forged on Hahn endorsement forms, including Weil, who angrily denounced the Hahn campaign at a March press conference. But Weil now insists that the campaign staff was not responsible.
"After having researched this and having seen the [endorsement] forms, in my mind it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that the mayor's campaign did absolutely nothing wrong and is beyond reproach," Weil said on Wednesday.
Weil's change of heart is the latest dramatic turn in one of the most bizarre stories associated with this year's city elections. Weil was among the most outspoken of the Jewish community leaders who inspected endorsement forms kept on file by the Hahn campaign and who then asserted that their signatures had been forged. Weil stood center stage during the March press conference. The bad endorsements had appeared in Hahn-for-mayor advertisements; the ad ran twice in The Jewish Journal prior to the March 8 primary.
In the primary, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa placed first and Hahn finished second, just ahead of challenger Bob Hertzberg. Villaraigosa and Hahn will meet in the May 17 runoff. Hertzberg, who is Jewish, was the candidate favored by most of the Jewish endorsers who said their names were misused. The matter did not surface publicly until a March 18 article in The Journal.
The Journal, in this week's print edition, updated the story by noting that the number of alleged forgeries had increased from four to eight. At that moment, the embarrassment to Hahn seemed to be persisting, if not worsening, with Hahn consultant Kam Kuwata, in a moment of frustration, calling The Journal a tool of the Villaraigosa campaign.
But exactly one day after that page went to press, The Journal learned that Weil had completely and abruptly changed course. Which means the ruckus may subside after all.
Weil isn't backing away from saying that he and others never signed endorsement forms. And there seems little doubt that the Hahn campaign incorrectly claimed the endorsements of leading Jews who actually preferred Hertzberg. The number of bad endorsements might surpass 30, though that number has not been independently verified. Eventually, however, Weil was persuaded that the Hahn campaign had no ill intent, nor any advance knowledge of problems with the endorsements.
"There were a number of zealous, well-meaning Jewish volunteers, having nothing to do with the campaign, who overstepped their bounds," Weil said.
He declined to name anyone or provide further details, but The Journal has independently confirmed that Weil has been in close contact recently with both Mayor Hahn and Hahn's campaign.
Not everyone has been turned around, though the Hahn camp and even Mayor Hahn himself are trying. Campaign staff won't comment on the mayor's efforts, but one apologetic telephone call this week went out to Dr. Irving Lebovics, who chairs Agudath Israel of California, an Orthodox group. Lebovics, too, has insisted that someone forged his signature on an endorsement form.
What still bothers Lebovics is that the Hahn campaign persistently chose to put all responsibility for the forms on longtime Hahn backer Joe Klein, a Jewish community leader who died in June 2004.
So what did happen?
A number of the bad endorsements were those of individuals who had backed Hahn in 2001. And some also may have supported Hahn's reelection bid before Hertzberg entered the race.
One scenario, suggested by sources who requested anonymity, is that volunteers working with Klein got sloppy in their work. These volunteers may have simply transferred names -- and even signatures -- from 2001 endorsement forms to forms for the 2005 campaign. They also may have relied on Klein's verbal assurances about whom he expected to support the mayor.
"Who exactly wrote the card is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned," said Lebovics on Wednesday. "I got a call from the mayor yesterday, and I told him the fact that they used Mr. Klein's name was problematic to me."
Lebovics emphasized that he believes the mayor himself is not at fault, but that his campaign should have simply apologized and admitted an error when it realized the endorsements (and therefore the advertisements) were tenuous. Instead, they laid responsibility on Klein, a revered Orthodox Jew who also served Hahn as head of the city's Planning Commission.
To help mend fences, the Hahn campaign had the help of Alan Goldstein, a local businessman who owns the Shalom Retirement Home. Goldstein described himself as a close friend of Klein's for decades. Goldstein declined to discuss his activities on Hahn's behalf in detail, and the Hahn campaign insisted that Goldstein was strictly a volunteer acting on his own.
But Hahn did not leave the matter to surrogates. Lebovics noted that the mayor himself apologized both by phone and letter for allowing Klein's name to become embroiled in this controversy: "Now they did what they should have done in the beginning and hopefully it's behind us all."
He considers the matter closed.
But some damage, perhaps lasting, was done to Hahn's reelection effort. The fracas created an entrée into the tight-knit Orthodox community for challenger Villaraigosa, who won some endorsements from a group that had no particular prior grievance with the incumbent mayor. Lebovics is listed among those scheduled to attend an April 17 Villaraigosa fundraiser at a kosher restaurant. In an earlier interview with the Journal, Lebovics said he was leaning toward Villaraigosa even though he had no complaints about Hahn's performance as mayor. Weil said he is not endorsing in the mayor's race.
"I think somebody in his campaign had poor judgment," Lebovics said. "Where and how they got the signatures is not the point. The point is that it was attributed to someone who is no longer with us, who was a major supporter of the mayor's, and that was unfortunate. To allow that to go out publicly was a mistake."
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