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Jewish Journal

Pushing for the Jewish Vote

Sharp divisions in the community make June 5 too close to call.

by Mike Levy

May 31, 2001 | 8:00 pm

James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa have to secure every vote they can in order to win the mayoral election on June 5. The Jewish vote, which in recent years has played a significant role in supporting the victor, may very well be one of the factors to swing this race.

But which way will it go?

With third-place Republican candidate Steve Soboroff's votes up for grabs, the choice is now between a mainstream Democrat (Hahn) and a progressive Democrat (Villaraigosa). The latest polls have 45 percent of Jewish voters saying they prefer Villaraigosa, compared to 42 percent for Hahn.

But the main question still remains: Is there such a thing as "the Jewish vote"?

Longtime Los Angeles voters may remember a time when "the Jewish vote" was a reliably left-of-center, nearly monolithic bloc. It was in large part this Jewish bloc which, together with similarly inclined African American voters in 1973, elected Tom Bradley mayor of Los Angeles. In 1993, however, that cohesive Jewish vote split nearly in half, delivering critical support to the business-minded Republican Richard Riordan.

In these final weeks, the candidates have made sure to court the so-called Jewish vote, if there is one. Both spent part of Mother's Day at the Jewish Home for the Aging's celebration and went to Sinai Temple's Yom HaShoah commemoration. Both also made appearances at Woodley Park for the Israeli Festival.

In recent months, Hahn has attended such Jewish community functions as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Learned Hand dinner and Yom HaShoah services at the Museum of Tolerance and Congregation Beth Jacob. He celebrated Israel's 53rd birthday with Eretz Cultural Center. Hahn has also visited The Jewish Journal's offices.

Villaraigosa's Jewish community outreach has included his participation for the past five years in The Jewish Federation's Super Sunday phone-a-thon. He has visited numerous synagogues across the city. The Israel Humanitarian Foundation named Villaraigosa its 2001 Humanitarian of the Year.

Clearly, ethnic identity and community support have been crucial to the campaign. National attention has focused on the prospect of Villaraigosa becoming Los Angeles' first Latino mayor in modern times. Hahn, born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, enjoys a familiarity with African American voters attributable, in part, to his father's long-standing legacy in that community.

But Jewish support for these candidates is not so clear-cut.

According to Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), both candidates have long relationships with the organized Jewish community. "The JCRC took Villaraigosa to Israel; on the other hand, some of the older Jewish politicos have known Jim Hahn since he was a little boy," Hirschfeld said.

Many politically involved Jews go beyond support for Antonio Villaraigosa; they have virtually adopted him. Jewish Journal senior columnist Marlene Marks has made a case for Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, as "the Jewish candidate," and she quotes County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky speaking in similar terms. Explaining his reasons for not running for mayor himself, Yaroslavsky joked, "There were three Jewish candidates already in the race: Steve Soboroff, Joel Wachs and Antonio."

Villaraigosa himself noted, in a May 27 Los Angeles Times article, that he was more comfortable with aspects of the Jewish religion than his own Catholicism.

Yet all of this is far from saying that Villaraigosa has the universal support of Los Angeles Jews. Indeed, as political strategist Arnold Steinberg noted, "There's a tremendous mythology among Jewish liberals that there is a candidate for the Jews. Most of the time, that's shorthand for Jewish liberals backing the most liberal candidate." Steinberg, whose political clients are primarily Republican, sees a balance of power in this race going to "Independent voters, Republicans and white Democrats, many of whom are Jewish."

With other ethnic communities largely spoken for in the campaign, Steinberg views the Jewish community as roughly divided between the two candidates.

Among Orthodox Jews, certainly, the most liberal candidate is not guaranteed support. Dr. Irving Lebovics, a lay leader at Agudath Israel, said Hahn is more familiar with the community's issues, such as zoning laws that allow for the building, expansion and maintenance of religious infrastructure in a specific area. "This is an issue-oriented election, rather than religious; our community has unique concerns," Lebovics said. Other municipal issues important to the Orthodox community include sexually suggestive billboard advertising in religious neighborhoods and school district support for special education in parochial schools. Though Lebovics stressed that Villaraigosa has met with Orthodox leaders and has responded to their concerns, he said, "We found Hahn to be more responsive to us."

The liberal mantle also grates on the ears of Si Frumkin, chairman of the Southern California Council of Soviet Jews. "People who have actually seen socialism at work are wary of both candidates, both liberals," he said. Frumkin pines for the Republican who got away. "Soboroff was the only candidate who really gave a damn about us. Kenny Hahn did a lot for Soviet Jewry. But that was Kenny."

To Russian Jews who call on him for his opinion of the race, Frumkin declines to endorse either Hahn or Villaraigosa, but Frumkin tells The Journal that he leans toward Hahn. "I can't vote for the gentleman from the ACLU," Frumkin says, referring to Villaraigosa's past presidency of the Southern California chapter, which he claims has ignored the interests of Soviet Jews.

It is in close campaigns such as this that the storied "swing" of modern Jewish Los Angeles makes its greatest impact. Anticipating the photo finish to this runoff election, both candidates have lobbied heavily for Jewish community support, and Jewish voters have once again shown their willingness to listen to both candidates, right up until June 5.

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