By Karmel Melamed
Beverly Hills voters head to the polls on March 6 to fill two vacant City Council seats, and among the six contenders vying for the spots are three Iranian Jews.
The candidates, incumbent Beverly Hills Vice Mayor Jimmy Delshad, business consultant Shahram Melamed and attorney Maggie Soleimani, have been stumping for votes in the Iranian community since last summer. It’s estimated that 20 percent to 25 percent of Beverly Hills residents are Iranian, many of them Jewish.
Nearly three decades after arriving in Southern California and adjusting to a new way of life, some successful Iranian Jews are venturing into the political arena. That half of candidates on the ballot for the Beverly Hills City Council races are from the Iranian Jewish community speaks to a shift among immigrants who were historically denied political participation in their native country.
“This community [Iranian Jews] truly appreciates the freedoms granted to it by the United States, and it sincerely wishes to pay back for what it has received,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. “I have no doubt that in this area, too, members of our community will prove to be worthy citizens who can contribute to their environment in the most positive way.”
Delshad is perhaps the best known of the three candidates. His successful grass-roots campaign in 2003 energized Beverly Hills’ Iranian Jews and catapulted him into office, making Delshad the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States.
(Businessman Joe Sushani was the first Iranian Jew to run for the Beverly Hills City Council in 1996, but was unsuccessful in his bid.)
Prior to his term with the Beverly Hills City Council, Delshad served as the full-time president of Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles from 1999 to 2001 after selling a computer storage technology firm he founded in 1978.
If elected to a second term, Delshad said he wants to implement an initiative to bring a new digital infrastructure to Beverly Hills after seeing the successes of similar technology put into place in the Israeli city of Ariel.
The vice mayor is now hoping to tap the same voters who elected him in 2003, but this time he has to compete with candidates from his own community.
“It’s a misnomer that I’m going to lose some votes,” Delshad said. “Actually I’m going to get more votes from them because I was singularly trying to get the community to vote before, and now I have two other people trying to get the community to vote.”
One of the candidates wooing Iranian Jewish voters is Melamed, whose role as a Beverly Hills City planning commissioner has put him in the middle of often controversial development projects.
“As a planning commissioner my hands are tied. I’m only allowed to look at land use, so here I am trying to help the community but I can only use part of my skills,” Melamed said. “Some of my best skills are from my business background, education in finance and my training on Wall Street that is left unused, so I’m hoping to put it to use on the Council.”
Between 2000 and 2004, Melamed also served on the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission. In 1998, Melamed’s mother, Soraya, also made an unsuccessful run for a spot on the Beverly Hills School Board.
Melamed said he is looking to help both Iranian and non-Iranian city residents find common ground on various divisive issues, such as the construction of “Persian palaces,” a local pejorative term for mansions built in a Mediterranean revival or Middle Eastern style on small parcels of land.
“I have explained to many that our families are extended. That when we get together for small family gatherings, with 40 and 50 people in a living room, you need a more spacious one and a higher ceiling so that the noise doesn’t bother you,” said Melamed, who is a fourth cousin to this journalist. “Through dialogue we have to find common ground that satisfies both segments of the community. From talking to architects, I understand there are styles out there that can maintain the integrity of the City of Beverly Hills and at the same time address the needs of an Iranian American family.”
Attorney Soleimani is taking a more conservative approach to the development issue. Positioning herself as a political outsider, Soleimani is appealing to voters frustrated with city officials who have approved numerous development projects around Beverly Hills.
“I have not been a part of the nasty and angry battles of the past,” Soleimani said. “I want to be a voice of unity, professionalism, healing the community and ending the division that has occurred over every single development project.
“Soleimani said one of the reasons she decided to run for City Council was to bring a stronger ethics ordinance prohibiting council members from appearing as lobbyists on behalf of real estate developers. Current city codes forbid former council members from serving as lobbyists for one year after they leave office. “I think it should be at least two years and I personally promise not to ever represent anyone as a client who has their case come before the council, if I am elected,” said Soleimani, who could become the first Iranian Jewish woman elected to political office in the United States.
Beverly Hills Mayor Steve Webb, Planning Commissioner Nancy Krasne and Lizza Monet Morales are the three other candidates running for the Beverly Hills City Council.
Proof of the Iranian Jewish community’s growing political muscle came in March 2005, when Beverly Hills Iranian Jews were able to cast ballots featuring Persian-language directions in Beverly Hills elections. They also received help from poll volunteers who also spoke Persian, Delshad said.
“Persians are beginning to realize that they can wield influence by participating in political life,” said H. David Nahai, a Century City attorney and political activist. “Many are also beginning to see that there is a unique sense of fulfillment in public service which private gain can never equal.”
In 2005, Nahai campaigned on behalf of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign within the Iranian community. In April 2005, a fundraising event at the Beverly Hills home of Iranian Jewish business Leon Farahnik, helped raise nearly $40,000 for the Villaraigosa campaign.
After the election, Villaraigosa appointed Nahai to serve on the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners and he was elected president of the board last year. In January 2005, Nahai was reappointed to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for an unprecedented third term.
Iranian American Jewish Federation’s Kermanian, who campaigned on behalf of the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2004 within the larger Iranian community, said state and national candidates have increasingly taken notice of the estimated 30,000 Iranian Jews living in Southern California. The community has been seen as an important voting block because of their shared values, financial strength and close ties with other voting groups, he said.
“The most appealing aspect of our community is the fact that it enjoys great relations and alliances with communities far larger than itself and it has the ability to influence and to move a lot more voters than its own numbers would otherwise suggest,” Kermanian said.
Karmel Melamed, is an internationally published freelance journalist based in Southern California.
This article was originally published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: