March 9, 2011
The new power of a Latino-Jewish coalition in L.A.
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ROOTS OF THE REVIVAL
This organizing effort was inspired by a speech that Ayón gave at the AJC’s Gesher Award ceremony last October, which in turn brought about a lunch between Ayón and Israeli Deputy Consul General Gil Artzyeli. But the specific events that brought these meetings about are less important than the context in which they are taking place.
The results of the 2010 census are still being released — California’s results came out this week — but every organization with a political agenda has long been aware of the growth of the country’s Latino population and the political ascendancy that trend portends.
“There are 25 Latino members of U.S. House of Representatives,” AIPAC Press Secretary Jennifer Cannata said, “and if you look ahead five, 10, 20 years into the future, you can expect that those numbers are going to expand.”
“For the Jews, it’s very clear,” Dina Siegel Vann, director of AJC’s Latino and Latin America Institute, said. “We’ve always known that we’re not about numbers. We’ve always been about relationships and coalition-building to advance our agenda.”
In 2009, according to the Census Bureau, there were 48.4 million Latinos in the United States, representing 15.9 percent of the total population. By comparison, Leonard Saxe of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute recently estimated that there are 6.5 million Jews in America today — about 2 percent of the U.S. population.
In the city of Los Angeles, which was 48.5 percent Latino in 2010, Jews make up just 6 percent of the population. But because Jews regularly cast between 16 and 18 percent of the votes, politicians pay attention.
Villaraigosa, whose second (and final) term as mayor of Los Angeles will end in 2013, has made a point of connecting with Jews. The city’s first Latino mayor since 1872, Villaraigosa is comfortable wearing yarmulkes and seamlessly weaves words like “mitzvah” into his speeches.
Although the Jewish vote went narrowly against Villaraigosa in his unsuccessful 2001 bid for mayor, he carried the city’s Jews in his successful 2005 campaign. He had strong Latino support in both of those elections, and any candidate interested in Villaraigosa’s job will have to consider the political influence of these two communities.
And it is the upcoming mayoral race, in part, that inspired Ayón to push for the current Latino-Jewish leadership meetings. The perception among Latino leaders, Ayón said, was that Jewish leaders had a personal relationship with Villaraigosa but that the connection didn’t extend to the Latino community more broadly.
Ayón is hoping that these meetings might broaden and deepen the relationships between the leaderships of these two communities — beyond Villaraigosa. “While he’s still mayor,” Ayón said, “we can take advantage of the fact that he’s the crowning achievement of the Latino-Jewish coalition that goes back to Ed Roybal.”
Villaraigosa’s model for pulling together support from Jewish and Latino voters, Ayón said, was the highly successful black-Jewish alliance that swept Tom Bradley into the mayor’s office in 1973.
Political scientist Raphael J. Sonenshein, who has written extensively about the politics of the Bradley era in Los Angeles, pointed out that building coalitions is slow work, but that the potential political payoff can be lasting.
“The Bradley coalition was built in 10 or 15 years and lasted for 20,” Sonenshein said. “Now, with term limits, who’s got the time? But organizations, not candidates, do have the time.”
A second major political shift could present a hurdle to Latino-Jewish cooperation. This year, a new Citizens Redistricting Commission will redraw the lines that divide the state into districts for state Senate, state Assembly and (thanks to the passage by voters of Proposition 20 in 2010) Congress. The new districts will be drawn according to data from the 2010 census, and the process could dramatically alter the political landscape.
In 2001, the last time these lines were redrawn, it was done by Michael Berman, a Democratic consultant and brother of Rep. Howard Berman, who is Jewish. The lines generally protected incumbents, were accepted by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature and approved by then-Gov. Gray Davis.
Shortly thereafter, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
(MALDEF) filed suit in federal court, claiming that a few districts had been drawn in a way that, they alleged, illegally diluted the impact of Latino votes. The districts included those represented — then and now — by Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). A federal panel of judges ultimately dismissed the lawsuit.
There is no telling how California’s newly named Redistricting Commission will affect Jewish or Latino elected officials, but the topic did come up in at least one of the recent meetings between Latino and Jewish leaders. (Nancy Ramirez, who heads MALDEF’s Western regional office, and Vargas, a former vice president at MALDEF, are both central to this organizing effort.)