July 16, 1998
The Editor’s Corner
Marks Crossed the Line
By Joe R. Hicks
One thing is clear to most observers: What began as a hard-hitting campaign between two highly qualified Democratic candidates, both vying for California's 20th Senate District seat, has dissolved into a nasty and complicated political battle. It became a below-the-belt brawl that has the potential to set back inter-ethnic relations in Los Angeles and California for years to come.
What is less clear is a solution to the controversy. The thorny issue of campaign tactics that use the race card to energize voters is troubling and dangerous. But issues that surfaced during and after the Richard Katz-Richard Alarcon race demand well-thought-out responses. Adding more fuel to this already-heated controversy between Jews and Latinos is of no value. If taken seriously, Marlene Adler Marks' column, "Crossing the Line" (July 3), engages in heavy-handed "good-guys-versus-bad-guys" reasoning that will only serve to strengthen the current stalemate.
If Marks had only dug just a little deeper, she would have discovered that there is deep concern over the Katz-Alarcon-Polanco issue, and that many people -- including non-Jews and non-Latinos -- have devoted and continue to devote a great deal of time and intellectual energy toward constructive approaches and solutions. Much of the discussions and late-night telephone calls have, luckily, taken place out of the glare of the media. From among the organizations and individuals reaching for common ground, she singles out the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation and the Anti-Defamation League, two long-standing and highly respected Jewish community institutions.
However, the work of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, nor the American Jewish Committee, rate nary a mention. She infers that only the groups she mentions had the courage to "speak out." Beyond simply being wrong, this neat portrayal fails to acknowledge the complex minefield of both Jewish and Hispanic "identity interest politics" that is involved here. Marks' passing comment that not all Latino "leaders" support Richard Polanco, nor do all Jewish "activists" support Katz hardly passes muster as a sophisticated analysis of today's identity politics.
Lashing out, Marks asks, "Where were the city and county human relations committees." Again, Marks' research and/or sources fail her. One or two phone calls would have told her that I was part of a meeting held at the Jewish Federation on June 22, which was attended by nearly every significant Jewish organization in the city. The topic of the meeting was singular: the Polanco mailer and its implication for race and human relations. It is my belief that I played a significant role. I am outraged that Marks would intimate that I would shy away from any issue which impacts race or human relations. If nothing else, the record is clear that my positions and stands on issues of race, ethnicity and human relations have not followed the orthodox, politically correct path.
Since the June 22 meeting, I have had conversations and meetings with nearly every significant player in the controversy, including those from the Polanco camp and Richard Alarcon himself. My efforts have not been aimed at joining the battle to punish any particular political figure or align myself with any element of identity interests. Marks gets it wrong again when she says that "Jews are the only ones taking this issue seriously." My agenda is to figure out a way to punish any public figure who inflames racial, religious or ethnic tensions out of sheer political opportunism. Many in political circles throughout this state are concerned and alarmed over the prospects of a no-holds-barred battle between Hispanic and Jewish political forces.
Marks finally gets it right when she correctly observes that "ethnic relations in this fragile, multiracial city must be safeguarded." That means we must all be prepared to give up a measure of our perceived racial or other identity interest and engage in the hard work of building that "beloved community" that Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke eloquently about. I am committed to positive breakthroughs in this current controversy, but it will require far more sophisticated readings of the issues than we get from Marlene Adler Marks.
Joe R. Hicks is executive director of the Human Relations Commission for the City of Los Angeles.
One problem with American politics is that winning is everything. That may help explain attack advertising, 30-second sound bites, and the more sordid aspects of campaign financing. It also underscores the tendency of candidates to utter platitudes and untruths -- anything to triumph, to win the election.
I offer this as backdrop to the recent campaign between two Democrats, Richard Katz and Richard Alarcon, in the primary election for California's 20th Senate District seat. As we all know by now, Katz is Jewish and Alarcon is Latino; much of the vote turned on ethnic lines; and Alarcon won by 29 votes. A pivotal factor in the election appears to have been an ugly political mailer that falsely tied Katz to the intimidation of Latino voters in a 1988 Orange County election.
That political mailer was sent just before voting day under the auspices of state Sen. Richard Polanco, who is chairman of the California Latino Caucus, and who presumably knew it was untrue. He presumably also understood that the business in which he was engaged, politics, was primarily -- maybe, for him, exclusively -- about winning.
It was "dirty politics" at play. What it was not was anti-Semitism. Voters were deceived or, more to the point, were suddenly motivated to vote, whereas some might have otherwise stayed at home. Polanco was interested in seeing that his candidate won, and truth, facts and consequences be damned. He was not the first political leader to take this path; he will not be the last.
While none of this was against the law, it does not mean that our only recourse is to write columns condemning such behavior or to reach out to the wider community, as Joe Hicks is doing (see opposite), in order to reduce the tension between Hispanic and Jewish groups. Hicks indicates that he wants "to figure out a way to punish any public figure who inflames racial, religious or ethnic tensions out of sheer political opportunism."
He need not look far. There is a tried and true remedy at hand. Raise money and join with those Hispanic leaders who oppose Polanco in an effort to replace him, either as a state senator or as leader of the Latino Caucus. It is a tactic that AIPAC adopted with some success in national elections. It is worth trying locally.
Gene Lichtenstein is Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal