April 29, 2004
With former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg's entry into the 2005 mayoral race, the odds of a competitive battle for the city's top political job have increased.
The combination of Hertzberg, former Police Chief Bernard Parks (considered extremely likely to run), state Sen. Richard Alarcón, and possibly L.A. City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa means that incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn may be forced into a runoff election. He would have to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary to avoid a runoff, a high bar with several strong candidates on the ballot.
Jewish voters will be crucial to the outcome. While white voters are declining as a percentage of the Los Angeles electorate, Jews are not. According to Los Angeles Times exit polls, in 1993, whites cast 72 percent of all votes, including 18 percent cast by Jews. In 2001, whites cast only 52 percent of all votes, including 18 percent cast by Jews. In other words, Jews are holding their share of the vote while non-Jewish whites are declining. The gap created by the decline of white non-Jewish voters is being filled by Latinos, whose share of the vote increased from 10 percent in 1993 to 22 percent in 2001.
The politics of the new Los Angeles make it harder than in the past to predict how Jews will vote. Los Angeles Jewish voters tend to be Democrats, and these days so are most mayoral candidates. When Los Angeles was a more conservative city, Jews were critical players in the rise of the Tom Bradley coalition. Bradley brought Democrats, liberals, minorities and Jews into city politics. He harvested awesome percentages of the Jewish vote. But Bradley's very success in building a progressive, biracial Democratic coalition in Los Angeles has meant that each of the mayoral candidates, all Democrats, can claim to inherit a piece of Bradley's mantle and thereby some Jewish support.
As the incumbent pro-labor mayor with a strong record on public safety, Hahn will get a positive hearing in the Jewish community. He won a majority of Jewish voters in the 2001 runoff election against Villaraigosa, after a middling performance among Jews in the primary. Overall, he did better among Valley Jews than on the Westside. But he will have competition for Jewish voters.
Hertzberg will benefit from his Valley base and from the tendency of Jewish voters, all other things being equal, to provide extra support for Jewish candidates. In both the 1993 and 2001 primary elections, Jewish candidates who did not make the runoff won significant Jewish support in the primaries. Alarcón and Parks will also appeal to Jewish voters by connecting their campaigns to the cross-racial alliances of the Bradley era. If Villaraigosa runs, he can challenge Hahn on the liberal Westside, looking for Jewish voters who backed him in 2001.
Because Jewish voters have so many strong candidates from whom to choose in the primary, including the mayor, the impact of the Jewish vote may be greater in a possible runoff election. The multileveled competition of mayoral candidates will then give way to a clear choice between two. For many Jewish voters, Bradley's coalition is a distant memory, and the final candidates will be unlikely to break down in the simple pattern of liberal vs. conservative that marked the Bradley years.
Candidates who wish to win Jewish votes will find an alert, connected community that is very concerned about such issues as ethics in government, public safety, racial harmony, and moderate progressive change. Valley Jews have many of these concerns but also vote on the issues that characterize Valley residents as whole -- concerns about neighborhood development and land use, and a desire for a responsive city hall.
In 2001, we saw the first real post-Bradley election with new competing coalitions: Hahn's alliance of African Americans, moderate Jews, and white Republicans, and Villaraigosa's coalition of Latinos and liberal Jews. But Los Angeles politics is still evolving.
If there is a runoff, the final two candidates will be competing to create yet another Los Angeles coalition out of the now scattered pieces of the Los Angeles politics that characterized the Bradley years: African Americans, Jews, Republicans, Latinos, Asian Americans. Whoever can bind Jews to their coalition will have a great advantage in winning the race to the majority.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the author of "Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles" (Princeton U. Press, 1993).