With Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa's entry into the 2005 Los Angeles mayor's race, the competition for Jewish votes will accelerate.
Jews are attentive, high-propensity voters. Nearly one in five Los Angeles voters are Jewish (with only 6 percent of the population). If past history is a guide, however, the Jewish vote will play a more important role in the expected runoff between the two top candidates than in the multicandidate primary.
During the Tom Bradley years (1973 to 1993), Jews voted consistently for him against conservative candidates. Since Bradley left office, however, Jewish voters have dispersed in city elections. Loyal Democrats in state and national politics, Jews are less predictable in city campaigns.
As the Republican electorate has shrunk, Los Angeles voters increasingly will be choosing among different types of Democrats, anyway. The three leading contenders: Mayor James K. Hahn, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and Villaraigosa have won lots of Jewish votes in the past.
How will they do next year? And what about Councilman Bernard C. Parks and Valley state Sen. Richard Alarcon? In a sense, all the candidates are heirs to the progressive, Democratic, interracial vision of Bradley.
We do know that in the post-Bradley era, Jewish voters have given considerable support to Jewish candidates in the mayoral primary. In 1993, Jews gave a combined 52 percent of their primary votes to Joel Wachs and Richard Katz. In 2001, Jews gave 49 percent of their primary votes to Wachs and Steve Soboroff.
These examples bode well for Hertzberg, as the only Jewish candidate in the primary. On the other hand, none of the previous Jewish candidates made it to the runoff.
We also know that Jewish voters are more than willing to vote for non-Jewish candidates. In 2001, Villaraigosa led all primary candidates with 26 percent of the Jewish vote, powering him to a first-place primary showing. Villaraigosa was particularly strong in 2001 among Westside, liberal Jews, although he did very well among Valley Jews, as well.
And Hahn has been no slouch with Jewish voters. In 1997, he was opposed for re-election as city attorney by Ted Stein and won 60 percent of the Jewish vote. He has done well with Jewish voters in all his citywide races.
Parks has been cultivating the Jewish community since his election, with frequent references to the Bradley coalition. He will be competing with Villaraigosa for Jewish voters who favor cross-racial politics and with Hahn on public safety. Alarcon will compete with Hertzberg for Valley votes.
If Jewish voters scatter in the primary, with the most liberal Jews backing Villaraigosa, and moderate and conservative Jews supporting Hahn; a majority, regardless of ideology, backing Hertzberg, and others for Parks and Alarcon, then the greatest impact of the Jewish vote will be in the runoff election between the top two primary finishers.
For Bradley, holding and increasing his Jewish support from the primary to the runoff was the difference between making it to the mayor's chair and bitter defeat. In 1969, his Jewish support in the primary did not translate into the runoff, where Sam Yorty's scare campaign drove many Jewish voters away from Bradley. In 1973, Bradley held and greatly expanded his Jewish primary base into the runoff, and the rest is history.
In 1993, Richard Riordan, running on public safety, went from a paltry 21 percent of the Jewish primary vote to nearly half in the runoff, helping him to defeat Michael Woo. In 2001, Hahn outdistanced Villaraigosa in the runoff, with a tough anti-crime message and harsh advertising.
Hahn's Jewish backing more than tripled from the primary, from 16 percent to 54 percent, while Villaraigosa rose from 26 percent to only 46 percent. These final Jewish totals exactly mirrored the overall city result of the runoff election.
In both cases, the winning candidate led with law and order and made the opponent appear to be an untested too-liberal choice. Even though Jews are, among white voters, surprisingly liberal, local elections tend to bring out their concerns about crime and other issues that make them more of a center-left constituency.
The most likely candidates for the two runoff spots are Hahn, Villaraigosa and Hertzberg, although nothing can be said with certainty. Those who don't make the runoff will also have an impact in whom, if anybody, they endorse in the runoff.
Hahn's greatest re-election asset is likely to be public safety, and his popular police chief, William Bratton. He can make the case that he has turned the troubled LAPD around and held the city together against secession (which Jewish voters strongly opposed).
This will appeal to Jewish voters, as will his generally moderate style and his long experience in Los Angeles government. The scandals at city hall, on the other hand, will hurt him among reform-minded Jewish voters.
Villaraigosa has long cultivated the Jewish community, has a very strong base among progressive Jews and ran a strong race in 2001. His biggest challenge will be to erode Hahn's edge on the public safety issue. However, his dynamic personality and the fact that as a councilman he has more experience at city hall than he did in 2001 make him a viable crossover candidate for Jewish voters.
Hertzberg is well-known and well liked among Jewish voters, especially in the Valley, where Hahn has been hurt by his campaign against secession. He has the least city hall experience of the three leading candidates, but has great experience in state government and in public policy. He can appeal to Jewish voters with his tremendous energy, his ideas and his reformist ideology, and if he makes the runoff, being Jewish won't hurt.
It's going to be a real horse race.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton. His new book, "The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles," was just released by Princeton University Press.
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