There were two "Jewish" debates earlier this month, one in the Valley and one on the Westside. While Mayor james Hahn did not attend the
Valley session at Temple Judea, all five major candidates came to the Westside debate at Temple Beth Am. My visit to the latter debate allowed me to look at one constituency: Westside Jews.
With 6 percent of the city's population, Jews cast between 16 percent to 18 percent of all votes in mayoral elections. That makes them one of the four key blocs in the electorate, along with Latinos (22 percent or more), white Republicans (around 20 percent) and African Americans (around 10-14 percent).
Jews are an increasingly important share of the declining white vote. Today, one-third of the city's white voters are Jewish, compared to one-fourth a decade ago.
But "bloc" may be too strong a word. Los Angeles Jews were a loyal, devoted, and united bloc for Tom Bradley, and vote as a bloc for Democrats at the state and national levels. But in 1993, about half of the Jewish voters backed Republican Richard Riordan against Bradley's presumed heir, Michael Woo; more than 60 percent supported Riordan in his 1997 re-election against Tom Hayden.
Jewish voters are somewhat split by geography. While Westside Jews are still quite liberal and supported Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor in 2001, more moderate Valley Jews went with Hahn.
Jewish voters gave considerable support to Jewish primary candidates Joel Wachs and Richard Katz in 1993, and Wachs and Republican Steven Soboroff in 2001. None of these Jewish candidates made the runoff, so we don't know yet how uniformly Jews might support a Jewish candidate in the general election.
While Westside Jews remain overwhelmingly Democratic, it is hard to predict where they will end up in a race contested by five Democrats. This makes it hard for candidates to know how to appeal to Westside Jewish voters this year: Are they liberals, cautious Democrats, ethnic loyalists, civic reformers or what? This bloc-within-a-bloc is a significant force, because of its extremely high level of political involvement, campaign contributions and voter turnout.
My first impression during the debate was that the candidates were articulate, friendly and effective. What also struck me, however, was that none of the candidates was truly "at home" on the Westside -- although Bob Hertzberg did joke about working "24/6" and referred to "this bimah," and Villaraigosa managed to mix Hebrew and liberalism by using the phrase tikkun olam.
In this race, there is no candidate whose base is on the Westside of Los Angeles. That hasn't happened often in Los Angeles political history.
Bernard Parks' candidacy starts in South Los Angeles, and Richard Alarcon's foundation is the East Valley. Hahn is running as the incumbent who has general appeal without generating great enthusiasm in any single community. While he has historically done well on the Westside in his numerous citywide races, he does not have the deep base there that would assure him that area's support against strong opposition.
Hertzberg and Villaraigosa are the closest to having a second home on the Westside, followed by Hahn. Villaraigosa did very well among Westside Jews in 2001, winning a majority of their votes.
He might do well there again, but he does not have Bradley's lock on these neighborhoods. His core base is among Latinos, principally on the Eastside, with hopes of holding his core of white liberals and Jews.
With his overall appeal to Jewish voters, Hertzberg can contest heavily for the Westside as well, but his base is the Jewish community in the San Fernando Valley. Between them, Hertzberg and Villaraigosa may cut deeply into Hahn's support on the Westside.
I could feel the absence of Bradley, for whom the Westside was a second political home. When he campaigned in Westside synagogues, he was greeted as a well-loved member of the family. Even Republican Riordan, whose votes came more from the Valley, was personally and socially a Westsider (like his friend Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Fighting crime, balancing the budget and filling potholes will win votes anywhere in Los Angeles and will certainly help on the Westside. And coalition politics with Jewish votes is not nearly the seamless, simple relationship that it was in the Bradley days. But one clue for any candidates who want to win the votes of Westside Jews is the importance of the reform and improvement of local government.
This highly attentive constituency, the least alienated of the city's neighborhoods, fills the ranks of city commissions, closely observes the doings at City Hall and routinely votes in favor of measures to reform government. It was here that the 1999 City Charter won its largest margin of support, and where efforts to reform the Los Angeles Police Department generated the strongest backing among white voters.
A coherent, comprehensive agenda to prevent the sort of conflict-of-interest problems that have bedeviled the city government recently has yet to emerge in the campaign. The candidate who can offer more than a package of proposals and explain how the voters can be assured that both the commission system and the contracting process can be sensibly reformed may have the opportunity to stand out from the crowd seeking Westside votes.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the author of "The City at Stake: Secession, Reform and the Battle for Los Angeles" (Princeton University Press, 2004).