For more than a generation, racial and ethnic politics have dominated Los Angeles' mayoral elections. That is, perhaps, until this year, which might be the first election of Los Angeles' emerging post-ethnic era.
Although no doubt frustrating to the various candidates, this development is a promising one for Los Angeles as a whole. It is far healthier in this polyglot mess of a city if people can run for office based on their persona, qualifications and ideology, instead of their lineage. Better to be a confused and cacophonous democracy than one divided along communal lines.
Much of the evidence comes from the earliest polling. It appears that none of the leading ethnic candidates against white-bread Mayor James Hahn -- Antonio Villaraigosa, Bernard Parks, Bob Hertzberg or Richard Alarcòn -- are winning overwhelming and immediate support from their ethnic compadres. People may come around in the end to vote that way, but at least they seem to be giving a benefit of the doubt to the guys from other tribes.
Perhaps nothing is more illustrative than the relatively tepid support Villaraigosa is gaining from Latinos this time around. Last time, they gathered around him like the second coming of Cesar Chavez; this time, they seem more skeptical and pragmatic. This time, according to the Los Angeles Times Poll, he is garnering roughly half the amount he got last time.
Indeed, arguably the most powerful Latino in town, Labor Council boss Miguel Contreras, has chosen to back his dutiful and proven servant, the mayor, rather than his own compadre. Contreras would rather be the big boss of Los Angeles than its most important Mexican. Alarcòn fiesty candidacy, if not gaining votes, is also diluting the kind of Chicanismo message that propelled Villaraigosa the last time.
Similarly, Parks is not exactly proving to be a redux Tom Bradley. African American voters may be disillusioned with their choice last time, Hahn, but they are not flocking blindly to the former police chief. Parks arguably the most conservative of the candidates, is making some inroads where Hahn, the white Protestant, should be, that is, among Los Angeles' remaining Republicans.
As for the Jews, they are even more confused and confusing than ever. By the laws of ethnic politics, they should be rallying en masse around former Assembly Speaker Hertzberg. Yet he so far has won the support of perhaps only one-fifth, with as many supportive of liberal firebrand Villaraigosa.
What's behind these developments?
For one thing, ethnic politics are now increasingly trumped by factors of age, income and even geography. Take the Jewish vote. Ten years ago, a Zev Yaroslavsky candidacy would have brought a massive united Jewish turnout, which might have been enough to elect him mayor. Today, many Jews, particularly younger ones, vote based on something other than ethnicity, according to Arnold Steinberg, a longtime Los Angeles political consultant and pollster.
"We are a long way from a time when having a Jewish mayor would be seen as a great source of pride," Steinberg said.
In other words, Jews are established enough, secure and rich enough not to feel the need to have one of theirs running city hall.
Ultimately, Steinberg believes we will see a more nuanced breakdown in the ultimate Jewish vote. Hertzberg, once he gets his middle-of-the-road message out, can expect to do well with more conservative Jews in the San Fernando Valley and among the more religiously oriented. These are people who tend to be more middle class, and who feel belabored by the city's ultraliberal politics, high taxes and regulatory regime.
These represent very much the same subgroups that rallied to Richard Riordan in 1993 and 1997. Yet at the same time, there are many Jews, particularly on the Westside, who may opt for Villaraigosa. Their votes, suggested David Lehrer, former long-time head of the Anti-Defamation League, may be more swayed by the pull of liberal politics and an emotional desire for a hip, dynamic Latino mayor than anything else.
"There are people who support Hahn because of his father, and there's people who want Villaraigosa because of his liberal politics," Lehrer said. "It's the same old politics now but without the ethnic overlay. The Jewish factor doesn't matter the way it used to."
But it's not just Jewish identity that doesn't factor in. If anything, the post-ethnic concept even more reflects the growing presence of Latinos and Asians in the city. These groups tend to be divided between native born and immigrants, each of whom has a somewhat different perspective. Recent arrivals may tend to judge people more on ethnicity; second- and third-generation people, particularly those born after the Chicano movement, may tend to support candidates for nonethnic reasons.
Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who represents a very ethnically mixed East Valley district, said she found that many Latinos supported her in her last election for reasons that had more to do with her approach on issues than on ethnicity.
"I got 50 percent of the vote in some Hispanic areas," said Greuel, a non-Jew married to a Jew who is raising her young son Jewish. "They are about traffic, public safety -- the same things everyone else wants."
Then there is the intermarriage and inter-mixing factor. Today, about 5 percent of Angelenos are of mixed race. This number is likely to go up, given the roughly 30 percent-40 percent of second-generation Latinos and Asians who marry outside their ethnic groups. Today, suggested ethnic marketing expert Thomas Tseng, young people of all ethnicities choose from a similar menu of music, food and cultural-lifestyle choices.
"People are divided not by race so much as by their preferences," observed Tseng, co-founder of the New American Dimensions marketing firm. "You are less an African American or a Latino than someone who is a rocker, a pop music fan or a hip-hop person."
Translated into political terms, this means ethnic politics is blurring as people interact more with people of different backgrounds. In the Valley, now arguably the most racially diverse part of the city, many neighborhoods that were exclusively Anglo, now have many Latinos and Asians.
Valley Jews certainly are not immune to this process. Hertzberg himself is married to a Latina, and many younger Jews are more likely to have Hispanic, Asian and African American friends than their parents. They are as likely to identify with their cultural proclivities, ideological preferences or neighborhood as with their ethnic group.
For the candidates seeking to dethrone Hahn, this shift to a less-racial or lineage-based politics may prove a bit irritating. But for Los Angeles' future, this post-ethnic trend may prove exactly what the doctor ordered.
Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of "The City: A Global History" to be published by Modern Library in April.