March 17, 2005
When Jews Lose
The narrow defeat of mayoral candidate Robert Hertzberg marked a signal defeat not only for Los Angeles but for the future of Jewish influence in Los Angeles. For the second time in four years, Los Angeles voters turned down a smart, moderate Jewish candidate -- last time it was Steve Soboroff -- for people whose primary affiliations lie with other interests and ethnic groups.
As occurred in Soboroff's loss, the deathblow to Hertzberg's spirited campaign came from his fellow landsmen, less than half of whom bothered to support him. In contrast, African Americans rallied in larger percentages for City Councilman Bernard Parks, as did Latinos, clearly the city's ascendant group, in their backing for City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa.
The Jewish rejection of Hertzberg is all the more puzzling since, unlike the Republican Soboroff, he is a well-known Democrat with moderately liberal credentials. Hertzberg's pro-business stance and positions on critical issues, such as traffic and the schools, should also have won him broader support.
To a large extent, the explanation for this defection lies in a continued, and growing, divide between two distinct groups of Jewish voters. On the one side are the more middle-class Jews, concentrated in the San Fernando Valley, who are more likely to run local businesses and would like to be able to send their kids to public schools. These largely secularly oriented Jews, although mostly registered Democrats, joined the more Orthodox, particularly in places like Pico-Robertson, in backing Hertzberg.
Where Hertzberg failed was with another large bloc of Jewish voters, the very liberal, generally more affluent constituencies that cluster largely on the Westside. These people split their vote evenly between Hertzberg and liberal heartthrob Villaraigosa.
Hertzberg adviser David Abel traces this to the Westside elite's lack of interest in local affairs.
"The [Westside] Jews are losing any connection to local government and think only on the national level," Abel said.
Whatever the reasons, Hertzberg's campaign failed to mobilize the Westside. Perhaps Hertzberg's pledge to address the underperforming Los Angles Unified School District (LAUSD) -- with its horrific near 50 percent dropout rate -- was less critical since so few Westsiders now send their kids to public schools, particularly past the primary grades. The fact that it is someone else's kids, such as children of their nannies, who have to be subjected to LAUSD, no doubt makes a difference.
Political consultant Arnold Steinberg points out that many of these same voters, and politicians, also backed busing, which has probably expelled more Jewish families from Los Angeles -- and particularly the Valley -- than anything outside the 1992 riots. Wealthy liberals often enjoy a special immunity from the consequences of their politics.
So given these trends, what is the future of Jewish political power and place in Los Angeles? In the short term, the chances of electing a Jewish mayor are fairly remote, given the divisions in the community, and the growing dominance of Los Angeles by Latino politicians and public employee unions. At the same time, the Jewish vote as a percent of the city electorate is decreasing -- down to 14 percent from highs of more than 20 a decade ago -- and likely to keep doing so, as more families opt out of the city to settle in places with better schools and often more welcoming business climates.
"The demographic trends are limiting the options for Jewish politicians," Steinberg said. A Jewish mayor could still be elected someday in the future, he suggested, but probably only if the city founders further under Hahn or a future Villaraigosa administration. Perhaps it will take a woman to do this, like clean-government maven Laura Chick.
In the immediate future, however, Jewish power in Los Angeles will likely be largely as a "swing" group, whose major power is as much measured by campaign contributions as votes. Whatever the fantasies of some left-leaning Jews, there is little reason to expect a Villaraigosa administration would revive something like the old Bradley multiracial coalition by substituting Latinos for African Americans.
This is improbable because things have changed so much over the past 30 years. In the early 1970s, Los Angeles still had a strong right wing that Jews could oppose without embracing far-left politics. Today, the right is all but dead in Los Angeles. At the same time, a Villaraigosa administration would rest on a bedrock of Latino power, including many talented professionals and savvy labor activists, whose numbers suggest little need for "coalition building" on an equal footing with a fractured, increasingly indifferent and shrinking, minority.
Instead, I expect that most Jews, particularly those in the Valley and places like Pico-Robertson, will do as Jews have done for centuries. They will retreat into their families and private businesses, scrap together the shekels to send their kids to private school or leave Dodge entirely. They will survive, and even thrive as individuals, but will likely never again be a central source of political power within the confines of a city that we have done so much to shape.
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 next month by Modern Library.