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Jewish Journal

Jewish Voters to Play Key Primary Role

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

June 1, 2006 | 8:00 pm

In Democratic districts on Los Angeles' Westside and in the Valley, next week's primary will not only determine the Democratic winner but also the person who will almost certainly win in the fall's general election. And Jewish voters, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, will play a key role in the outcome.

The local Jewish community has a relatively small percentage of genuine right-wingers. But otherwise, there's a wide spectrum of opinion, from pro-labor liberals, such as Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), to moderate, pro-business Democrats like Bob Hertzberg and moderate Republicans like Steve Soboroff and Assemblyman Keith Richman of Granada Hills. Both Soboroff and Hertzberg did very well with Jewish voters when they ran for mayor in the 2001 and 2005 mayoral primaries.

Ideological division among Jews also plays out geographically, with Valley Jews generally more moderate than Westside Jews. The Daily News tends to reflect the moderate-to-conservative side, while the L.A. Weekly holds to the liberal corner, with the L.A. Times in the middle of this broad swath.

At the federal level, the ideological diversity among Jews and Jewish politicians is less overtly apparent much of the time. That's because opposition to the highly partisan Bush administration has created unprecedented unity among Democrats. It is politically unsafe within the party to be too accommodating or friendly to this White House.

This has created problems for Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. No Democrat has been more worshipful of the Bush Iraq strategy, nor a more useful tool to the White House's foreign policy propaganda. As a result, Lieberman, who is Jewish, now faces a strong primary challenge from Iraq War critic Ned Lamont.

An echo of Lieberman's struggle has emerged here, in the 36th Congressional District, which includes Venice, Manhattan Beach and San Pedro. It's represented by Jane Harman, another Jewish Democrat perceived as a foreign policy hawk. By no means as pro-Bush as Lieberman, Harman nonetheless outraged many Democrats by seeming to back the Bush domestic spying program. Now, she has a liberal Jewish opponent, Marci Winograd, in her heavily Democratic district.

The 36th once was a swing district, and Harman's moderation was essential to her survival. Redistricting in 2002 has since made the 36th safely Democratic, making her liberal critics less forgiving.

As a result of these primary challenges, both Lieberman and Harman have been at pains to highlight their disagreements with Bush. Harman recently referred to the Bush administration as "lawless." Adding to Harman's woes is Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is considering bumping Harman from her senior post on the Intelligence Committee.

It helps both Harman and Lieberman that their challengers are underfunded and that the party establishment has rallied to each of these incumbents. For that matter, Jews are likely to understand better than other Democrats the cross-pressures on foreign policy, such as support for Israel, that frequently make Jewish Democrats more hawkish than might otherwise be true. Yet Lieberman's egregious Fox News attacks on Democrats -- as insufficiently supportive of Bush -- seem likely to alienate even many natural backers, while Harman's affinity for the viewpoints of the intelligence agencies also has introduced some doubt.

At the state level, Jewish voters will choose in the Democratic primary for governor between Steve Westly and Phil Angelides, neither of whom is Jewish. The more traditionally liberal Angelides, backed by most of the union and liberal blocs in the party, presents himself as the one leading Democrat who was opposed to Arnold Schwarzenegger when the governor was popular. He also defines himself as the person willing to call for higher taxes on the rich. The L.A. Times has endorsed Angelides. The L.A. Weekly's endorsement has not been announced as of this writing.

Westly, endorsed by the Valley's Daily News, says he is the moderate alternative on taxes and other issues and that he can best defeat the governor. Both are well regarded in the Jewish community as friends and as supporters of Israel. But, of course, so is Schwarzenegger.

Had this election been held last year, when Schwarzenegger seemed bent on destroying his own governorship with his turn to the right, any decent Democrat could have prevailed. This year, Schwarzenegger has begun to substantially rehabilitate himself with the center and even parts of the left.

An example is how he has mended fences with much of the education establishment. He had originally provoked the ire of educators and their unions when he reneged on an agreement to repay school funds he'd borrowed during an earlier budget cycle. But the harsh political fallout and the state's improved tax revenues have prompted him to start redeeming his original promise.

This year's budget includes a down payment on the school funds he had used for other purposes. He also has appointed Democrats to high posts. And he has fought with the Bush administration on some issues. He's even started to work effectively with the Democratic Legislature, whose leaders will campaign at his side this fall for a bond measure to improve the state's infrastructure. And he has stopped running his mouth as though his primary mission were to appease right-wing talk radio.

These are the kinds of moves that will appeal to moderate Jewish voters, who have long been willing to vote for moderate, pro-choice Republicans. This is troubling news for the winner of the Democratic primary.

What could still beat Schwarzenegger in the fall is a massive Democratic turnout in the congressional races that is aimed at crushing the Bush national agenda. Then, too, Schwarzenegger's past attacks on Democrats and their values may have left some lingering animosity. The "governator" dug himself a deep hole last year, and he has not necessarily climbed all the way out.

The moderate-liberal split also plays a role in the campaign to replace Fran Pavley in the coastal 41st Assembly district. Barry Groveman, Julia Bromley, Lelly Hayes-Raitt, and Jonathan Levey are the main contenders. All are touting their progressive environmental credentials.

Groveman, the mayor of Calabasas, is the only one of the four who does not live in liberal Santa Monica. He has the backing of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and centrist Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver.

Groveman and Levey have dominated in fundraising, while Bromley, president of the Santa Monica school board, boasts endorsements from Pavley and popular state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles). Levey has won both the Times and the L.A. Weekly endoresements. Groveman received the Daily News endorsement.

Another race of local interest is the one to replace Paul Koretz in the 42nd Assembly District, which cuts across from Los Feliz through West Hollywood to the Westside and includes part of the Valley. One candidate, former L.A. City Councilman Mike Feuer, lost a close race to Rocky Delgadillo for city attorney in 2001. He'd previously served as executive director of Bet Tzedek. His rival, Abbe Land, is a former member of the West Hollywood City Council and former co-chief executive of the L.A. Free Clinic.

These two progressive and very formidable Jewish candidates cannot be easily separated by the liberal-moderate rubric. Feuer has won the backing of outgoing incumbent Koretz, as well as from both The Times and the L.A. Weekly. Land has endorsements from L.A. Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and from Goldberg and Hertzberg. Both Feuer and Land have a host of labor endorsements. (In the interests of transparency, I should note that Feuer is a friend whose campaign I support.)

Then there are the Jewish incumbents who face no serious challenge. Preeminent among them are county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

Yaroslavsky continues to work effectively, if often invisibly, in the mixture of power and obscurity that marks the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

Waxman has been an outspoken and highly effective critic of the Bush administration and may become a central player in national government should the Democrats win back control of the House. The vision of Waxman with subpoena power must keep White House aides up at night.

One Jewish Republican deserves comment. Assemblyman Richman is running for state treasurer in the primary. Richman, endorsed by the Daily News, has been a force in building bipartisan alliances in Sacramento and was popular enough in the Valley to lead the field in the campaign to become the Valley's "mayor." In that same 2002 election, Los Angeles' voters defeated Valley secession.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how Jews respond to Proposition 82, the initiative to provide free preschool to all California children through a tax on the wealthiest Californians. Generally, Jewish voters are extremely supportive of any education measure, especially school bonds. Many progressive groups support Proposition 82. While the L.A. Chamber of Commerce also supports it, most of business is against it.

The Times has called for a "no" vote, arguing that there are more cost-effective ways to cover those who do not have access to preschool. The Daily News also is opposed. The L.A. Weekly favors Proposition 82.

Supporters contend that Proposition 82 may be the last best opportunity to reach the goal of universal preschool with standards. While Schwarzenegger opposes it, his ally and friend, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, is a big supporter. The measure is very close in the polls, and Jewish voters may play a key role in determining the result.

Once these primaries are over, the internal dynamics of the Jewish community's politics will become less visible, at least until the next set of primaries. Of course, as November approaches, there will be talk about how many Jews might vote Republican. But given the unifying Democratic hostility to Bush, don't bet on it.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

 

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