Jewish Journal

Coalition Politics That Work

Forty-Seventh Assembly District Committee members talk race, peace and Farrakhan.

by David Evanier

Posted on Oct. 5, 2000 at 8:00 pm

"It's almost magical," said Jon Friedman, a Democratic activist, of the effective coalition politics waged by the 47th Assembly District Committee. The committee, which covers a wide rectangular area including Culver City and the South Fairfax and Beverlywood neighborhoods, and extending east as far as central city areas north of the Inglewood city line, is comprised mainly of Black and Jewish members who have formed a bond of closeness and trust. The ages ranges from 20's to 70's. Members are civil servants, teachers, lawyers, show business folk, small business people, health care technicians.

"The most marvelous thing about the 47th," Friedman said, "is the extent to which all of the elements participate. Blacks and Jews and others get together, work together and treat each other with serious respect."

"I have many friends who are politically active with the 47th," U.S. Rep. Julian Dixon, who represents the 32nd Congressional District, told The Journal. "They are deeply committed to the goals and principles of the Democratic Party. And they represent the finest tradition of volunteer political activism."

A district committee is essentially a vehicle for activists who are committed to carrying out the agendas of all of the major elements of the Democratic Party: the elected and appointed party officials and all of the Democratic clubs. Committee members do the nuts-and-bolts work on a volunteer basis: fundraising, voter registration, working in the campaigns and getting out the vote. The orientation of the committee is local and specific - what Friedman defines as "life-affecting, in-your-face kind of issues."

In the 47th, those issues have drawn together a rare coalition. "The 47th committee is one of those wonders of nature," said Howard Werlensky, a leading Democratic activist and former head of Democrats for Israel. "An arbitrary set of lines was drawn - in this case by the courts - that forms an assembly district that joins a significant Black population with a significant Jewish population. And the result is a grass-roots Democratic organization that works together very effectively and has some very strong, deep relationships."

The element of trust comes from the candid level of dialogue. "When you can discuss how you feel in an honest manner, you have a relationship," said Werlensky, who will receive an award from the NAACP. "When you feel like you're afraid to discuss it, hold it within, then you can't achieve much. The other thing about this group is that they have a common goal: the goal is people who believe in the Democratic Party. So that keeps them focused in the right direction. They're not coming together because of some sort of artificial 'Well, here we are to have a Black-Jewish dialogue; let's talk.'"

Friedman was especially moved by one of his early experiences with the committee. The group had scheduled some of its activities on Saturdays. "I went privately to the head of the committee, who was Black," he recalled. "And I said to her, 'This is a problem. You're excluding observant Jews.' And she said, 'Thank you for telling me this. I wasn't aware this was a problem. We'll schedule our events on Sunday afternoons instead.' And ever since then, all of the major functions of the 47th have been on Sundays or weekdays."

"These people take the open door seriously," Friedman continued. "They're really committed to making the Democratic Party accessible to everybody. They value diversity not just with their mouths but with their hearts."

Friedman traces the atmosphere and moral values of the committee to the impact of Dixon, who for 25 years has had close relationships with Jewish elected officials like Howard Berman and Henry Waxman. "Part of this starts at the top," Friedman said. "People see that cooperation is not just possible but is a good and valuable thing."

Ed Johnson, field deputy for Dixon, sees the committee as filling a need for activists who have seen a drop-off in activities since the heady days of the 1960s.

In addition, the committee provides an experience in intergroup relations that is significant for them. "There aren't a lot of places where you can go and have an experience of interacting dialogue," Johnson said. "People who are involved in the Democratic Party are, by definition, there to reach out to other people and to find common ground. And it's a different experience. You can't just do it through your own tribe. You've got to convince a lot of people to join you."

Johnson has been a member of the committee for almost 20 years, and some of his closest friendships, with Werlensky, Friedman and Bob Manley, another member of the committee, have been forged there. For him, as for many, the personal and the political come together in the committee. Moreover, his commitment to the district committee is based on a carefully considered political philosophy. "We are now a state of minorities," he said. And so if you are a political activist, if you want to be able to impact how government treats you and your community, or you are interested in exercising political power, it's going to hinge on your ability to weave together communities of interest that may be different from your own."

Manley is regional director of the state Democratic Party. Like Johnson, he is an African American deeply committed to the 47th district committee. "I love it," he stated. "Cause we work, man! For example, we're planning to have a fundraiser? We'll find somebody that's willing to submit their house. And it could be a Jewish person, or it could be anybody. And we say, 'Look, we're ready to do this,' and it takes about two weeks, and we got it together. And it's together. One of our members, Lee Werlensky, she is a great lady. Five years ago we were at a convention and we were leaving to go to the African-American caucus. And Lee wanted to know if she could go. We said, 'You're damn right you can go. You're with us. Come on, let's go!' It was unanimous. She's a member of the caucus now. She votes, she's an active member, she stands up for what she thinks is right. She's not intimidated. She's a tough lady, man."

If there's magic to the 47th committee, it's not ethereal magic. It's the result of people being candid with one another. One of the reasons the 47th committee may function so well is that differences between members are not papered over. "We may have different views on certain issues," Manley explained. "Some Black people might not be such strong supporters of Israel as some Jewish people are. It's not because they don't respect them. It's just that they have other issues that they're more concerned with.

"But we get into it and discuss it. Because Jewish people are white first. They see themselves that way. And Black people always see themselves as Black. They can't see themselves as white, because they're not allowed to. So there's a little conflict there. Jews understand the Holocaust. Blacks understand it as well as Jews understand it. But Jews don't always understand Black views."

Take Louis Farrakhan, once again in the news after vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman agreed to meet with him.

"They really were jamming us about Farrakhan," said Manley, "and Farrakhan is a Muslim. He has some views that I don't agree with. They want to hold that against us. Look, Israel sold guns to South Africa. They know that. So what are we talking about? We don't hold that against the Jewish community. We've got to get over with that."

"Before this, I did not know Jewish people. There's sensitivity and creativity in what they do. As a minority, that's very important to me. They know about my culture; they're interested in other cultures. You cannot be in only one group, especially when you live in L.A.," said Manley's wife, Lorenza.Lee Werlensky, who has received an award from the 47th for her activism, said her experience with the Black community in the committee has deepened her perspective. "It's a nice close working connection. This is the way I think it should be."

Terence Montgomery, a water pollution control technician, has headed the 47th district committee for six years, keeping it focused on common goals and, above all, compromise.

Moderation wins out in the end. He too cites Farrakhan as a source of conflict within the group. "Our Jewish members look at Farrakhan from a Jewish perspective as being a real problem," Montgomery said. "Whereas in our community, we looked at him as being part of a small minority that doesn't really reflect the mainstream or how a majority of African Americans feel toward Jewish people. One thing that came out was, okay, Farrakhan is a hothead. But then JDL, I guess, is the hothead on the other side. Hey, you know, we are the moderate people, we are the people who work to get things done. And we have to make sure that we stay focused and involved in public policy debates. Because if you let the hotheads take over, then you have real conflict."

Soft-spoken and contemplative, Montgomery expands on his philosophy. "It 's hard for me to evaluate myself, and I depend on feedback," he said. "But I do have some core beliefs: that we transcend ourselves as a race of people into the human race. Some people can't make that change and some can: to realize we have more things in common than we don't have. And that we have to all work for that common good. Someone once said to me, 'If you peel this outer layer of skin off our bodies, you'd realize how much more we all have in common.'"

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