Jewish Journal

Davis Recall Fight Plays Jewish Card

"He combines the personality of Michael Dukakis with the ethics of Tony Soprano"

by Marc Ballon

Posted on Jul. 24, 2003 at 8:00 pm

With his political fortunes darkening and support for the recall growing, the beleaguered Gov. Gray Davis has turned to members of his disparate ethnic and religious coalition to save his job. In the past six weeks, prominent African American, Latino and gay and lesbian political and business leaders have held a series of high-profile events to condemn the recall as an illicit power grab by the radical right and a threat to California.

Now, Davis and his allies are playing the Jewish card.

On July 21, Community Leaders Against the Recall, an ad-hoc group of prominent Jews created by former Congressman Mel Levine, held a press conference at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in support of Davis. Levine, speaking in impassioned tones, said the governor has long been a friend to the Jewish community and a stalwart supporter of Israel.

Levine spoke alongside seven community leaders, including Norm Pattiz, City Councilman Jack Weiss and Howard Welinsky as two television cameras, a reporter from KFWB and The Jewish Journal looked on.

Pattiz, a Davis contributor and CEO of Westwood One radio network, said the recall has been driven by right-wing talk radio hosts. When the general-market media gets involved in the debate, Pattiz said support for the recall will shrink.

Weiss agreed. "Once people know the recall will plunge this state into a crisis," he said, "they will no longer support it. Everyone has a stake in not seeing the clock turned back."

Levine warned that a successful recall could open a "Pandora's box" of political instability, a danger to Jews and other minorities. He also called it a waste of taxpayer money.

The press conference was merely the first salvo in what promises to be a growing anti-recall movement among Jews, said Levine.

But while some Jews may publicly bolster Davis, many say -- privately -- their staunch opposition to the recall shouldn't be mistaken as an enthusiastic endorsement for Davis. Like other voters, some Jews criticize him for the ballooning state deficit, a lack of leadership and for degrading the political process through incessant fundraising and vicious campaigning.

"He combines the personality of Michael Dukakis with the ethics of Tony Soprano," said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, adding that Davis once asked UC Berkeley Democratic students to pay $100 for the privilege of speaking with him at the campus.

Davis' gray personality and ethics notwithstanding, most Jews oppose the recall, because they largely share his political philosophy, have a longstanding relationship with the governor and worry about the possibility of someone worse replacing him. Jews also seem bothered by the uncertainty surrounding attempts to unseat a sitting governor with a seldom-used initiative. Even Jewish Republicans appear ambivalent.

As one of the nation's most liberal communities, Jews have politically embraced the Democrat Davis. In last year's re-election, 69 percent of the state's Jewish voters cast ballots for him. Only African Americans, at 79 percent, were bigger supporters, according to a Los Angeles Times Poll.

Davis and the community have longstanding historical ties that date back more than two decades. In the mid-1980s, he represented the heavily Jewish district of West Hollywood in the Assembly.

As governor, Davis has visited Israel, signed legislation expanding the definition of hate crimes to include such acts as painting a swastika on a synagogue and, at his behest, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has received $31.4 million, the Zimmer Museum $2.4 million and the Skirball Museum $6.4 million over the past five years from the California Arts Council and the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, a Davis spokesman said.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find any governor who has focused with such intensity and compassion on issues that affect the Jewish community," said Eric C. Bauman, deputy campaign manager of Davis-backed Taxpayers Against the Governor's Recall.

Jews, for their part, have ponied up hefty campaign donations to Davis and his allies over the years. Recent large gifts include $100,000 from billionaire Haim Saban and $25,000 from Richard S. Ziman's Arden Realty to the anti-recall Taxpayers group, campaign filings show.

If Jews don't have the same emotional connection to the governor that they had with such charismatic politicians as Bill Clinton and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they at least know that the governor will come through for them, albeit at a price, said Joel Kotkin, senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

"I think there are a lot of Jews invested in Gray Davis, because they have invested in him," he said.

Jews seem to have little, if anything, invested in Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), a conservative Republican of Lebanese Christian heritage who recently met with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Issa, the recall's biggest financial backer and a declared candidate for governor, frightens many Jews with his law-and-order politics and right-wing social agenda, experts said. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger also appears to elicit scant enthusiasm among Jewish voters.

"Often, politics is driven by a fear of the alternative rather than a love of what's going on," said political scientist Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. "I think that's what's going on here."

However, Jewish support for Davis could erode if former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican, enters the race, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC.

Surprisingly, Jewish Republicans seem tepid about the recall. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), for instance, has taken no official position on the issue, preferring, instead to focus on the re-election of President Bush.

As much as they loathe Davis, some conservative Jews have concerns about upending the democratic process, even though the governor won re-election by running bitterly negative campaigns against Republican candidates Riordan and Bill Simon.

"I don't know if this is the way we should go about our business," said Joel Strom, president of the RJC's L.A. chapter and a "reluctant" supporter of the recall.

For other Jewish Republicans, opposing the recall is a matter of politics. Sheldon Sloan, a longtime Republican activist, said an unsuccessful recall "could be spun into a victory and used by Davis as springboard to the White House."

Recall organizers have submitted about 1.6 million petition signatures. To qualify, they need 897,158 valid ones. Depending on when they are verified, a special election could be held in October or November or consolidated with the March 4 presidential primary.

Pro-Davis forces want to delay the election until the spring, because they expect a heavy Democratic turnout during the presidential primary. Bush is expected to run unopposed.

Davis and his allies have already sharpened their knives to hold off the election, discredit potential opponents and energize supporters, including Jews.

Last week, lawyers for the anti-recall effort unsuccessfully went to court to seek a preliminary injunction against counting signatures, because of several alleged irregularities. Davis later called the recall bid an attempt to "hijack" government.

The governor's allies have painted Issa as a dangerous extremist with a shady past. Stories about a decades-old misdemeanor conviction for possession of an unregistered weapon and an indictment on charges of stealing a Maserati from a car dealership (the case was later dismissed) have cropped up in the press and on anti-Issa Web sites.

Not leaving anything to chance, the Davis camp has recently made a concerted effort to burnish his image among Southern California Jews.

Davis supporters, for instance, originally tried to hold Levine's Community Leaders' press conference at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, an important symbol in the local community. Insiders said a Davis staff member placed a call to Federation President John Fishel and lobbied him. Because of the charity's status as a nonprofit and the potential appearance of a conflict of interest, Fishel turned down the request, sources said.

The Wiesenthal Center, which Davis visited in February to officially open a new exhibit called, "Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves," agreed to host the event, although the center charged a $1,000 rental fee and gave no endorsement, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean. No Wiesenthal personnel attended the press conference, he added.

That Davis and his allies are so willing to use the Jewish Federation and Wiesenthal Center for "crass partisan" purposes highlights their win-at-all-costs mentality, said Arnold Steinberg, a Republican political strategist.

"They see [Jewish institutions] just as something to be manipulated politically," he said.

Whether true or not, Jews will likely unite in favor of Davis, a longtime, if not deeply loved, ally.

"He's not a hugger or a back-slapper. That's why it'll take time for support to come," said Welinsky, chairman of Democrats for Israel and a member of Levine's ad hoc group. "But I'm confident it will come."

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