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Diversity of Dizzying Dimensions

Jewish, Latino politicians face off in election for Los Angeles mayor.

by Tom Tugend

April 5, 2001 | 8:00 pm

When voters cast their ballots for mayor in next week's primary, they may be electing to that office the first Jew, the first Latino or the first woman.

There are 15 candidates on the April 10 ballot, but only six are considered serious contenders. In a reflection of Los Angeles' diversity, two -- Wachs and businessman Steve Soboroff -- are Jews; former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra are Latinos; and two -- City Attorney James Hahn and state Comptroller Kathleen Connell -- are Anglos.

With no candidate expected to get a majority in the crowded primary, the two top vote-getters probably will compete in a June 5 runoff.

All are veteran politicians except for Soboroff, who has never run for public office and is trying to use that to his advantage. "A Problem Solver, Not a Politician" is the phrase used on his bumper stickers, campaign literature and TV commercials.

At 52, Soboroff has made a great deal of money as a commercial developer of shopping centers, malls and retail chain stores. His wealth reputedly stands at $10 million, though he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview that the figure is lower.

Soboroff has committed $687,000 out of his own pocket to his campaign, supplementing $2.9 million in outside contributions.

He will need all that and more, mainly for television commercials, by primary day. If he makes the June 5 runoff, he will have to spend at least another $3 million, according to political analysts.

Not to worry, though. "I'll spend whatever it takes to become mayor," Soboroff says.

So far, there have been some 40 debates among the six candidates. The debates largely have been devoted to issues rather than personal attacks, except for some bitter exchanges between Soboroff and Wachs, whose mutual dislike is palpable.

The front-runner at this stage is Hahn, with Villaraigosa closing in fast, followed by Soboroff. As the only Republican in the race, Soboroff is counting on the support of white voters, especially among conservative middle-class residents of the populous San Fernando Valley.

There are no assurances that he will attract the most Jewish voters. A vast majority are Democrats, and although the mayoral race is supposedly nonpartisan, they may vote for a more liberal contender.

On the other hand, Jews who prefer to vote for one of their own probably will back Wachs, who is a veteran of 30 years of city politics and enjoys a considerably higher profile in the Jewish community than does Soboroff.

Wachs, who is among the more conservative of the candidates, had been expected to be one of the strongest entrants but in fact is far back in the field, according to polls.

No one is billing the contest for runner-up -- and a spot in the runoff -- as a Latino-Jewish confrontation, but the possibility of such a face-off points to the emerging political realities of America's second-largest metropolis.

A generation ago, Jews played a substantial role in Los Angeles politics as financial backers and campaign strategists, but they shunned the limelight, and few ran for elected office.

The situation has changed drastically: Jewish politicians today are omnipresent in Los Angeles and in California as a whole.

The area of Sherman Oaks is illustrative. Close to the boundary between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley, Sherman Oaks is part of the Los Angeles municipality and has a strong, but not predominant, Jewish presence.

Counting from lowest to highest office, a Sherman Oaks resident could have a Jewish city councilman, county supervisor, state assemblyman, U.S. congressman and two U.S. senators.

The Jewish political domination is not as pronounced in other districts of the city. Relative to their proportion of the population, however, Jews are vastly over-represented in Angeleno politics, particularly given the demographic changes of the last decade.

Latinos, primarily of Mexican descent, have become the single-largest ethnic group in Los Angeles, making up 42.5 percent of the city's almost 3.9 million inhabitants. Jews, whose numbers are stable, represent about 10 percent.

African Americans make up close to 11 percent but are about to be overtaken by Asian Americans, according to just-released figures from the 2000 census.

Jews still lead all other groups in voter participation and financial donations, but Latinos, until now relatively dormant on the political scene, are beginning to flex their muscle.

The current mayoral election, especially a potential Soboroff-Villaraigosa contest, is an omen of things to come as a new generation of Los Angeles-born Latinos demands its share of the political pie.

So far, the political competition between Jews and Latinos has been muted and nonconfrontational, and leaders in both communities are working to keep it that way. One sign is the increasing number of programs Jewish organizations direct toward Latinos, hoping to create bonds similar to those that linked Jews and blacks during the civil rights struggle.

Villaraigosa is a prime example of the upcoming generation of Latino leadership. A young and very personable politician, he grew up in the then-heavily Jewish area of Boyle Heights. He likes to say he was a potential delinquent and rarely fails to credit his Jewish high school teacher for turning him around.

Villaraigosa enjoys considerable support in the Jewish community. Two of the wealthiest and most influential Jews in Los Angeles -- developer Eli Broad and television mogul Haim Saban -- are among his prominent backers.

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