December 7, 2011
Opinion: A Jewish vote?
The election to replace the termed-out Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa isn’t until March 2013, but already candidates are out raising cash, taking meetings, locking up supporters. I’ve run into City Controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel at so many pro-Israel banquets, you’d think she was making aliyah.
In fact, the L.A. mayor’s race is shaping up to be like a verse in Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song: full of familiar names you never knew were Jewish.
Greuel is not Jewish, but her husband is, and her family is involved in the community. There’s City Council President Eric Garcetti, whose father is of Italian and Mexican heritage, but whose mother is Jewish. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who declared her candidacy during a meeting last February in my office, is African-American and Jewish. Investment banker Austin Beutner turns out also to be Jewish, though even colleagues who’ve worked with him for years were unaware of the fact. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has yet to declare, has been active in the Jewish community since he taught Hebrew school at Stephen S. Wise Temple many decades ago. I should know: I was one of his brats. I mean, students.
Developer Rick Caruso and radio host Kevin James, the other two declared candidates, are not Jewish. As far as I know.
The fact that in a city that is a scant 6 percent Jewish so many candidates identify as Jews might lead one to assume that there is a piñata called “The Jewish Bloc” just waiting for the right man or woman to strike it open and collect all the votes inside. I can understand the temptation: As our columnist Raphael Sonenschein, newly appointed executive director of the Pat Brown Institute, has pointed out, Jews account for 20 percent of the municipal vote. More than that, they make up a significant portion of the activists, volunteers and funders.
But if Los Angeles ever truly had a “Jewish vote,” that is no longer the case. The cliché that all politics is local was likely more apt before the advent of mass media and the Internet. Its corollary, the notion that politics is mostly tribal, collapsed when assimilation and acculturation lifted ideology and interest over ethnicity.
The conventional wisdom is that in order to win the mayor’s race, a candidate has to assemble a coalition along ethnic or geographic lines. Tom Bradley, the city’s first black mayor, reached office through the combined support of blacks and liberal Westside Jews. Mayor Richard Riordan won by pulling together Latinos and conservative San Fernando Valley Jews. Villaraigosa knitted together labor, Westside Jews and Latinos.
But these examples also point to a flaw in the conventional wisdom. Jews vote less as an ethnic bloc and more along ideological, or even geographical, lines. Riordan earned the support of more suburban Jews; Villaraigosa won the Westside Jews, but not so much the Valley Jews.
A liberal Westside Jew may vote less like a conservative Valley Jew and more like an east-side union member. Class and professional interests, political causes and personal networks matter more than tribal affiliation. The appeal to ethnic loyalty in and of itself will no longer work.
In the upcoming race we will see the fault lines even more clearly. There are so many Jewish candidates, they will necessarily split the Jewish vote six ways to Shabbos. In the small town of city politics, we will see that the fact that you’re a Jew matters less than whether I like the way you handled some zoning battle or another. I once pointed out to a peeved neighbor that his city council representative at the time was a fellow Jew. “I claim her,” my friend said, “and I blame her.”
This fractured vote reflects the growing diversity of Jewish identity. Since the late 19th century through most of the post-World War II boom, the Jewish community of Los Angeles was white, Ashkenazic, liberal, more secular than religious. Since the 1970s, Israelis, Russians, Persians, Sephardim, newly Orthodox, converts and adoptees have rendered L.A. Jewry almost as diverse as the city it calls home. If you could say about the majority of the current candidates, “Funny, they don’t look Jewish,” that’s because the same is true of L.A.’s Jewish community today.
Likewise, they no longer vote a single ideology. Jews have a huge stake in the success of this city, home to the world’s third-largest Jewish population. The mayoral candidates will fall over themselves to profess love for Israel, but municipal elections don’t swing on international relations. I suspect that what will sway the majority of Jewish voters is a track record for effective government and management, and good ideas for moving Los Angeles forward.
I love L.A., but the more I travel, the more I feel that my city is falling behind. New York City, for instance, with twice the size, just seems to work better: less crime, fewer students per classroom, more bike-friendly, and 15,000 fewer homeless. And don’t get me started about Los Angeles International Airport, which J.D. Powers ranked 18 out of 19 in customer satisfaction. Among major world cities, L.A. seems to be running in place.
The reasons are numerous, and not just the fault of whomever is mayor. But the otherworldly traffic on the 405 North allows me hours of time to sit and stew about which candidate has what it takes to win Jewish votes.
Lumping together the rich vein of Jewish voters (and funders) as a single ore is a fallacy. There is no singular “Jewish vote,” and no candidate on the horizon who could possibly please them all. A smart candidate will resist the temptation to think there is one way to the heart of Jewish L.A., or just one mayoral candidate who can win it.
I mean, besides Michael Bloomberg.