The summer television season's newest reality show, "The California Gubernatorial Race," kicked off last week with almost enough twists and turns to make regular viewers of reality TV pay attention to politics.
"It's beginning to look like 'Last Comic Standing,'" a Jewish community leader said. And that was before she knew that the astute and hilarious comedian D.L. Hughley had officially entered the race, upping the punch-line quota even more.
I could list the candidates here, but I only have 850 words, and in any case, the race has been all over the national media, proving the axiom that if you ignore a problem long enough -- California state politics -- it will eventually take over your life.
Jewish voters, as Raphael Sonnenshein writes in the first of his regular monthly columns for us (see page 9), will play an important part in this race, far out of proportion to their numbers in the state. Just shy of 3 percent of California's population, we represent an estimated 5 percent of the state's registered voters. In a race that analysts predict will hinge on a minority of votes, a minority's voting bloc will be crucial.
Our political contributions will wield influence as well. Nationally, American Jews account for more than half of the large individual contributors to the Democratic Party, and between 20 to 30 percent of the contributors to the Republican Party in recent years. That is why supporters of Republican governors past and Democratic governor present could all argue that their man was responsive to Jewish concerns, however narrowly or broadly those are defined.
In fact, the mainstream moderate candidates have a bipartisan Jewish appeal. That goes for columnist Arianna Huffington, running as an independent.
"Jews may not have an opinion on her, but some of her biggest supporters happen to be Jews," said a close acquaintance of Huffington. It was telling that when Huffington's called on supporters to attend her press conference at A Place Called Home in South Los Angeles, her e-mail included only two sets of driving directions: from the South Bay and from the Westside.
Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger has long-standing connections to the activist Jewish community through the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His moderate politics and pro-entertainment industry stance will certainly appeal to moderate, pro-industry Jews. His challenge for educated voters: talk substance.
On the Democratic side, the buzz among L.A. Jewry's largely Democratic voters is that many, if not a majority, would have swung happily toward (Republican) Richard Riordan. Sen. Dianne Feinstein would have come in a winner, too -- she'd get more votes for president among L.A. Jews than any of the current crop of candidates.
But with Feinstein and Riordan out of the race, loyal Democratic Jews face the same hold-your-nose choice that all Democrats do. When The Jewish Journal published a cover story several weeks ago whose headline was, "Why Jews Won't Dump Davis," we received hundreds of angry letters, e-mails and phone calls from Jews, many of them Democrats, who were eager to do just that. Someone from the Davis camp asked me why we didn't publish any pro-Davis letters, and I told him the truth: We didn't get any.
The thrust of the article (whose headline, mea culpa, was a tad misleading) was that as unhappy as Jews are with Davis' performance as a governor, they found the recall and the people behind it even more off-putting. Reporter Marc Ballon found that even so, many Jews would vote for the recall if Riordan's or Feinstein's names appeared on the ballot.
An important lesson is that Jews are more centrist and moderate than just plain old liberal. A nonpartisan Ipsos/Cook Political Report Poll completed last March indicates American Jews remain strongly Democratic, with 64 percent of those surveyed describing themselves as Democrats and 26 percent describing themselves as Republicans. (While 46 percent of all Americans would definitely vote for Bush, for instance, only 25 percent of American Jews would do so.)
But large Jewish turnouts for Ronald Reagan and Riordan are evidence that, at voting time, Jews are more Prag-mocrat than Democrat. While the Republican Party is attracting increasing numbers of true believers among Jews, the Jews who remain Democrat don't want to sacrifice their sense of independence and pragmatism to a party label. That's why a Riordan scores well among Jews and why a Davis, a standard issue Dem, rates so poorly.
What about the loyal Democrats? "My strategy for Oct. 7?" said a ferociously liberal Jew about the date of the recall. "Hold on to the statehouse, hold on to the statehouse, hold on to the statehouse."
As sickened as they are by the recall, they don't want to see Republicans, any Republican, use it to wrest control of the governor's office. So this man also said he'd abandon Davis if a stronger candidate -- Feinstein or Leon Panetta, for instance -- came around.
At this point, in other words, winning is all that matters. And that's a sentiment too many of his prior supporters believe Davis understands all too well.