Winning the Hearts of L.A. Jewry

The race to replace Los Angeles’ termed-out Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa isn’t until March 2013, but already candidates are raising cash, taking meetings, and locking up supporters. I’ve run into City Controller Wendy Gruel at so many pro-Israel banquets, I figure she’s either seriously running for mayor, or she’s making aliyah. Turns out she’s running for mayor.

In fact, the race is shaping up to be like a verse of Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song: full of familiar names you never knew were Jewish.

Here’s the lineup:

-Wendy Gruel is not Jewish, but her husband is, and she is raising her child in the religion.
-City Council President Eric Garcetti’s father, former District Attorney Gil Garcetti, is of Italian and Mexican heritage, but his mother is Jewish.
-City Councilwoman Jan Perry is African-American and Jewish.
-Investment banker Austin Beutner turns out to be Jewish, although even colleagues who’ve worked with him for years were unaware of that 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 students.
-Developer Rick Caruso and radio host Kevin James, the other two declared candidates, are not Jewish – yet.

In a city where the Jewish population is a scant 6 percent, it begins to feel as though there is a piñata called “The Jewish Bloc” that awaits the right candidate to strike it open and collect all the votes inside. I can understand the temptation: Although we’re 6 percent of the total population, we account for 20 percent of the municipal vote. More than that, we are a significant group of activists and volunteers, and an important source for fundraising dollars. Of the “100 Richest Angelinos” listed by the Los Angeles Business Journal, 52 are Jewish. As an integral and historic part of the city (the first Jews settled here in the 1850s), this minority has the same interest as the majority: better schools; better public safety; far better transportation; and a thriving economy in a clean, sustainable environment. Jewish organizations in L.A. speak in one voice only when addressing issues concerning antisemitic attacks or Israel in crisis. Jews share all these concerns, though their political approaches to solving them may differ.

But if it were ever true that there is a “Jewish vote” in L.A., that is no longer the case. The sense that politics was tribal collapsed when assimilation and acculturation lifted ideology and interest over ethnicity. And the cliché that all politics is local dimmed with the advent of mass media and the Internet.

The conventional wisdom here is that in order to win the mayoral race, a candidate must assemble a coalition that cuts across ethnic or geographic lines. Tom Bradley, the city’s first African-American mayor, reached office on the combined support of blacks and liberal westside Jews. Mayor Richard Riordan won by putting together Latinos and conservative San Fernando Valley Jews. Villaraigosa knitted together labor, westside Jews, and Latinos. But these examples point to a flaw in the conventional wisdom. Jews vote less as an ethnic bloc and more along ideological or even geographical lines. Riordan got more suburban Jews; his opponent at the time, Michael Woo, won the votes of more urban, westside Jews. Later, Villaraigosa won the westside Jews, not so much the Valley Jews.

A liberal westside Jew may vote less like a conservative Valley Jew and more like an eastside union member. Class and professional interests, political causes, and personal networks will matter more than tribal affiliation. The appeal to ethnic loyalty in and of itself no longer works.

In the upcoming race, we will see the fault lines even more clearly. So many “Jewish” candidates will necessarily split the Jewish vote. In the small town of city politics, the fact that a candidate is “Jewish” will matter less than how he or she handled a zoning battle or some other issue.

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, Ashkenazi, liberal, and marginally religious. Since the 1970s, Israelis, Russians, Persians, newly Orthodox, converts, and adoptees have rendered L.A. Jewry almost as diverse as the city itself. No longer is there a monochromatic L.A. Jewry.

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 L.A. forward.

So there is no single “Jewish vote” to win and no candidate on the horizon who could possibly please the entire Jewish community. 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.