New Assembly Speaker wants to inspire Jewish youth
Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg will be the second Jewish Californian to become speaker when he is sworn in April 13 at the state capitol, but he hopes to become one in a long line of many.
And without another 73-year break. That’s how much time elapsed since San Francisco Assemblyman Edgar Levy was elected to the powerful legislative post in 1927.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do is to be a role model for Jewish kids to participate” in the political process, the Sherman oaks Democrat said “I would like to inspire more of them to run for office.”
“He believes too many younger Jewish people now take for granted their ability to participate fully in society. It still stings that his father, although educated at Harvard Law school, couldn’t become a partner at a law firm in the early ‘40s
Still, Hertzberg’s religion has not been a barrier to success. The second-term assembly man was elected unanimously — a rarity in the state legislature, where contentious partisan wrangling is de rigueur.
Hertzberg, 45, who was named one of the most influential Jewish residents in Los Angeles by the L.A. Jewish Journal, came by his abilities as an effective communicator early on.
Hertzberg said the vibrant arguments around the family dinner table, orchestrated by his father the constitutional lawyer, were good preparation —and quintessentially Jewish.
“We five brothers would argue about the principles of some law or another,” he said. “So much of Judaism is understanding law and how it affects people on a day-to-day basis. And my father had a very creative approach to the law,”
Harrison Hertzberg tried a case that paved the way for Indian gaming, legalized in 1983. In other litigation, he challenged a law that prohibited women from working as bartenders.
Hetzberg worked with his father on a number of cases before entering the political arena.
“Those who study and practice constitutional law are activists who use the courtroom to affect change,” he said. “Those in the legislature do the same thing but a little differently.”
Even now, he hasn’t strayed too far from the legal profession. He is writing a book with the working title “Legal Fitness.” When completed, the book is designed to help readers avoid litigation, he says.
Hertzberg was named one of the most influential Jewish residents in Los Angeles by the L.A. Jewish Journal.
He warned up to public office by immersing himself in the political life of the Latino community, which he viewed as more vibrant than that of the Jewish community in which he was raised.
He is married to Latina physician and former L.A. ethics commissioner Cynthia Telles.
The two met when they co-chaired a Jewish National Fund dinner honoring Latino political powerhouse Ed Roybal, a former U.S. congressman from Los Angeles.
As for political action, he eschewed the “fund-raising and writing checks” approach, which he says has predominated in the Jewish community.
Not enough action.
“There just wasn’t a lot of kind of activism I found in other communities,” he said. “There was fund-raising and fancy mailers, but not the kind of face-to-face contact that I think is so important.”
Although he describes his upbringing as secular, he attended the conservative Temple Sinai in West Los Angeles as a child. Today, his two sons attend a Jewish day school.
In the legislature, he has championed stiff penalties for hate crimes as well as educational efforts “so kids are less inclined to buy into the hate rhetoric” later in life.
He has also sponsored legislation appropriate funds to Los Angeles’ Skirball Cultural Center and Simon Wiesenthal Center. He is a tub-thumping supporter of an appropriations bill that would steer $500,000 in matching funds for a Sacramento-area museum of tolerance modeled on the Wisenthal Center.
The bill’s author, Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said, “I think the world of Bob Hertzberg. He’s passionate, he’d meticulous and he cares deeply about the institution — and that is important in this era of term limits.”
Hertzberg and outgoing speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D- Los Angeles), longtime buddies, have walked a bridge between Latino and Jewish communities.
The men, who share a Sacramento apartment when the legislature is in session, have also teamed up to discuss the state of Latino-Jewish relations at a Los Angeles area Jewish community center.
Hertzberg said the liaison is increasingly important in a state with a growing Latino population.
In Sacramento, Hertzberg developed the capitol Institute, a course for new members on protocol, etiquette and technology.
“They better understand how to do all that,” he said. “Our hands are tied if they are not.”
Hertzberg provides an important presence in the Assembly, said Steinberg. “Now, with members coming in and out, and running for other offices, it is important that the Assembly is well run and well organized.
As for one analyst’s assessment of him as intensely competitive and pragmatic.” Hertzberg roared with laughter.
“That’s the nature of this business,” he said