Jan Perry Seeks Higher Calling

Black Councilwoman Wants To Be L.A.'s First Jewish Mayor

Seeking Success: Councilwoman Jan Perry says she has ‘always been a seeker.’ That impulse led her to convert to Judaism three decades ago, and fuels her run for mayor of Los Angeles.
Courtesy of Jan Perry
Seeking Success: Councilwoman Jan Perry says she has ‘always been a seeker.’ That impulse led her to convert to Judaism three decades ago, and fuels her run for mayor of Los Angeles.

By Rex Weiner

Published January 01, 2012, issue of January 06, 2012.
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“I’ve always been a seeker,” Councilwoman Jan Perry told the Forward during a recent interview over dinner.

The African American politician was responding to a question about her conversion 30 years ago to Judaism. But her comment could also have applied to why she was running for mayor of America’s second-largest city.

Perry was dining not far from her downtown office at the core of the 9th District, which she represents. Wearing a demure black dress and a large-beaded necklace, she perused the menu at Kendall’s Brasserie at the L.A. Music Center, while the supper crowd exited to catch the musical upstairs at the Ahmanson Theatre. As the restaurant hubbub shushed to a whisper, the councilwoman quietly ordered, and slyly requested that her shamelessly calorie-rich choice be off the record.

Jan Perry
Courtesy of Jan Perry
Jan Perry

If Jan Perry wins L.A’s mayoral election in 2013, the 56-year-old, three-term City Council member will make history as the city’s first woman mayor. A victory would also make Perry L.A’s first Jewish mayor.

The fact that Perry — who has been endorsed by Rep. Maxine Waters, former police commissioner Bernard Parks and former congresswoman Yvonne Burke, among others — is also African American may seem an unusual twist. But in the transracial, transcultural mix that is today’s Los Angeles, it actually places Perry solidly within the norm of Democratic mayoral hopefuls heading for primary balloting in June.

The four declared candidates, who enjoy an electoral edge over the GOP in this predominantly Democratic city, boast a variety of twists on Jewishness that could ultimately factor into voters’ choices — or not.

Contenders include Perry’s City Council colleague Eric Garcetti, whose lineage is Jewish and Latino; city Controller Wendy Greuel, a non-Jew married to a Jewish filmmaker, with a following among the Hollywood elite; and Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner, a Michigan-born Jewish investment banker and millionaire philanthropist who counts former Mayor Richard Riordan among his endorsers.

“These candidates all have overlapping constituencies,” said Raphael Sonenshein, chairman of the political science department at California State University, Fullerton, and a close observer of Southern California politics. He reckons Perry has “reasonable prospects” of winning. The fact that she is Jewish, in his opinion, “doesn’t hurt,” especially in a city where Jews are 6% of the population but often contribute 16% to 18% of the vote. But the real question is: Will it help?

Perry’s early years were shaped by the progressive politics of Cleveland’s East Side suburbs, where she grew up amid post-war optimism and the rise of a new black middle class. Her father was an attorney who worked for Carl Stokes, the nation’s first black mayor of a major city. Her mother, with a master’s degree in medical social work, helped lead the local push for fair housing laws. Getting out the vote on a local level, and getting behind the 1960s civil rights movement on the national level, were family activities.


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