The prospect that Los Angeles will get its first Jewish mayor increased sharply after the votes were counted in the city’s recent non-partisan primary election. But whether Jewish issues will play any part in the next round of campaigning is about as uncertain as the identity of next year’s Oscar host.
The primary results left former City Council member Eric Garcetti, who received 33% of the vote, facing off against City Controller Wendy Greuel, who garnered 29%, in a run-off scheduled May 21. Garcetti, who is Jewish via his family’s maternal side and a member of IKAR, a trendy L.A. congregation, is perceived as the front-runner. Greuel, who is married to a Jew and whose son is enrolled in Hebrew school, has expressed her interest in conversion as “something I would like to do.”
But it remains to be seen whether either candidate will now court the city’s influential Jewish vote more aggressively than he or she did during the primary.
While both Greuel and Garcetti have cited their Jewish family ties and have made campaign stops at many of L.A.’s synagogues, neither has made a special appeal to Jewish groups. A search of the supporters listed on each candidate’s website fails to turn up a single rabbi or Jewish organization. That contrasts with last year’s congressional race between Democrats Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, in which support for Israel and Jewish interests was a part of each candidate’s stump speech.
One possible reason for this reticence is the difficulty in identifying just what those municipal Jewish interests are. The Jewish vote in L.A., largely Democratic, is divided vertically and horizontally between the classes and the masses, but in a manner unique to this company town.
On the horizontal plane, there is on one side the “friends of David, Steven and Jeffrey,” as locals dub the entertainment industry clique gathered around the DreamWorks Studios power trio of David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Its leaders have endorsed and contributed generously to Greuel, who once worked for DreamWorks.
On the other side there are younger entertainment industry folks — musicians, comedy writers and other less prominent creative types who are concentrated in Garcetti’s Eastside City Council District 13. They are the equivalent of New York City’s Brooklyn hipster enclave, and many of these individuals are campaigning for Garcetti. TV producer and filmmaker Jill Soloway, who is a force behind the alternative group Eastside Jews and recently won a Sundance Film Festival award, is among his East Side boosters.
A pre-election poll conducted by the L.A. Times and the University of Southern California showed Garcetti with an advantage on the Eastside, where he and his wife live; Greuel, meanwhile, has an edge in the Valley, where she resides with her film producer husband and their young son.
That plays up a divide on the vertical plane, which pits those “below the line” (Valley) against those “above the line” (West Side). In L.A.-speak this translates as the “working class” of the entertainment industry (crew, visual effects, catering and other services) versus “the upper class” (cast, producers, writers, lawyers, agents). Complicating this construct are guild affiliations, income levels and the traditional Jewish sentiment for unions.
The municipal unions (teachers, police, fire department, utility workers) constitute a dividing line, too, but one that Jews are less involved with today than historically. Yet it lies at the heart of the campaign’s biggest issue: the city’s finances.
L.A. is broke. The candidates need the unions’ support to win, but they don’t want the voters to think they’re pawns in the hands of the unions with their demands on the city’s budget for wages and pensions.
This is what most concerns retiring L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Widely admired by Jews from all the city’s sectors, Yaroslavsky has refrained from endorsing anybody. And in a recent statement, Yaroslavsky implied he was distressed by the whole race.
“In recent weeks, I have been open about my frustration at the lack of discussion in the campaign about the precarious state of the city’s finances,” Yaroslavsky wrote. “Those criticisms have not been exclusively aimed at one candidate. On the contrary, they have been aimed equally at all the major candidates who, in my judgment, have not realistically addressed what they would do about the city’s financial challenges.”
Of course, that’s easy for Yaroslavsky to say, now that he’s stepping away from the firing line into retirement from public office after four decades as the city’s most prominent and politically influential Jew.
“People ask me who I want, and I say, ‘Zev,’” former Beverly Hills mayor Jimmy Delshad said at a pre-campaign gathering of candidates, organized by the Iranian Jewish group 30 Years After. The first Iranian-Jewish chief executive of an American city, Delshad echoed many Jewish Angelenos in saying, “I was hoping Yaroslavsky would enter the race.”
If it proves anything about L.A.’s Jewish vote, the rise of Jewish candidates in 2013 coinciding with the community’s lack of clear preferences shows that what was once a reliable Jewish bloc has all but dissolved into the fabric of civic society, settled over with a sense of battles fought and won.
“We’re Angelenos,” political consultant Larry Levine said. “We may be Jewish, but we’re Angelenos. We’ve never had a Jewish mayor, and nobody seems to care.”
That may change, of course. “I expect that Jewish voters will be a big target in the runoff,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, one of the losing candidates in the race may be heading toward a more intensively Jewish future than ever, precisely because she lost. When asked in February what she would do if she failed in her mayoral bid, councilmember Jan Perry, an African-American convert to Judaism, told the L.A. Jewish Journal that she would study to become a rabbi.
Contact Rex Weiner at firstname.lastname@example.org