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Jewish Voters Will Not Be Forgotten : Mayor's race: They remain committed to liberal agenda, but being shut out of the public discourse leads to hard feelings.

April 23, 1993|MARLENE ADLER MARKS | Marlene Adler Marks is a columnist for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

With this week's mayoral primary, the Bradley era officially comes to an end and some pundits are already writing the obituary of the great black-Jewish coalition that ran this city for 20 years. Speaking from one-half of that equation, I say, don't listen to them. Over the long haul, even through periods of social change and unrest such as Los Angeles is experiencing today, Jews have remained solidly in the liberal column, overwhelmingly Democratic (ask George Bush), staunch believers in interethnic dialogue and committed to policies of full participation by all in civic and economic life.

And yet, after Tuesday, there is some explaining to do. The Times exit poll shows that the Jewish vote, 16% of the total, split four ways, with predictably strong showings for two Jewish candidates, City Councilman Joel Wachs and Valley Assemblyman Richard Katz (27% and 25% respectively), and--here's the surprise--a strong 21% for Richard Riordan. City Councilman Michael Woo placed an amazingly weak fourth, with a grudging 14%.

Thus, Jewish voters were a major factor in putting the Republican attorney and investment banker into his strong No. 1 position, fully 9 points ahead of Democrat Woo, putative heir to the Bradley liberal political terrain.

But what accounts for the Riordan appeal, if not the law-and-order inference of his slogan, "Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around"? Oddly enough, his biggest boosters include those Jewish leaders most entrenched in interethnic dialogue and liberal politics. And here's where a little context might do some good.

Certainly many Jews seek out candidates who speak the language of social justice, with one provision: that Jews themselves are remembered and figure prominently in the better world to come. Being acknowledged and accepted, promoted and praised for its contributions to the commonweal is crucial to a group that still lives in mortal fear of oncoming discrimination and exclusion. Telling Jews that they're already overrepresented on boards and councils throughout the land does no good. A vibrant sense of history makes Jews know that power can be removed by fiat tomorrow morning.

When Jews feel that they are being taken for granted, or that they are being defined as "Anglo" or that their own needs are otherwise being sacrificed for the common good--forget it.

Unfortunately, in today's tribal political environment, all these weakened conditions have come into play. The Jewish community is reeling from the same sense of psychic dislocation as the rest of Anglo L.A., but ethnicity--the confusing nature of its status as both "white" and "minority"--creates its own particular tension.

Is it bean-counting to note that few Jews were named to the L.A. 2000 committee? To Rebuild L.A.? That the Jewish community has been written off since 1987, with few Jews named to city commissions? Then, last fall, the remapping of the L.A. Unified School District offended liberal Jewish parents in the San Fernando Valley, whose children represent the largest bloc of whites left in the public schools. Taken together, these and other incidents revealed to the Jewish community that one-time political allies now consider them irrelevant to the public discourse. Hard feelings begin with neglect.

And this is where Michael Woo comes in, having run a primary campaign that only continues that displacement. Woo was so busy cobbling an ethnic coalition, he forgot for the moment that Jews are ethnics too, if not above all else. While eagerly courting the black, Latino and Asian voter, he left the Jewish community almost entirely ignored. This was a major error even if Woo considered the Jewish vote captive to Wachs and Katz, since it undercut his claim to being the rightful heir to the Bradley black/Westside coalition. Like Tom Bradley in his aborted 1969 mayoral tryout, Woo seems to have assumed that Jewish voters would "do the right thing" even if he didn't mention them by name. Bad idea.

Because all along, the Riordan camp has been busy filling the vacuum. A staunch Roman Catholic, personally anti-choice, a backer of the campaign to unseat Supreme Court Justice Rose Bird, Riordan's Jewish alliance is not a natural fit. Yet, I have heard more than a few Jewish community leaders praise him as a man whose commitment to social action, history of endowment of minority programs and concern for inner-city youth and education almost makes him one of them. "He practices a very Jewish kind of tzedakah (charity)," one man told me. Already Riordan is persuading key people in the Jewish community that his way of life is not so remote from the liberal agenda they would seek to enact. It's quite a trick.

The Jewish vote frequently turns on the "him" or "not him" theory. Either Jews fall in love with a candidate regarded as Prince Charming (like Bradley) or they identify a candidate who is clearly unacceptable (Sam Yorty) whom they can rally against. Woo is not yet "him" and Riordan is not yet "not him." From the standpoint of a Jewish community yearning for coalition, participation and acknowledgment, it's an open race.

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