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Top contenders share strong ties to Jewish community

Though only about 6% of L.A.'s registered voters are Jewish, they are seen as having deep influence across the political landscape.

February 01, 2013|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles Mayoral candidates, left to right, Jan Perry, Kevin James, Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel and Emanuel Pleitez are seen before a debate sponsored by the Los Angeles Coalition for the Economy and Jobs at UCLA's Royce Hall.
Los Angeles Mayoral candidates, left to right, Jan Perry, Kevin James,… (Los Angeles Times )

Eric Garcetti jokingly refers to himself as a "kosher burrito." Wendy Greuel's mother accurately predicted that she would "marry a nice Jewish boy." And Jan Perry frequently talks about how her conversion to Judaism affects her worldview.

The field vying to become Los Angeles' next mayor is diverse in many ways, but one commonality that binds three of the top candidates is their long-standing ties to the Jewish community. All are highlighting their history in hopes of gaining an edge in this key voter bloc.

Jewish voters make up a small sliver of the city's registered voters, about 6%. But they are receiving an outsized amount of attention because they vote in high numbers, even in low-turnout city elections, where they tend to account for nearly one-fifth of the ballots cast.

FULL COVERAGE: Los Angeles mayor's race

"It's a very high turnout group with a very high propensity to vote," said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "In theory, it would be very important if it was a monolithic group. But that depends on the political situation."

Nationally, Jewish voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic and are highly focused on the security of Israel. In city elections, they are not as motivated by a single issue. But when they have coalesced behind a candidate, they have often been part of successful alliances to win citywide office, such as when they teamed with African American voters to elect Tom Bradley mayor. He was first elected in 1973.

If county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky were in this race, many political observers believe he would win the lion's share of the Jewish vote because of his name recognition after nearly four decades in local elected office; his representation of the Westside and the Valley, the two geographic centers of the Jewish vote; and because he began his career as an activist working for Jews in the Soviet Union.

"Had Zev been in the race, this would have made it a more challenging situation for all these candidates," said Steven Windmueller, professor emeritus of American Jewish affairs at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. "With him not in this race, that opens the door to everyone having a play in the Jewish community."

Garcetti, Greuel and Perry lack Yaroslavsky's identity in the Jewish community, and all have sought his blessing. He has not decided whether he will endorse.

"I've met with all of them, I know them all, I've worked with them all," Yaroslavsky said. "They're all good people.... One of them is going to be mayor, and I wish them the best of luck once they get that job because it's going to be one monster of a job."

The candidates have been regularly courting the community, reaching out through advertising in Jewish media, attending dinners for organizations that promote Israel and speaking at forums put on by Jewish institutions.

Like all politicians, they tailor their message to the audience. During a Tuesday mayoral gathering at the Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, Garcetti and Greuel mentioned enjoying attending services there. Perry and Garcetti pledged that the principles of Judaism would guide them if elected mayor. Perry also described her conversion, saying that it was "a life-transforming experience, one that sustains me in my work and my life."

At a January forum at the Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, Garcetti spoke of his mother's ancestors fleeing pogroms and attending the Breed Street shul, the teachings of the Talmud and his support for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was seized by Palestinian militants and held in captivity for five years. Perry pledged if elected mayor to help families that cannot afford to send their children to private Jewish day schools. Greuel mentioned the Jewish high holidays and spoke of her pride in standing with the state of Israel.

The candidates' statements may sound like pandering, but some Jewish voters give them a pass because of their track record.

"They're not showing up at Jewish events in 2012 and 2013 because there's an election looming," said Sam Yebri, an attorney and chairman of the Jewish Federation's New Leaders Project. "None of them are strangers to the Jewish community. They have been so involved, and their support is genuine. That's exciting and refreshing, but it does make it harder."

Garcetti's father is Mexican and was raised Catholic; his mother is Jewish. The family attended temple during the High Holy Days but were not observant Jews. Joking that he was raised by an atheist and an agnostic, Garcetti says he sought to become closer to his faith in his youth, attending services with more observant cousins, making his parents send him to Jewish summer camp and joining a minyan (a Jewish prayer group) when he was a graduate student at Oxford University.

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