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In Los Angeles, a Different Kind of Political Race
Posted on Feb 8, 2013
Los Angeles is having an election for mayor, a slogging, nuts-and-bolts sort of contest that doesn’t resemble the popular image of this challenging city.
The L.A. everyone talks about extends from the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood westward to the beaches of Malibu with a significant subcolony in the San Fernando Valley with its studios producing films ranging from features to porn. Fashionable clothes and cars—Mercedes, Audis and of course Priuses—along with incredibly snobbish foodies prevail in this world.
That was not the one I entered on a recent evening in a packed auditorium at Loyola Marymount University, a few miles north of Los Angeles International Airport, for a forum featuring the five main candidates for mayor. LMU students and residents of nearby middle-class communities were interested in the unglamorous concerns that dominate their lives—traffic, municipal debt, local taxes, the police department and whether to expand LAX.
A student who said he had lived in a Skid Row shelter for two years asked about homelessness. Others had their questions: What about water? What about city employee pensions? What about LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s policy of not turning over low-level offenders to federal immigration authorities?
That particular question pointed out the sharp differences between this local election and the rhetoric of national politics. Los Angeles is a strongly Democratic city in one of the bluest states. But what’s more relevant is the multifaceted ethnic population of a city where the residents have roots in about 140 countries. Latinos comprise L.A.’s biggest group, followed by whites, African-Americans and Asians. As a result, discussion of immigration in Los Angeles has little resemblance to the debate in Washington or middle America where even giving undocumented immigrants a tortuous path toward citizenship is argued interminably. At least that’s how it seems to this Jew, descended from Eastern Europeans and now living in the Los Angeles neighborhood called Little Persia.
Los Angeles’ polyglot population has produced candidates trying to be as diverse as the city itself.
City Councilman Eric Garcetti is Jewish before Jewish groups and Latino among Hispanics. His father, Gil Garcetti, who used to be the L.A. County district attorney, is of Mexican and Italian descent. His mother, the former Sukey Roth, is Jewish.
“I always felt myself to be Jewish and Latino very comfortably,” Garcetti said in an interview. “Weekends were both filled with bowls of menudo and lots of bagels.”
City Controller Wendy Greuel was born Christian but is married to a Jew and their son is being raised as one. She told me, “I believe in the Jewish tradition and religion; the values that the community have are important to me. About giving back, about the good moral values, about being part of a community.” She also speaks frequently of her days working for the late L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American who was elected and re-elected by a coalition of blacks and Jews.
City Councilwoman Jan Perry has a unique slant. She is an African-American who has represented a South Los Angeles district consisting mainly of Latino and black residents. But while a student at USC, she converted to Judaism. I asked her why. Perry replied that she was “on the hunt for something big. ‘Why am I here? What is my purpose, my role as a woman, my role in society?’... The big moment for me in being Jewish was to be more community oriented in developing my observances, being part of a community.”
The two other top candidates in the March 5 primary each claim a slice of Los Angeles’ diversity. Kevin James, the only Republican, is an attorney and former conservative talk radio host who is gay and has been an advocate for services for gay and lesbian people for several years. Emanuel Pleitez was born and raised poor in East Los Angeles Latino communities. He went on to graduate from Stanford University, served on Obama administration transition teams and was an executive for a tech company.
The nature of these candidates has resulted in an absence of divisive social and cultural issues in the election.
The lack of racial acrimony in the election can be partially attributed to the presence of the current mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who was re-elected in 2009 and must leave office because of term limits. The mayor has many critics but you don’t hear them publicly spout the veiled racism that characterized too much of the presidential race. Rather, people chide him because he loves the glitter side of L.A. too much—too many girlfriends, too many celebrity pals and parties.
As the city’s first Mexican-American mayor since early California statehood days, he’s crossed ethnic lines easily and will leave office with a nitty-gritty legacy of new rail and bus transit lines, some built and others—including a subway—yet to be completed.
The projects tend to bring the city together. Having covered the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, I’m always afraid the city could blow up again. But so far it hasn’t.
Some complain that it’s boring to watch a mayoral campaign focused on matters such as where to put new rail lines and an airport runway. I find it comforting and a welcome relief from the discord of national politics.
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