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Coalition Has Held, but Watch Out in ’93 : City’s Latinos See Opportunity in Yaroslavsky’s Departure From Mayor’s Race

<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer. </i>

It’s easy to understand the collective sigh of relief that political activists from Pacific Palisades to Boyle Heights breathed last week when Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky decided not to challenge Mayor Tom Bradley in April’s municipal election. Many feared that a contest between the black mayor and the Jewish councilman could have gotten rough and torn apart the liberal black-Jewish coalition that has largely controlled city politics since Bradley was first elected in 1973.

But Yaroslavsky’s announcement may only postpone the demise of that coalition for four years. When this city elects its mayor in 1993, the pressures on the alliance are going to come not just from ambitious young Jewish politicians like Yaroslavsky but also from the large and increasingly restive Latino community.

This city’s Latinos have played a quiet background role in the black-Jewish alliance, voting for Bradley every time that he has run, and they have occasionally benefitted from it. When Julian Nava became the first Latino elected to the Los Angeles school board in 1967, he needed Jewish support to win what was then a citywide race. And both Latino members of the City Council, Richard Alatorre and Gloria Molina, have prominent Jewish supporters.

But the ties between this city’s Jewish and Latino leaders have never been as close as those between Jewish leaders and Bradley. And as a new generation of young leaders emerges on the Westside and the Eastside, they are starting to look at their respective interests more parochially than did their more traditionally liberal elders.

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This is not to suggest that there is no longer any cooperation between the two communities. Local leaders of the National Conference of Christians and Jews give out annual awards that encourage the entertainment industry to improve its portrayal of Latinos in motion pictures and on television. And the Chicano-Jewish Dialogue brings together leaders of both communities to discuss issues like U.S. foreign policy in Central America and the Middle East.

But there can be no denying the underlying differences that have led many Latino leaders to conclude that Yaroslavsky’s decision not to run against Bradley creates an opportunity for them to gear up to support one of their own for mayor in four years. Some of the names that are being mentioned as possible candidates are obvious, like Alatorre and Molina. Others are not so well known--like Dan Garcia, a former city planning commissioner, and Carmen Estrada, who succeeded him on the Planning Commission. Both could be formidable candidates because of their expertise on citywide issues like urban growth and transportation.

Such talk is not good news for Yaroslavsky. He had been gearing up to challenge Bradley for more than two years, and he backed down only after public-opinion polls indicated that he was likely to lose. Bradley is so personally popular with city residents, Yaroslavsky’s pollsters concluded, that they do not hold him responsible for problems like gang violence, uncontrolled growth and traffic congestion. If Yaroslavsky could find any consolation in his decision, it was the possibility that he could run for mayor again in 1993, when Bradley would be finishing his fifth term and might be more vulnerable or even willing to step aside at the age of 75. But if Yaroslavsky runs for mayor then, he will almost certainly face a serious Latino contender--not to mention black, white or Asian-American candidates who might emerge in the meantime.

But if a serious Latino candidate does run for mayor, this city’s Latino leaders must prepare not just to finance and run a major campaign but also to explain their decision to their former allies. And if the unscientific sampling of opinion that I heard in talking with Latinos about Yaroslavsky’s decision is at all accurate, they have a few things to talk about.

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“I suppose a Chicano-Jewish alliance existed back in Nava’s day,” a Mexican-American businesswoman said. “But it’s gone now. When I go to the Westside I sense no kinship there. For the most part, people are interested in Westside issues, or environmental issues--which usually means keeping the Westside the way it is.”

“I can remember when I could call on lots of Jewish friends to support a candidate like Nava,” said a Mexican-American who has raised money for several Latino candidates and issues. “Now there are just a few I can rely on, and they’re all old--in their 60s and 70s.”

“The relations between old-style liberals in all ethnic communities are breaking down,” a longtime Eastside activist told me sadly. “The leaders on the Westside now, like (Rep. Henry) Waxman and (Rep. Mel) Levine, just don’t try to keep their ties with the Eastside the way the older Jewish leaders did. They come to us now only when they need us, not to ask us what we need.”

Obviously the changes that these people noted have been generational, and thus inevitable with the passage of time. And, while talking about them openly rather than privately can be painful, it’s probably necessary. If these changes are not faced, the underlying ethnic tensions that everyone feared might boil over in 1989 are only going to worsen.

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