A Pyrrhic Victory in the Valley

Gregory Rodriguez, associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy

Politicians often like to pretend that a wall separates their behavior as candidates from their standing as officeholders. True, the overlap in skills required to win elections and to govern is not large. But, sometimes, as in the race for the Democratic nomination for the 20th state Senate seat, the tactics and tensions of a campaign have consequences that go beyond winning and losing and affect the larger dynamics of politics for the worse.

Last Tuesday, Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon claimed a 31-vote victory in his bitterly contested race against former Assemblyman Richard Katz. But Katz refused to concede the election because he is outraged at what he considers race-baiting by the Alarcon campaign. Furthermore, the contest has exacerbated tensions between the political elites of two of the Democratic Party's most important constituencies--Latinos and Jews. How Democratic leaders choose to deal with the flare-up in the San Fernando Valley race may determine the future of coalition politics in Los Angeles.

Race was a silent factor throughout the Katz-Alarcon battle. Endorsements largely broke along ethnic lines. Both candidates clearly--and legitimately--appealed to ethnic loyalty to attract votes. But in at least two instances, each candidate also sought to exploit interethnic distrust to gain support. Several prominent Jewish civic leaders are understandably upset when a pro-Alarcon letter, sent out by state Sen. Richard G. Polanco, strongly implied that Katz was a bigot who had colluded with Gov. Pete Wilson and others to deny Latinos their right to vote. Katz's moral outrage over the letter, however, seems a bit overwrought, given his own piece of mail comparing Alarcon with a Latino politician tainted by accusations of wrongdoing and under numerous investigations, criminal and otherwise, Richard Alatorre.

State Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres says he will encourage the winner of the race to "reach out to the other community." But he also doubts whether there would be an uproar had the author of the Polanco letter been named "Smith or Jones." He may be right. Yet, most Anglo politicians have not been angrily decrying the use of racial wedge issues over the last few years.

Nor would we have seen such a furor had a Smith or Jones been the target of the Polanco letter. While the letter was not explicitly anti-Semitic, Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation are especially concerned that a Jewish official has been unfairly race-baited. Polanco shouldn't be surprised that his letter is receiving more attention than he would have liked.

As Latino political power grows in California and other groups feel a corresponding decline in their political influence, more ethnically based political battles are inevitable. But politicians of all races have to begin to wonder at what point their appeals to ethnic loyalty may begin to upset California's ever tenuous racial balance. Many now recognize what the state Republican Party brought upon itself by using race for short-term political profit. Democrats, traditionally, are more dependent on interethnic cooperation, with Los Angeles a case in point. If the anger of Jewish and Latino political elites trickles down to the average Latino and Jewish voter, both Jewish and Latino candidates would be hard put to capture the mayoralty of Los Angeles in 2001 or 2005. In the last municipal election, each group represented 15% of the electorate.

Shorter term, Alarcon may have trouble mending bridges with, and effectively governing on behalf of, his Jewish constituents, especially since he places all the responsibility for the offensive letter on his benefactor, Polanco. If Jewish-Latino political relations deteriorate further, Jewish voters may abandon the Democratic Party temporarily if a candidate perceived to be unfriendly is running. Will Jewish voters in the Valley district vote for Alarcon this November? Will they stay away? There is a recent precedent in urban American politics.

In 1993, Jewish voters largely abandoned Democratic New York Mayor David Dinkins, an African American, in favor of Rudolph W. Giuliani, in part because of Dinkins' perceived insensitivity to Jews during the 1992 Crown Heights riots. Similarly in Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the riots, Jews voted overwhelmingly for Republican Richard Riordan, in part because of perceived Democratic "softness" toward social disorder and racial strife. While still fairly liberal in their voting patterns in federal elections, urban Jewish voters have become more comfortable backing local moderate Republicans who may be conservative on taxes and crime yet stay clear of the culture wars.

At another level, a growing Jewish-Latino political rift could prove harmful to Los Angeles Democrats. Jews will continue to decline as a percentage of the city's electorate, but they will likely remain big campaign contributors. The winning combination of Jewish financing and an expanding Latino voter base is not lost on Democratic strategists. Although it's not likely to change the final outcome, Katz has threatened a recount for which Sen. John Burton, president pro tem of the state Senate, has offered to pick up some of the tab. During the first tally of votes, the Alarcon campaign charged that Katz representatives were discriminating against Latinos by challenging the absentee ballots of voters with Spanish surnames. If true, it raises the specter of illegal voting, the issue that had Democrats up in arms not so long ago in the Orange County congressional race between Robert K. Dornan and Loretta Sanchez. Any recount of the Katz-Alarcon tally would probably include some scrutiny of Latino voters.

Ironically, this mess could end up undermining the Democratic Party's great moral trump card among Latino voters. If Democratic candidates can feel free to challenge Latino votes simply on the basis of Spanish surnames, then, as regards Latinos, the two major parties might not be that different after all. The favored Latino strategy of painting all opponents as anti-Latino has become so habitual that Latinos have begun to use it against their own party.

Of course, there's a good chance that the Latino-Jewish political rift will never become that dire. Much depends on Democratic leaders' response to the racial overtones of the Katz-Alarcon race. One Latino member of the Democratic National Committee has called the Polanco letter "unconscionable." Most political professionals, however, are likely to see the antics of both camps as an inevitable part of politics. "Politicians are willing to use neutron bombs just so they can win," says political scientist Fernando Guerra. "And then they think they can put it all back together again."

Still, the tenor of the Katz-Alarcon race is all the more worrisome given the stature of the politicians involved. Katz was a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles in 1993; Alarcon has been mentioned as a future contender for that job. Polanco is said to be keeping his options open. Tensions between Jewish and Latino officials have been simmering since last year's battle over rebuilding County-USC Hospital. They flared as well during the fight over the Metropolitan Transit Authority's restructuring and spending plans. They're likely to erupt again when Eastside school-board member David Tokofsky and San Fernando Valley Rep. Howard Berman are next up for reelection.

L.A.'s ethnic political power shift is not over. Its leaders still can determine what kind of transition they'd like it to be.

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