A Party Divided?

Peter Savodnik is the Moscow Times' political editor.

The congressman who represents California’s 51st District is 63-year-old Bob Filner, and on the day of the Brawley Cattle Call Parade he was where a candidate was supposed to be: in the back seat of a ’59 T-Bird convertible, waving at thousands of voters camped out along Main Street.

Juan Vargas, the state assemblyman challenging Filner in the June 6 Democratic primary, also motored past the mid-century storefronts and the vendors hawking empanadas and cotton candy, a smiling reminder to vote for a 45-year-old Latino Catholic with roots right here on the hem of California.

People lugging lawn chairs had come on a clear November morning from Westmoreland, a few miles northwest, and from the direction of the Mexican border and the Imperial Valley fields filled with strawberries, tomatoes, sugar beets and corn. Almost every spectator either worked on a farm or for the government--at a prison, on a military base, for the Border Patrol--or they didn’t work at all. There were mostly brown faces and a smattering of olive faces and some gringos wearing cowboy hats or sombreros.

After the marchers and pickups posing as floats dispersed, I asked Filner if he liked spending his Saturday at a civic event celebrating agriculture. “Life is one big campaign,” he said, shrugging. Filner believes that ideas matter and that politicking, with its cheap emotion, is a farce. Despite a timid handshake and a scholar’s layered syntax, he was elected to Congress in 1992 to lead, or at least help shape, a national discourse that many liberals like him had begun to mistake for a Republican infomercial.

All of which is fine and noble until you’re at the post-parade picnic and you run into constituents such as the eight Castro brothers, with their God Bless America baseball caps, war stories and Purple Hearts. Then you have to throw back a few beers, try the barbecue pork and pose for a Polaroid. You have to give the people what they want.


Would that be Filner, a Jewish kid from Queens, N.Y., a civil rights freedom fighter and an Ivy League grad who was a history professor for many years at San Diego State before adopting a strict Capitol Hill haircut? Or Vargas, a Southern California native with a Harvard law degree and well-honed people skills?

Filner says that his opponent, now running for Congress for the third time, offers no ideas or policy prescriptions. He says that Vargas campaigns by subtly exploiting cultural and religious differences that pit rural, conservative, underrepresented Latinos against urban, liberal, overrepresented Jews. If true, it’s too soon to tell how that tactic will play out in the 51st--or whether it will be repeated in other congressional districts in future races. But one thing is clear: California Democrats are already wrangling with the internecine emotion behind it, and with the burgeoning prospect that its liberal core will melt.

California politics on almost every level, and especially Democratic Party politics, reckons with the influence of a generations-old liberal power base loosely tied to L.A.'s affluent Westside--and to the so-called Berman-Waxman machine. Howard Berman and Henry Waxman have represented the districts stretching from Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade to Pacoima, in the upper San Fernando Valley, for a collective 50-plus years.

Party insiders call the pair “good Democrats” because their voting records reflect the platform of the American Civil Liberties Union and the deeply held attitudes of most Jews nationwide. But neither congressman is an overbearing liberal. Waxman, especially, in his role as the thoughtful ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform, hardly comes off as an underhanded manipulator of the democratic process. Yet that is exactly how many Latinos in and out of office privately view Berman, Waxman and their numerous acolytes, some Jewish, some not.

As a result, many Republicans say that California’s power structure, cobbled together through the decades, is nearing collapse. Orange County Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, among others, argues that conservative values and the Republican Party eventually will lure away huge numbers of Latinos. Moderate Democrats maintain that Latinos will stay put--and so far they’ve been proven correct--but they concede that the party could veer to the right.

Meanwhile, Waxman and others downplay any enmity between the Jewish and Latino communities. They say that any rift--in the 51st District or elsewhere--is nonsense or, more likely, a GOP ploy to rankle the opposition.

But Filner, who often strays from the party line, points to the state’s demographic profile--more than 30% Latino and rising--and notes what he regards as a discomfiting status quo: The seven white Democrats representing districts from Los Angeles to the Mexican border, including him, are Jewish. So are California’s U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats. The head count of California Latinos in the House? Eight.

The upshot is that, in coming years, all but a few congressional incumbents will face divisive primaries like the one in the 51st. “Berman and Waxman are safe,” says Raoul Lowery Contreras, a Republican pundit from San Diego, “but they’re the only ones.”

Long before a latino political identity germinated in the grape-picking fields of the Central Valley, the East L.A. barrio of Boyle Heights and the border towns of Imperial County, Jews were aligned with blacks. The two groups’ unofficial pact, which predates the civil rights movement, flowered in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Jewish lawyers, politicians, business leaders and students, including Filner, mobilized to overthrow Jim Crow. It became the backbone of the Democratic Party in urban hubs across the country.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley ran the city from 1973 to 1993 by forging, in the years after the 1965 riots, a coalition of Westside liberals and inner-city African Americans. Violence had scared white people into backing a black mayor who could, the thinking went, isolate the ghetto. But when the chaos from the “not guilty” verdicts in the 1992 Rodney King police beating trial encroached on their sense of well-being, the coalition dissolved. Bradley declined to seek a sixth term. A Catholic Republican, Richard Riordan, replaced him.

As black-Jewish relations frayed, Latinos and Jews came together to sort through their common causes: On immigration, Jews wanted assurances that their Russian brethren could come to America, while Latinos were eager to admit job-seekers from Mexico and Central America. On workers’ rights, Jews, with their ties to the unions, were natural allies of the new California proletariat: the Latino janitors, busboys and garment workers who evoked a determination seen, two or three generations earlier, in Manhattan’s predominantly Jewish Lower East Side. And when it came to combating discrimination, police brutality, poverty and ineffective public schools, many Jews stepped up to help Latinos who could not help themselves.

In the mid-'90s, after Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative, galvanized millions of Latinos into voting for Democrats, the cross-cultural dialogue intensified. Los Angeles synagogues and Jewish philanthropic and activist organizations reached out to their Latino counterparts. Political leaders soon joined the effort. Latinos in the shrewd-but-approachable mold of Edward Roybal, a Latino elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, (including his daughter, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard) deepened their relationships with Berman, Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and others. Judge Harry Pregerson of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave a eulogy at Roybal’s funeral.

In the 2005 mayoral election, Jews not only contributed heavily to Antonio Villaraigosa’s victory but did so at the expense of Bob Hertzberg, a Jewish contender and former state Assembly speaker. Ace Smith, the San Francisco consultant who managed Villaraigosa’s campaign, said the mayor wooed Latinos and Jews by focusing on better pay for public school teachers, an uptick in the police force, longer left-turn lanes and an “emerald necklace” of green space along the Los Angeles River. The strategy worked, Smith says, because it skirted “identity politics,” wherein a candidate targets the special interests of an ethnic group. “I think it clearly will be the model for how to run and how to win--and, more broadly, how to govern.”

But for all of their common ground, Jews and Latinos also have their differences, particularly on issues where the church spills into everyday life.

Catholics tend to favor school vouchers and faith-based initiatives that funnel public funds to churches, says Steven Windmueller, director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College, near downtown Los Angeles. Jews tend to oppose the mingling of government and religion--and to support abortion rights.

Many Latinos, particularly in more cloistered neighborhoods, hew to caricatures of Jews as entertainment moguls whose lifestyles conflict with their conservative values, Windmueller explains. Routine interactions with Jewish shopkeepers or neighbors might dissuade them of stereotypes, but they rarely occur in many pockets of the city.

For example, East Los Angeles--once an olio of Russians, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Chinese, Japanese, Latinos, Irish and Italians--has distilled into a largely Latino community. In 1994, its main drag, Brooklyn Avenue, was renamed Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. Friction is inevitable in a rapidly shifting culture.

Signs of a disconnect stretch beyond Southern California. In March 2005, the Anti-Defamation League asked 1,600 survey respondents nationwide whether they thought Jews have too much power, are more loyal to Israel than the U.S., use shady business practices and were responsible for the death of Christ, among other questions. If they answered yes often enough, the league categorized them as moderately to strongly anti-Semitic.

The survey found that while 14% of Americans held anti-Semitic views, 19% of U.S.-born Latinos did. For foreign-born Latinos, the figure was 35%. According to Amanda Susskind, the league’s Pacific Southwest regional director, the negative preconceptions take root in parishes and schools in the immigrants’ native countries. “That is something we want to unravel,” Susskind says. “We want to make it go away.”

Los Angeles City Councilman Alex Padilla is tearing north on the 101 Freeway en route to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Mission Area station. It is a few weeks before the November special election that will sink Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s string of ballot measures, and political analysis is relentless. With his press secretary, Bill Mabie, behind the wheel, the 33-year-old Padilla holds forth on redistricting, his state Senate campaign (for which he would later give up his post as City Council president) and a homicide spike in North Hills.

Padilla knows how to package his ambitions, to anchor them to a story line that incorporates his mother, who cleans houses, or his father, a short-order cook, and maybe a vaguely construed (focus-grouped) plan for a fairer society.

At the police station, Padilla slips behind a lectern, alongside a few officers. Next to him is a tabletop display of sawed-off shotguns and pistols seized from shooting suspects earlier that day. After the photo op, Padilla meets with reporters from two local Spanish-language television stations. That night, the handsome, articulate candidate would stare into the homes of Angelenos and tell them their city was safer, thanks in part to him.

Even state Sen. Richard Alarcon, whose seat the city councilman is seeking, says Padilla’s “moment” is nearing. In fact, Padilla and other young Latino politicians, such as Cindy Montanez, Padilla’s state Senate rival, and Fabian Nunez, speaker of the state Assembly, would already be bigger players if not for the Democratic incumbents hell-bent on protecting the status quo. That’s the assertion of the Republicans behind the failed ballot initiative to shift the redistricting process from the state Legislature to a panel of retired judges. And some Democrats agree: Hell-bent the incumbents appear to be.

Democrats in California’s House delegation paid about $20,000 each in 2001 to Michael Berman, a political consultant and the congressman’s brother, to help redraw state congressional districts after the 2000 census. Democrats, with their 32 seats, acknowledged that the redistricting was aimed at protecting the most vulnerable in their party. Republicans approved the new lines because they couldn’t see a way to squeeze more seats out of Democratic-leaning California.

To outside observers, though, the scheme seemed to slice up, and thereby dilute, the Latino vote. Without the boundary shifts, Latino Democrats might have had a better shot at upsetting Berman himself.

Other redistricting beneficiaries were Lois Capps, the Democratic congresswoman whose 23rd District snakes up the coast, from Oxnard past Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo; David Dreier, the chairman of the state’s House GOP delegation, with his 26th District in the eastern outskirts of Los Angeles; and Ed Royce, the Republican whose 40th District arcs from the Los Alamitos Race Course up to Fullerton and down to the city of Orange, skirting Anaheim and Garden Grove. Adam Schiff and Jane Harman, Jewish Democrats whose L.A.-area House districts combine wealthy neighborhoods and a growing pool of Latino voters, may be untouchable for the rest of the decade, some Democrats say.

Down in the 51st, redistricting pulled in thousands of new Latino voters. Filner believes Vargas quietly made that happen through the state advisory committee that helped oversee the redistricting. Vargas counters that he never influenced any such changes.

The maneuvering initially infuriated the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In 2001, it sued unsuccessfully to force the redrawing of the districts held by Berman and Filner, among others, contending that the earlier plan siphoned off Latino votes and, ultimately, barred one, if not two or three, Latinos from winning House seats. John Trasvina, MALDEF’s general counsel, is quick to say that Berman is a good friend to Latinos. But he also predicts big changes after the next census. “We will definitely see more Latino districts” in 2012, he says.

Padilla, too, lavishes praise on Berman. It’s wise to stroke a congressman in your own party, particularly one whose House district overlaps your own City Council district. And--who knows?--in a few years, the 65-year-old Berman might step down. He might even endorse a successor or quietly direct his operatives to back someone, assuming that someone doesn’t say anything stupid.

But unscripted Latino politicians attack the “anti-Latino redistricting plan.” They look forward to 2012, when, they say, Padilla’s “moment” and the moments of other city officials, union leaders and civil rights activists will finally overwhelm the establishment in Congress. That is, the Jewish establishment.

In the mid-1980s, while studying to be a Jesuit priest in El Salvador, Juan Vargas was put in charge of 30 civil war orphans. One day, three Americans showed up at the orphanage to sing, but Vargas said no. There were stories of children being carted away, of nuns being raped, of villagers being mowed down by guerrillas. You never knew who people were. But Vargas relented, and not until years later did he learn that the trio who harmonized that day were Peter, Paul and Mary.

Vargas brims with similar soliloquies about his early life on a San Diego County chicken farm, in Central America and at Harvard Law School, about his family, his wife, his transition from practicing attorney to San Diego city councilman to state assemblyman, even his foibles. He is a thoughtful man, but neither abstract nor philosophical. He is very much of this place.

“I always feel this warmth,” Vargas said while knocking on doors last fall in Calexico, about 30 miles south of Brawley. The houses were single-story, stucco, often with an Our Lady of Guadalupe figurine on the door and miniature American flags or yellow ribbons taped to windowpanes.

But as Vargas swung open a chain-link gate into the front yard of the Rodriguez family, with its vegetable garden and black-gray mutt yapping wildly, he suddenly got a chill. “Whatever you do,” he told me, “don’t look like an immigration officer.”

The people who live here are mostly Mexican American. They don’t like illegal immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. But they distrust Anglos who call illegals “wetbacks” or terrorists. They remember Proposition 187.

Vargas’ strategy here is simple: Give Latinos an alternative to the gringo congressman from San Diego who doesn’t go to the church they go to because, well, he doesn’t go to church. Vargas never actually says this. But his supporters and detractors alike say it’s the subtext of the campaign.

When democrats talk about the camaraderie between Latinos and Jews, they point to events such as the Brawley Cattle Call Parade and people such as Bob Filner eating tostadas with Anglo cops and Latino mayors.

Sometimes they recall a past that is hard to imagine. Pregerson, the 82-year-old circuit court judge, grew up in Boyle Heights, attended Roosevelt High School, lived with Latinos, Slavs, Armenians: butchers, bakers, fruit vendors, furniture store owners, pool hall managers. When he summons images of East L.A., he sees Jews marrying Latinos and Latinos discovering their Sephardic roots. What binds Latinos and Jews are “mystic cords of memory,” Pregerson says, invoking Abraham Lincoln’s phrase. A spontaneous warmth that reaches backward and forward and dwarfs superficial differences, accidents of birth.

“Everybody’s looking for tensions, conflicts,” Pregerson says. “But I’m looking for harmony.”

Of course, harmony demands understanding and a collective will. Does that will exist today? Pregerson pauses. “I don’t know,” he says.

For his part, Vargas doesn’t seem to think the differences between communities are superficial. Neither do the Castro brothers. Back in Brawley, at the post-parade picnic, people are talking about the Latino who’s taking on Congressman Filner. They like Vargas, or they’ve heard of other people who like him. Julio Castro, a 70-year-old former schoolteacher, says of the state assemblyman: “I relate to him. I relate to the way he comes across. To me, he doesn’t personify a politician.”

The question, the only question that matters to the politicians, is what ultimately moves people such as Julio Castro to vote for one candidate or another, in San Diego, Los Angeles, the Central Valley, the Bay Area, everywhere in California where Latinos are migrating from the periphery to the center of political life. Vargas and his allies suggest that ethnicity defines the parameters of our politics. According to this view, the Democrats who live in Brentwood and Pacific Palisades and give lavishly to the Democratic National Committee cannot grasp what it means to think like a Latino--not one of their gardeners or housekeepers but a family man who fears God, struggles to feed his children and loves his adopted homeland: the kind of man Republicans call a Reagan Democrat.

Filner and other leading Jewish and Anglo Democrats counter that shared commitments to healthcare, a progressive tax code, an equitable immigration policy, a decent minimum wage, environmental justice and on and on trump skin color and the language gap. This is hard to say. For one thing, it may be impossible to speak of a single, self-contained, self-aware “Latino community.” As hundreds of thousands of newcomers seep across the border each year, and as immigrant bastions from working-class San Pedro to the Monterey Peninsula evolve into multilayered, post-immigrant neighborhoods, the concept of “the Latino community,” like “the Jewish community,” becomes increasingly inane. To which subset of that community, for example, do the Castros belong?

The brothers are well-known in Imperial County. And, in a way, the campaign for the 51st District begins and ends with the whole octet, from 84-year-old Abe to 62-year-old Arthur. The Castros like Filner fine, even though he’s against the war. He makes the rounds and gets things done.

But with the way he speaks and the plaid button-down shirts he wears and the way he hovers over people when he’s shaking hands, he’s just not--Julio doesn’t want to say anything unkind--their people.