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LA mayoral race 2013: Jewish vote could be key to Los Angeles mayor's race

A vote-counting machine and voting stickers.
A vote-counting machine and voting stickers.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Five candidates for mayor in the March 5th Los Angeles primary election will debate Tuesday night at Sinai Temple on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

There's a good reason why L.A.'s mayoral hopefuls are courting Jewish voters.

Even in an election with a low voter turnout, Jewish voters tend to turn out in large numbers - and in a primary election with a low voter turnout expected, the candidate who wins the lion's share of Jewish votes could win a spot in a May runoff election.

RELATED: Candidates for Los Angeles mayor are cautious during live TV debate

During a debate this month at Beth Jacob, a modern orthodox congregation in Beverly Hills, three leading candidates for Los Angeles mayor talked up their affinity with the Jewish community.

City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who's a member of a progressive non-denominational Jewish congregation, pointed to family history.

"My family came here as dreamers and as doers," said Garcetti, "fleeing wars on my father's side, the Mexican Revolution, on my mother’s side from pogroms under the czars, and they came here to Boyle Heights."

City Councilwoman Jan Perry noted that she converted to Judaism in the 1980s.

"I am a woman who is African American, chose to become Jewish and speaks Spanish in a city where all doors are open to me," said Perry.

City Controller Wendy Greuel is not Jewish, but her husband is. He’s active with the American Jewish Committee, a public policy and advocacy organization.

"I am proud to have stood with many of you and with Israel," said Greuel. "As mayor of Los Angeles, I will stand with you to make Los Angeles the great city I know it can be."

Small numbers, big impact

Although they make up only about 6 percent of Los Angeles’ population, Jews matter in this election because they may cast up to 17 percent of all votes in the mayor’s race – and no single candidate can claim that he or she has locked up that vote.

That’s true in part because there’s as much variety in the community as there is among the candidates for mayor, says Rafe Sonenshein, executive director of the The Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

"If you live in the San Fernando Valley where a big block of the Jewish community lives, you’ll probably be more inclined toward Wendy Greuel," said Sonenshein. "If you live in Mid-City or Hollywood, you might be a little bit more inclined toward Eric Garcetti."

Councilwoman Perry has fewer Jewish voters in her South L.A. district, but Sonenshein says Perry is "certainly getting well-known among Jewish voters."

Coalition-building an integral element of Jewish politics in L.A.

Whoever’s elected to succeed Antonio Villaraigosa in June will not be the first Jewish mayor of Los Angeles. That distinction belongs to Bernard Cohn, appointed acting mayor for few weeks – back in 1878.

After Cohn, Jews – and virtually anyone who wasn't white and Christian – were long absent from elected office in Los Angeles. 

A shared sense of exclusion from the city’s power structure motivated Jewish and minority voters to elect the first Latino city councilman, Edward Roybal, in 1949 – and the city's first African-American mayor, Tom Bradley, in 1973.

The civil unrest of the early 1990s frayed the coalition – but not the importance of courting this influential cohort of L.A. voters.

Adeena Bleich with the nonpartisan Jewish organization CivicCare, which sponsored the debate at Congregation Beth Jacob, says traffic, business taxes and public safety all matter deeply – along with education, an issue that resonates across the religious spectrum from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox.

All the candidates, says Bleich, were "concerned about the state of creating public-private partnerships and ensuring that good Jewish education and that good education continues in the city of L.A."

To Bleich and her constituency, voting is more than a civic obligation.

"It’s not just something we do because our friends are doing it," says Bleich. "It’s something we do because it can actually help repair the world."