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California’s Jews Try to Sort out New Political Realities After Election

October 9, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

What’s a Jew to do when the Republican son of a Nazi Party member defeats the Democratic incumbent to become governor of the nation’s most populous state?

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, say jubilant Republicans, hoping that California Jews will flock to support the state’s new governor-elect, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“It used to be in California that we were afraid to speak out in a roomful of Jews, but now we’re standing up and speaking up,” the ecstatic chairman of the Southern California chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Bruce Bialosky, said at Schwarzenegger’s victory party Tuesday night. “Why, even the rabbis are changing their sermons!”

Bialosky’s enthusiasm was shared by Jewish Republicans across the state Tuesday night, minutes after Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, conceded his loss in the recall election, and the Republican action-movie star was chosen as his successor.

“This is akin to the Reagan revolution,” proclaimed attorney Sheldon Sloan, one of Schwarzenegger’s earliest Jewish backers. “We’re going to make big inroads into the Democratic hold on Jewish voters.”

That analysis was not shared by most Democrats or political analysts, however, who predicted that there would not be any fundamental changes in the state’s political culture — or in the Jewish tendency to vote Democratic.

Davis assiduously cultivated California’s one-million strong Jewish community during his five years as governor.

In a quick, informal election-night survey, experts and party activists weighed in on whether Jewish influence in Sacramento would wane under the new governor.

“I doubt it,” Republican pollster Arnold Steinberg said. “There are so many Jews in the entertainment industry and on the west side” of Los Angeles “who know Arnold, and he will be reaching out to the Jewish community fairly quickly.”

Bialosky and Sloan said they were certain that there were enough high-level Jewish Republicans in Los Angeles and other parts of the state that Jewish concerns would be heeded in the new administration.

Urban analyst Joel Kotkin disagreed, saying he foresaw a “pretty heavy gentile administration” with a concomitant loss of Jewish clout.

Experts said they doubted Schwarzenegger’s victory would do much to strengthen Republicans nationally.

But “it’s a big morale booster for the beleaguered White House,” said political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, of California State University in Fullerton.

The Republican victory could end up energizing Democrats, Sonenshein said, because the Davis recall has “enraged thousands of Jewish and other Democrats, who will redouble their efforts to beat Bush at the next election.”

Sonenshein predicted that the 2004 national election “will be the closest to a civil war we’ve had since the Civil War.”

The president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, John Fishel, said a Schwarzenegger administration’s real impact on California Jewish communities might be in economic terms, especially if deep budget cuts lower state support for Jewish and other social welfare agencies.

Jewish voters apparently were little influenced by charges that the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger, whose estranged father joined the Nazi Party during World War II, harbored admiration for Hitler when he was younger. Schwarzenegger was largely estranged from his father, and repeatedly has disavowed any support for his father’s political views.

Over the weekend, Schwarzenegger’s campaign released a transcript of an interview 25 years ago in which the bodybuilder-cum-actor said, “In many ways I admired people — It depends for what. I admired Hitler, for instance, because he came from being a little man with almost no formal education, up to power. And I admire him for being such a good public speaker and for his way of getting to the people and so on. But I didn’t admire him for what he did with it.”

The actor also has long supported the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, both as a donor and as a speaker on behalf of tolerance.

“Arnold has been our No. 1 supporter in the entertainment industry, and he is certainly an anti-Nazi,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean.

On election night, Cooper agreed to join the transition team managing the changeover from Davis to Schwarzenegger.

Kotkin, who said Jewish influence in Sacramento would wane as a result of the Schwarzenegger victory, put most of the blame for the change of fortune on Jewish leaders — who, he said, “had ignored their own tradition by making comfortable deals with Davis, an amoral politician who debased the political culture of California.”

Kotkin said that if the Democratic establishment had not pressured top-ranking Democrats to stay out of the recall race to keep support for Davis strong, stronger candidates like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is Jewish, “would have creamed Schwarzenegger.”

No demographic exit polls were available in the hours after polls closed, but Kotkin estimated that 30 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for Schwarzenegger, an unusually high figure for a Republican in California.

As euphoria spread among California Republicans after Tuesday’s election, Jewish Democrats sought whatever silver lining they could find in the news about the new governor.

Howard Welinsky, chairman of Democrats for Israel, said that while Schwarzenegger’s agenda was unknown, the Jewish community had had excellent relations with the state’s previous Republican governor, Pete Wilson, who served as Schwarzenegger’s chief advisor.

Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said he hoped the election results would fire up liberals. He also noted that other elected state offices, the legislature, and the House and Senate delegations still have Democratic majorities.

Jews also could find some modest consolation in the overwhelming defeat of Proposition 54, which was opposed by almost all Jewish organizations. The measure would have stopped the state from collecting and using most racial and ethnic data.

Opponents feared that passage of the proposition would have hampered efforts to stop racial profiling and encourage affirmative action.

But, as John Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, observed, even this victory “was a small wisp of balm on a large wound.”

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