Will Jan Perry become the first African American Jewish woman mayor of LA?
If Jan Perry has her way, Los Angeles will elect its first female mayor and its first Jewish mayor come 2013 – her. The 56-year-old Perry, who has represented Los Angeles’ 9th District for three terms, is one of four Democratic candidates seeking their party’s nomination in June’s primary. She is not the only Jewish candidate or the only female candidate in the running – but she is the only candidate who is both. She also happens to be African-American.
Perry converted to Judaism 30 years ago after studying with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller at UCLA’s Hillel. “I think it was because I saw it as a way to serve the world,” she has said of her decision to embrace Judaism. Indeed, Perry was raised in a family that valued serving the world. Her father, Samuel, was an attorney for Carl Stokes, the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city (that’d be Cleveland); her mother, Betty, was an advocate for fair housing and was a voice for voter registration in the civil rights. At one time or another, both of her parents served as mayor of Perry’s small hometown of Woodmere, Ohio.
As a teenager, Perry left the Buckeye State to pursue a journalism degree from the University of South California in the mid-‘70s and went on to receive a master’s in public administration from UCLA. Establishing herself as a lifelong Californian, she pursued a career in public office by starting out as a paralegal (who moonlighted as president of her homeowners’ association) and eventually making her way onto the staffs of various Council members. In 2001, Perry campaigned for and won the City Council seat of her former boss, Ninth District Councilwoman Rita Walters, when term limits forced Walters out of office. Her campaign slogan was “money, funding, community.”
In an address given at LA’s Sinai Temple two years ago, Perry told those in attendance, “As an elected official, I make important decisions and take actions that require fortitude of mind, strong convictions, and the courage that accompanies the development of public policy.” Indeed, her strong convictions have earned her both the respect and, occasionally, the ire of her constituents. She is credited with overseeing the revival of downtown Los Angeles and taking a tough stand on the obesity epidemic by enforcing strict regulations upon LA’s fast food restaurants. For the latter, she earned the nickname “The Hamburglar,” a reference to McDonald’s cartoon thief. In 2008, she was the subject of a less-than-flattering documentary titled “The Garden,” which chronicled a battle between local government and LA’s urban farmers with Perry at the center. Overall, though, the community seems to like Jan Perry, the ballroom-dancing, Boardwalk Empire-loving Councilwoman who counts among her achievements “two wetland parks in highly urbanized South LA, a new $15 million multi-use City Hall there, a giant Fresh ‘n Easy grocery store, the LA Live complex of housing and retail across from the Staples Center.”
Perry’s religion wasn’t an issue during her campaign for City Council: “I never ran on a Jewish ticket," she told the Jewish Journal in 2001. "It's just not something I generally do.” In early 2010, though, she returned to the Journal’s offices to announce her candidacy for mayor. In a city where Jews comprise 6 percent of the population – but contribute to as much of 18 percent of the vote – all of the four Democratic candidates may have Jewish appeal with voters. Other candidates in the LA mayoral race include: Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner, who is also Jewish; Councilman Eric Garcetti, of Jewish and Latino heritage; and city Controller Wendy Greuel, whose filmmaker husband is Jewish.
But Perry isn’t backing down. “I believe in the potential of Los Angeles and I know that I have qualifications, tenacity, and strength to continue to move our city forward,” she says. As the June primary looms nearer, we’ll see whether the residents of Los Angeles agree.