A Tale of Two Cities
A Small City In A Big War
by Dan Walters
Originally published 25 September 2000
in Sacramento Bee

Monday, September 25, 2000
Section: MAIN NEWS
Page: A3

HAWAIIAN GARDENS - This tiny, impoverished and predominantly Latino city in southern Los Angeles County is an unlikely locale for a high-stakes political squabble with international ramifications - but California seems to produce many strange imbroglios. The city's most striking feature is the newly opened $11 million Hawaiian Gardens Casino, a lavish cardroom that supporters hope will generate jobs and millions of dollars for city coffers. Its owner is Dr. Irving Moskowitz, who lives in Florida but who, critics say, holds almost dictatorial sway over Hawaiian Gardens. While Moskowitz is little known in California, he is a famous and extremely controversial figure in Israel, best known as a friend of hard-line politicians and a financier of provocative Jewish settlements in lands that both Israelis and Palestinians claim.

Moderate Israelis see Moskowitz as an impediment to peace, and that conflict has been transplanted into Southern California Jewish politics, with Moskowitz's detractors alleging that the Hawaiian Gardens Casino is just a device to funnel more money into his Middle East projects - an allegation he denies. The war of words between Jewish factions, meanwhile, morphed into one of Southern California's many Latino political conflicts, dividing the Latinos who dominate Hawaiian Gardens' city government. The anti-Moskowitz group, calling itself the Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem, formed an alliance with a Latino faction headed by state Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles.

Assemblyman Scott Wildman, D-Los Angeles, who chaired the Legislature's Joint Audit Committee, ordered up what turned out to be a 154-page examination of the casino, suggesting that the city's use of redevelopment to underwrite the project may have been illegal. The report, released in June, termed the casino "a gross abuse of redevelopment for the benefit of a single private interest." Wildman, who will leave the Legislature this year, also scheduled a Los Angeles hearing to give Moskowitz's critics a platform from which to air their complaints. And that's when Bob Hertzberg, the first Jewish speaker of the Assembly in more than 70 years, found himself embroiled. In a series of personal and written exchanges, Wildman and Hertzberg argued over whether the hearing would be held and whether Wildman or his successor as committee chairman, Fred Keeley of Santa Cruz, would preside.

Wildman balked at ceding control of the matter to Keeley and attempted to form a Hawaiian Gardens subcommittee. Hertzberg blocked that move, Wildman insisted on holding the hearing and Hertzberg dumped him from the Audit Committee entirely. Wildman wound up staging an unofficial, four-hour hearing last Monday, devoted mostly to denunciations of Moskowitz.

"The town is completely controlled by Moskowitz, politically and financially, in a way that is not healthy," former Hawaiian Gardens City Attorney Julia Sylva said at one point. But Moskowitz's attorney, Beryl Weiner, dismissed the critics as "a bunch of sore losers and whiners." Now Hertzberg finds himself the subject of scorn from the anti-Moskowitz faction, especially since Wildman suggested at the hearing that the Assembly speaker had caved in to political pressure. But Hertzberg insists that "this has nothing to do with Moskowitz, only Wildman," and adds that he is more than willing to have public hearings under Keeley.

As that front continues to boil, another has been opened in the state Department of Justice, which must decide whether Moskowitz's casino will receive a permanent operating license. Attorney General Bill Lockyer is being hammered by Jewish and Latino activists on both sides in what is - as Hertzberg already learned - a no-win situation.

Copyright 2000, The Sacramento Bee. For education and discussion only. Not for commercial use.

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