The arrest of Rockland County’s Democratic chair, Paul Adler, on corruption charges this week is an embarrassment to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate campaign and an organizational setback at a time when the Jewish vote in that region is seen as a crucial swing block.
As recently as two weeks ago Clinton appeared with Adler at the Orangetown Jewish Center, despite reports in the local press that Adler was under investigation.
Federal prosecutors allege that Adler, 43, a real estate manager at Prudential Land, coerced local politicians whose jobs he controlled to support developments that would benefit him. He denies any wrongdoing.
Adler, who says he will keep his distance from politics until his case is resolved, is a prominent Hillary backer. He was one of eight people who called The Jewish Week in July on the same day a campaign memo urged members of a Jewish advisory group to contact the paper to defend her against an allegation of anti-Semitism. (Adler denied being prompted to call.)
A Clarkstown resident, Adler is the former president of Rockland’s Jewish Community Relations Council and of the JCC-Y of Rockland, and is a fund-raiser for State of Israel Bonds. He has a long history as a political activist. During the Democratic convention last month, CNN aired a profile of Adler, noting that as a young man he protested against the development of land parcels in Rockland, initially unaware that his father owned some of the properties.
Adler’s rabbi, Henry Sosland of the Conservative New City Jewish Center, praised him as "a very good family man [who has] been very responsive to helping a great many people in need." The rabbi said Adler frequently used his position to help others find jobs or housing.In a phone interview Adler, who was released without bail, said his legal woes will "not have any effect" on the campaign. "I am not seeking re-election," he said. "I have sent a letter to the county committee expressing my concern that I don’t want to hamper or impair the party."
But County legislator Ryan Karben, a Jewish Democrat, said Adler’s troubles leave "a void in the county’s political leadership. Paul was instrumental in building bridges between the Democratic Party and Jewish voters because of his long history as an activist. We’re going to work very hard to make sure we have the energy and resources to win in November."
Clinton campaign spokesman Karen Dunn declined to discuss Adler’s impact on the race. "Hillary knows that this is a difficult time for Paul and his family and she wishes them well," said Dunn.
A Marist College poll released Tuesday gave Republican Rick Lazio, a Suffolk congressman, a 2-to-1 lead among suburban voters, 62 to 31 percent.
Lazio’s campaign called on Clinton to return $1,500 in contributions from Adler and disassociate herself from him. The Clinton campaign responded with a statement noting that a Lazio fund-raiser, Patrick Donahue, had been "targeted" by a grand jury investigating an alleged bribery scheme involving Gov. George Pataki and a Korean businessman.
Donahue was never charged with a crime.
Lazio Jewish liaison Jonathan Greenspun is downplaying the congressmanís handshake with Yasir Arafat, captured in a newly surfaced photo, as proper diplomacy, although an ebullient Lazio appears ready to give Arafat a bear hug in the picture.
"Like it or not, Yasir Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian Authority," said Greenspun.
The photo, an embarrassment to the Lazio campaign, was taken in 1998 while Lazio participated in a U.S. delegation led by President Bill Clinton to observe the revocation of clauses in the Palestinian charter calling for Israel’s destruction. Also in the receiving line were several Jewish legislators, including Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.); Reps. Sander Levin (D-Mich.); Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and former Rep. John Fox (D-Pa.), all of whom posed with the former terrorist.
(Republican sources speculate that Lazio and Fox were invited on the jaunt in an effort to sway their votes on Clinton’s impeachment.)
The photo prompted Democrats to blast Lazio for his own attacks on Clinton for embracing Arafat’s wife.
"For Rick Lazio to attack Hillary over this issue for the past three months, with the knowledge that he shook hands with Yasir Arafat, is the worst in a string of hypocritical attacks," said state Democratic chair Judith Hope in a statement. Former Mayor Ed Koch, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and Public Advocate Mark Green also chimed in on the same theme.
"It redefines chutzpah," said Green.
And in his latest comment unhelpful to his successor in the Senate race, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said Tuesday that he was "confounded" by the Lazio handshake. Giuliani had previously defended Clinton against charges she made an anti-Semitic slur at a time when Lazio afforded the report some credibility.
Greenspun said Lazio stood by his voting record on Israel. "Unlike Mrs. Clinton Rick has been a vocal critic of Arafat and will continue to speak out when he thinks Israel is being harmed," he said.
The damage to Lazio, however, may be mitigated by reports that the White House intervened in the Senate race by releasing the photo to help Hillary.
"I think the White House involvement is very unhealthy," says Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, leader of Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn and a radio commentator. "It makes a level playing field unlevel."
The Lazio picture reportedly was provided to the New York Post by the White House after Lantos informed the paper of its existence. Some speculate the photo was meant as a pre-emptive strike to avoid a Clinton-Arafat campaign commercial by Lazio.
Rabbi Potasnik said there was a difference in context between Lazio’s handshake with Arafat after the Palestinians changed their charter and Clintonís kissing of Suha Arafat after she slandered Israel about its environmental record. "I think one has to distinguish between the two," he said, while predicting that the two images would "nullify each other."
Charges of hypocrisy from the Democrats havenít kept Lazio from slamming Clinton for inaction on Jonathan Pollard. "Where’s your ‘White House Influence’ on Pollard," screamed a recent press release.
Lazio, meanwhile, has yet to take a position on clemency for the former naval analyst who gave classified data to Israel.
"Although the congressman may not be in a position to get Jonathan out today, as he claims Hillary may be, it is important that he let voters know what his position is," said Rabbi Pesach Lerner of the National Council of Young Israel.
After hovering in the mid-50s among Jews for most of the campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton finally broke through into some big numbers in a recent Zogby poll. According to the survey for the New York Post, Clinton led Lazio by an impressive 70-23 percent, surpassing the two-thirds of the Jewish vote a Democrat has traditionally needed to win. A second poll, also by Zogby, for the Albany Times Union and Buffalo News released just a few days later, had Clinton back at 52 percent, with Lazio at 34 percent. And a Post/Fox 5 poll released Tuesday had Clinton getting 61 percent to Lazio’s 30 percent.The spin from the Lazio camp was that the Post poll was taken over a three-day period from Thursday to Saturday, while the upstate poll ran from Wednesday to Friday. Sabbath-observant Jews, many of whom are not energized by Clinton’s campaign would not have answered the phone on Friday night or Saturday, while the second Zogby poll included two out of three complete days of eligible Orthodox polling.
"That could be possible, but I wouldn’t hang my hat on it," says John Zogby, who says he’s planning a poll with a higher Jewish sample. "The truth is that she is somewhere in the middle, looking at about 60 percent of the Jewish vote."
Said Greenspun: "Despite what the Clinton campaign would have the Jewish community think, our numbers right now at 34 percent certainly have them nervous."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the history-making Jewish veep nominee, is scheduled to campaign with Clinton on Friday in the Bronx.
"I think it will definitely help her," said Rabbi Shea Hecht, a Lubavitch leader, who is supporting Lazio. "[Lieberman] is a person that has a tremendous amount of credibility. Endorsements always help."
Sources say Clinton is likely to take up the issue of anti-Israel textbooks in Palestinian schools, an issue she visited during her meeting with the Orthodox Union last year, as the campaign progresses and is sounding out her ideas on the subject with Jewish leaders.