Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP frontrunner for president, is facing an uphill battle for Jewish support in one of the 2000 campaign’s most heated battleground states.
Only 34 percent of Jews in New York have a favorable opinion of Bush, according to a poll released Monday by Zogby International. The figure is far below the 57 percent of statewide voters polled who approve of Bush. Thirty-three percent of Jews have a negative opinion of Bush, while an almost equal number have no opinion about the namesake of the 41st president, according to the survey.
But beyond ambivalence, the tougher obstacle for Bush in the Jewish community may be the legacy of his father’s administration. Many Israel supporters who were not enamored of the George Bush presidency aren’t looking forward to a sequel. They recall the tense relationship between Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir; the president’s depiction of himself as the "lonely little guy" against an army of pro-Israel lobbyists; and the surly announcement by his secretary of state, James Baker, offering the State Department’s phone number for Israel to call when it wanted peace.
"No one knows if he’s going to be his father or totally different," said one professional Israel activist in New York, who requested anonymity. "He has a foreign policy team that has a number of good people on it, such as [former Secretary of State] George Schultz and pro-Israel hawks. This gives his foreign policy team a flavor very different from that of his father.
"On the other hand, he has no track record of the broad foreign policy experience that his father had, so he’s a wild card."
Dr. Joseph Frager, president of the right-wing Jerusalem Reclamation Project, was more blunt: "Bush money is tied in with Arab oil," said Frager, who said he will campaign against Bush. "We do hope the son is different than the father, but if he’s anything like the father, we’re in trouble."
In a race between Bush and Vice President Al Gore, the Jewish vote would go decisively to the Democrat, 59-25, according to the Zogby poll.
Perhaps recognizing that New York will be a key state in terms of fund raising and electoral votes, and that it has a pivotal history of electing Democrats and Republicans, Governor Bush has reached out to local Jewish leaders to establish ties. Some local leaders believe the younger Bush will strike a different tone than his father.
"He’s talking very seriously to our community," said one top organizational official.
Bush is likely to be helped in New York by the support of fellow Republicans such as Gov. George Pataki, who endorsed him amid much fanfare this week, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is also likely to stump for the Texan. For Republicans, Pataki and Giuliani have received an atypically large share of the Jewish vote in recent elections.
The need to make inroads among Jews may play a role in Bush’s selection of a running mate. Pataki is on the short list of moderate Republican governors likely to be drafted. The Politics1 newsletter recently reported that www.BushPataki.com is among the Internet addresses that have been reserved by the Bush campaign.
A Quinnipiac College poll this week gave Pataki a 51 percent approval rating among Jews. Pollster John Zogby said a Bush-Pataki ticket would "help among white voters in general and especially among white ethnic voters, including Jews. New York will be hotly competitive as we get closer to the election and there are some targeted groups Pataki’s endorsement could impact on."
Pataki may have alienated some Jews with budget cuts that impact education and social services. But during his tenure, the governor has strengthened New York-Israel economic ties and made two visits to the Jewish state. He was re-elected last year with 40 percent of the Jewish vote (up from 25 percent in 1994) in his race against City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a Democrat.
"Pataki’s standing in the Jewish community would be an asset for Bush," said Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.Pataki spokesman Mike McKeon said it was "way too early to speculate" on a Bush-Pataki ticket, but said "the governor will continue to be a strong friend of Israel and to share those views."
But a spokesman for the state Democratic Committee, Matthew Hiltzik, recalled that 75 percent of the Jewish vote went to Democrat Charles Schumer in November’s Senate race, while Pataki was the only statewide Republican to win re-election. "As we saw last year, Pataki’s coattails are quite small," said Hiltzik.
State Senate Republicans are trying to scuttle a bill that would mandate insurance coverage for fertility treatments by inserting language that would exempt participation on religious grounds, Albany sources say.
The bill already has been passed in the Assembly, and is being closely watched by Orthodox supporters. But language inserted into the Senate version this week would allow group subscribers to insurance plans not be required to "cover any diagnosis or treatment that is contrary to the religious tenets of such groups and entities."
Brian Murphy, a spokesman for the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ken Lavalle (R-Suffolk), said the changes stemmed from objection to the freezing of sperm and other means of artificial conception. "Some of these procedures are issues for the Catholics," said Murphy.
The bill cannot be adopted until both versions are compatible. But although Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Renssalaer) has proceeded haltingly on the bill, Murphy denied politics were involved. "We’re not looking to kill any bills," he said.
The measure is strongly backed by Agudath Israel of America, which in a statement cited the "particularly devastating effect of infertility in the family-centered Orthodox Jewish community."
According to a study by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the prime mover of the bill, it would add less than $3 to the annual cost of an insurance policy. But Bruno believes the cost can be as high as $30, said his spokesman, John McArdle.
"There is a lot of interest in our house in legislation to promote families," said McArdle. "But the point is to find a way to provide infertility coverage without driving more people into the ranks of the uninsured through increased costs."
Freshman Councilman Mike Nelson of Brooklyn felt compelled to defend his turf Sunday night when he arrived at a Midwood synagogue dinner in his district and found two other Council members present. Kenneth Fisher of Williamsburg is planning a 2001 mayoral run, while Noach Dear of Borough Park is planning a second congressional bid in 2000.
Nelson wasted no time good-naturedly telling his audience (repeatedly) that they were sitting in his district. A former congressional and state Senate aide, Nelson needs to become well known in his own right. He was elected to fill the seat of Rep. Anthony Weiner, and is likely to be challenged in another special race in September by Rabbi Yehuda Levin.
In his address, the affable Nelson promised to deliver a Council proclamation honoring the Young Israel of Avenue K. "I can do that," he said, "because this is my district."
The New York State Hate Crimes Bill Coalition is mounting an unprecedented TV and radio blitz to push the state Senate to enact a bias crimes law. The coalition, which includes 100 community organizations, district attorneys and elected officials, has produced TV spots featuring actor Ossie Davis and is organizing phone, e-mail and letter campaigns. The Senate has refused to allow a vote on the bill since 1987.
Herbert Block, a former Jewish liaison for Mayor David Dinkins, has been named assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Block, currently director of intergovernmental and public affairs for the city’s Independent Budget Office, will work on World War II Jewish restitution claims.