In his suite high above the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Midtown Tuesday night, Peter Vallone was surrounded by numerous Jewish politicians, communal leaders and Democratic activists who came to wish him well.
“He’s been a strong supporter of Jewish causes and a worthy candidate” said one official of a Jewish organization, who asked not to be identified, of the City Council speaker who was overwhelmingly nominated — with 65 percent of the Jewish vote — to challenge Republican Gov. George Pataki. “This is going to be a good race.”
As Vallone’s supporters toasted his victory, the candidate embraced his new Jewish running mate, Sandra Frankel, administrator of the Rochester suburb of Brighton, and winner of the primary for lieutenant governor. They were surrounded by Frankel’s gleeful family, including her Orthodox daughter, son-law and grandchild.
“Sandy Frankel balances the ticket very well,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who originally tapped Frankel as the running mate of another gubernatorial candidate, Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney who came in third place. “It is a blessing to the Jewish community, the quality of the candidacy that we have here.” Asked for comment about three of the four newly nominated Democrats for statewide office being Jewish, Silver corrected: “It’s almost four out of four because Peter has been such a strong supporter of the Jewish community.”
The strong show of support indicated that Vallone’s active courting of the Jewish community has not gone unnoticed.
During his tenure, Vallone has passed numerous resolutions in the Council supporting Israel, Soviet Jewry and other causes. Several months ago he traveled to Israel on a trip that included controversial sites such as the Hasmonean tunnel in Jerusalem and Hebron, where he defended the Jewish settlers’ right to remain there. But he won the most praise for the Council’s protection of aid to Jewish social service groups under his tenure. “Peter Vallone is one of the most outstanding public servants when it comes to helping grassroots communities provide services to the elderly and immigrants,” said William Rapfogel, director of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, who did not attend Vallone’s victory party but spoke in a phone interview. “He has been particularly creative in helping to [facilitate] programs for the elderly.”
Vallone won with 56 percent of the overall vote. Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross received 21 percent, Hynes 16 percent, and former transportation commissioner James Larocca 8 percent. Even with heavy support in his Brooklyn base, including the endorsement of the Orthodox weekly, the Jewish Press, Hynes only won 15 percent of the Jewish vote, with 12 percent going to McCaughey Ross — who made little effort to reach Jewish voters — and 8 percent to Larocca, according to exit polls. McCaughey Ross vows to press on in the governor’s race on the Liberal Party line. Jews, both voters and activists, figure prominently in Vallone’s coalition. “He’s gone out of his way to be involved in the Jewish community and get his message across,” says David Weprin, a Jewish Democratic activist who campaigned for Vallone and son of the late Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin. Weprin, of Holliswood, Queens, worked on solidifying Vallone’s Jewish base in his home borough. “I’m seeing a lot of Jewish people involved in the campaign,” he said.
Vallone also made a concerted effort to reach Jewish voters in upstate, rural communities. Ryan Karben, an Orthodox member of the Rockland County Legislature who escorted Vallone through his Monsey community, said the candidate’s values were a good fit with those of his constituents. “Peter Vallone is a centrist Democrat from the old school of the Democratic party, a candidate I can feel very comfortable taking back to my community,” said Karben at the Grand Hyatt. “I think his background is very moderate and plays very well in the suburbs. His support of issues like tuition vouchers and the fact that he’s a religious man play extraordinarily well with voters in general and Jewish voters in particular.”
Karben acknowledged that “making inroads with the Jewish community has been a major focus of [Pataki’s] tenure.” But he said issues such as the high cost of public college tuition will resonate among Jews. (Vallone favors scholarships for those maintaining high academic averages.)
But even as Vallone’s campaign shifted from easy victory in the primary to the much tougher battle against the popular Pataki, the incumbent’s campaign downplayed Vallone’s Jewish support.
“The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters, Jewish and otherwise, rejected Peter Vallone and the rest of the liberal Democratic ticket by not showing up to vote,” said Michael Marr, Pataki’s campaign spokesman. “Turnout was abysmally low and that translates into a huge problem for Vallone and the rest of the Democrats in November.”
Former Mayor Ed Koch, who supported Vallone in the primary but plans to vote for Pataki in November, said Vallone’s task was “not to rest on his laurels but to be out there, 18 hours a day, minimum, campaigning. He has to maintain his base in New York and also convince suburbs and upstate that he will be fair to every section of the state.” Koch called Vallone “a very decent man who understands the family work ethic.”
Koch expressed doubt that Vallone could raise the necessary funds to compete with Pataki’s more than $10 million war chest, but said “this is definitely a serious race. The GOP should not take it for granted.”
David Luchins, an aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who has endorsed Vallone’s candidacy, noted that Vallone’s challenge was to find a way to bring out both Jewish and black voters. “In 1994 the Jewish vote in New York was one quarter lower than it had been four years before, and in the present year the black vote is one quarter lower than it was in 1994,” said Luchins. “Peter’s challenge is to find an incentive for both Jews and blacks to turn out.”