As polls suggest the lopsided mayoral race is all but over, with Democrat Bill de Blasio a mile ahead, Republican Joe Lhota seems to be working overtime to pick up support in neighborhoods where Jews have been most willing to cross party lines.
Recent Quinnipiac University polls have consistently shown Jews supporting Lhota more than Protestants or Catholics, which may be why he’s campaigning in the area’s most Orthodox neighborhoods. (Overall, de Blasio holds a lead of 68 percent to 24 percent.)
“You have my word that I’ll continue funding our [the city’s] social-service programs all throughout,” Lhota told voters in Flatbush, according to reports.
“I was always a supporter of vouchers [for private schools]. I can talk about vouchers until I am blue in the face.”
Three out of four Lhota appearances Sunday, one of the last three weekends before Election Day, were at Jewish venues: a community council breakfast in Riverdale, one in Borough Park and a meeting with the Flatbush Jewish Coalition.
“Joe Lhota has spent an enormous amount of time visiting the Jewish community and talking with them about important issues like public safety, helping small business, school choice and less governmental interference,” said a Lhota spokesman Tuesday.
In recent months Lhota has visited the grave of the Lubavitcher rebbe, asked rabbis for their blessing, gone sukkah-hopping, shook hands on street corners, visited Jewish shops and, on one recent occasion, ran into controversy when a zealous Borough Park rabbi asked female staff and reporters to wait outside his shul, and Lhota didn’t object.
On Thursday morning he was a guest on JM in the AM, a radio program hosted by Nachum Segal geared toward Orthodox audiences, and criticized de Blasio’s attitude toward crime as “reckless.”
Both de Blasio and Lhota were invited to the Jewish Community Council of Borough Park’s annual breakfast Sunday, presided over by a former City Council aide to de Blasio. Yeruchim Silber is now the JCC’s director.
But only Lhota showed up.
“It does appear he is trying to make inroads here and is spending a lot of time in this community,” Silber told The Jewish Week. “When a major party candidate comes, you hear him out.” Silber said de Blasio’s “12-year record” was well known among the attendees.
Lhota is also focusing a chunk of his advertising budget on the Orthodox. Fifty-nine percent of his online display advertising in the three months ending in mid-September has been placed on the haredi Yeshiva World News website, according to Adclarity, an Israeli startup company that monitors digital advertising.
“Joe Lhota is making a desperate attempt to garner as many votes as possible as he goes down to defeat in the upcoming general election for mayor,” Joel Schnur, a spokesman for AdClarity who is also a political consultant, said in a statement.
“One of his best chances, according to his handlers, is to pitch the Orthodox Jewish community to vote for him. The latest study of American Jewry — “A Portrait of Jewish America”— done by the Pew Research Center, indicates that 57 percent of Orthodox Jews are registered or lean Republican.”
Schnur noted in the statement that Lhota likely sees Orthodox Jews open to his message that de Blasio would bring back an era of high crime in the city, a point his campaign makes in a controversial TV ad that includes images from the 1991 Crown Heights riots. De Blasio has denounced the ad as divisive, and a tactic out of the national Republican playbook.
Lhota’s strategy is reminiscent of the 2008 presidential campaign of his ex-boss, Rudy Giuliani. Desperately needing to gain ground in other early-voting states, Giuliani instead focused his campaign on friendly turf in Florida, hoping a big enough win there would give him momentum for other victories. (He placed third there.)
According to the latest Quinnipiac University poll, released Monday, 38 percent of Jewish likely voters support Lhota, slightly more than the 34 percent of Catholics and far more than the 16 percent of Protestants. De Blasio has 57 percent of the Jewish vote, the same as his Catholic figure but less than the 76 percent of Protestants.
A Marist College poll that includes voters who are undecided but leaning toward a candidate, however, showed fewer Jews backing Lhota than Catholics, 26 to 31 percent. Protestants in that poll supporting Lhota amounted to 14 percent.
De Blasio has kept his public appearances to a minimum while he focuses on fundraising — an event with Hillary Clinton netted a reported $1 million Monday — and debate preparation. His campaign spokesman did not respond to an inquiry Tuesday about whether any upcoming appearances were planned at a Jewish venue.
“It’s no surprise Bill de Blasio is absent from the [Jewish] community because showing up would require him to answer questions on his role in the Dinkins administration during the Crown Heights riots, his record raising taxes and fees and his plans that will handcuff the NYPD and make us less safe,” said the Lhota spokesman.
De Blasio supporters say his long history of ties with Jewish leaders forged while managing Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, during two terms in the City Council and as public advocate make election year visits unnecessary.
“Bill de Blasio represented Borough Park; he practically knows every stone, every parking meter,” said chasidic political consultant Ezra Friedlander. “I would hope the people decide to vote for someone based on how they perceive their ability to function in that office, not because … they weren’t at every melave malka.”
A Sunday feature in the Daily News noted that de Blasio, as an aide to Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch, had a “front row seat” during the Crown Heights riots and noted that the state report commissioned by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo on the unrest faulted Lynch’s performance during the crisis.
The topic came up on Monday when the frontrunner appeared at an event with state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and the News reporter, Greg Smith, pressed him about his role.
“I was in City Hall working on the staff,” said a visibly annoyed de Blasio, according to the New York Observer’s Politicker blog. “I did receive calls from concerned community leaders around the city and that’s all … I was not on the site. I came away with very strong views but I did not participate directly. I just need to be crystal clear about that.”
Lhota on Sunday sought to capitalize on the new interest in Crown Heights, telling the Politicker, “Bill de Blasio was given information by people in the community. They’ve all testified to the fact. It stayed there. It stayed there with Bill de Blasio.”
Jewish leaders contacted by The Jewish Week Monday and Tuesday did not recall hearing de Blasio’s name or seeing him during that time.
“A tall guy like that would have stuck out in my mind,” said Rabbi Shea Hecht, a politically connected Crown Heights rabbi who recalls attending a meeting at a local public school with Lynch at the time. “I don’t remember hearing his name [in connection with the riots] until now, but I can’t be sure.”
David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, who was in Israel at the time but in regular phone contact with city leaders, said “we dealt mostly with Herbie Block [Mayor David Dinkins’ Jewish liaison] and [Deputy Mayor] Milton Mollen.”
Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, chairman of the Crown Heights community board, also said he didn’t recall de Blasio having a role. “Lynch was the point guy, so whoever worked with him was doing what [Lynch] told him to do,” said the rabbi. “They were filtering the calls at City Hall.”
In a July interview with The Jewish Week, de Blasio criticized his bosses’ response to the violence, saying: “It was a perfect storm and was very painful time and a very difficult time. I think any of us who could do it over again would say the police response should have been stronger, earlier, more resolute.”
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who is backing de Blasio but hasn’t yet publicly campaigned with him, said he had no concerns about a return to high crime, as Lhota has been warning, if the Democrat wins because it would doom his re-election bid.
He said Lhota’s people had asked for a meeting during a recent visit to Borough Park but Hikind declined, saying it could send a message of ambiguity about his choice.
Hikind, who is the city’s most prominent Orthodox politician, acknowledged that Lhota could gain support among “more conservative Jews in certain pockets.” And he said there are issues on which he strongly disagrees with de Blasio.
“But the bottom line is, would his door be open? Will he be someone who listens seriously to the concerns of the Jewish community, and there is no doubt in mind” that he would.