He’s visited Israel several times and was the first state comptroller to invest state pension funds there. And he has been as staunch a supporter of Jewish causes as he has been an ally to top Jewish elected officials and community organizations.
But on Tuesday, Democrat H. Carl McCall’s effort to win over the Jewish community was about as successful as his overall, uphill battle to unseat Republican Gov. George Pataki.
In the end, his attacks on Pataki’s ethics and performance proved unconvincing, and his promise to “get New York moving again” did not resonate at a time when the state has been progressing by most objective standards since Pataki took office.
Although the most important factor in the race was Pataki’s popular incumbency and the lack of a defining negative issue against him, McCall’s campaign was widely viewed as lacking.
“The McCall campaign has been just awful,” said David Obel, a Jewish attorney who pulled the lever for Pataki in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, although he otherwise voted “the straight Democratic ticket.”
Hanina Sperlin, an activist in the Crown Heights chasidic community, said that while McCall made some strong overtures, he did not “focus a lot” on the Jewish community. “He went to Israel, said some of the right things, but I don’t think the campaign took the Jewish community very seriously,” said Sperlin.
One Jewish Democrat with inside knowledge of the campaign said there were “too many cooks” in McCall’s kitchen, pulling him in different directions. “There wasn’t anything in that campaign that was focused or coordinated. Nobody ever knew who was in charge.”
McCall’s campaign was managed by Allen Cappelli, a former communications director to Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, and co-chaired by Sandra Frankel, supervisor of the upstate town of Brighton, and Al Del Bello, a former lieutenant governor and Westchester county executive.
Also playing prominent roles were spokesman Steve Greenberg, Eric Eve, a Buffalo political activist, and Bill Lynch, a former deputy mayor. Hank Sheinkopf, a top Democratic strategist, was fired from the campaign shortly after the September primary.
“From my perspective, the campaign was well-coordinated, although the limited resources impacted the intensity of the effort,” said Frankel, who was named co-chair after quitting the race for lieutenant governor. She said McCall’s visit to Israel and his focus on education, an issue “near and dear” to all New Yorkers, had resonated in the Jewish community.
The Democratic insider said, however, that McCall failed to relate his affable and compassionate manner to the Jewish community. “He is a mensch, and somehow he came across as a lemishke,” said the Democrat, using Yiddish terms for gentleman and nerd, respectively. “He is bright and capable but just never took off.”
Other observers say McCall’s campaign was ambiguous about the historic nature of his candidacy as the state’s first black major-party candidate for governor.
“They were too cautious … too worried about whether white voters would be willing to vote for him,” said Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, which endorsed McCall. “White voters had to be given a reason, and [he] never articulated a progressive platform that could excite working class white voters who didn’t particularly like Pataki.”
Cantor said McCall’s campaign allowed Independence Party candidate Tom Golisano to become the foremost attacker of Pataki on social issues, such as the strict Rockefeller drug laws. “They allowed themselves to be outflanked on the left on both the left wing and right wing,” he said.
Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron, an African American whose district is mostly black and Hispanic, said McCall should have highlighted his race, rather than downplaying it.
“He should have said ‘Vote for me because I’m impeccably qualified …and I’ll make our race proud,’ ” said Barron. “If he would have played not the race card, but race pride, his campaign would have a movement quality as it did for Jesse Jackson for president and David Dinkins for mayor … Rather than a traditional campaign where you go to clubs and look for endorsements.”
Some say even if McCall had made all the right moves, his efforts still would have been fruitless because of the funding gap.
“He was buried by tons of money,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, an early McCall backer whose district includes parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. “On the day after the primary [McCall] had $1.5 million, Pataki had $25 million. … Normally you have to define yourself. Pataki had free rein to define Carl negatively.”
Nadler added that Pataki “made very specific overtures to normally Democratic constituencies and to issues that motivate Jews to vote for Democratic candidates. Jews are motivated by providing for poor people.” He noted that Pataki starred in a taxpayer-funded commercial highlighting the Child Health Plus program, which provides free insurance coverage for kids.
In communal circles, some leaders are quietly voicing fear that the low level of Jewish support for McCall will generate a backlash among African Americans that could further strain relations between the two groups.
But Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding said he believed Jews supported McCall more than other white ethnic groups. “I believe Carl McCall would be the first to openly acknowledge the support the support he has received from the Jewish community.”
Barron said he believed that not just Jews, but white Democrats in general have shown a reluctance to support minority candidates for major offices. He noted that Dinkins won only 18 percent and 24 percent of white votes, respectively, in his two mayoral elections, and Ferrer won only 9 percent in last year’s primary. “If Jews voted 50-50 [for McCall and Pataki] that’s better than the [overall] white vote, but not as good as it ought to have been,” he said.
Associate editor Jonathan Mark contributed to this report.