Now that we’ve elected Donald Trump to the toughest job in America, talk turns to “the second toughest job in America,” mayor of New York, whose election arrives in the fall.
With only rumors for opponents (Hillary Clinton? City Comptroller Scott Stringer? Brooklyn Rep. Hakim Jeffries? Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz?), Mayor Bill de Blasio’s re-election campaign is nevertheless underway; he’s racked up early endorsements from ex-Mayor David Dinkins and several key unions, including the municipal sanitation workers’ and the private sector union that covers workers in retail, wholesale and department stores. Dinkins, in his endorsement, noted that according to all the key urban data, the city is looking good.
And yet, many New Yorkers — and Jews — don’t seem to think so.
A NY1/Baruch poll in December found that 49 percent of Jews approve of the job de Blasio is doing, slightly lower than his overall 51 percent approval in the city. Only 34 percent of Jews say they’d vote for de Blasio’s re-election, down from the 53 percent who voted for him in 2013. Even then, the Jewish vote was significantly lower than the 73 percent that voted for him overall.
With November’s memories still fresh of an election that blindsided and bewildered experts, let alone progressive New Yorkers at the core of de Blasio’s support, might another November surprise be in the offing? It’s a restless electorate. Sometimes, as political consultant Lee Atwater used to say, even if the data is good, “the dawgs don’t like the dawg food.”
Like other groups in a diverse society, from women to African Americans to members of the LGBTQ community, there are Jews, mostly in the charedi community, who have a “transactional” relationship with politicians, supporting those who best cater to the group’s specific interests, said Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University. “When something is important to [Orthodox] leadership, de Blasio’s been responsive in a very transactional kind of way.” One of the first things he did, for example, was rescind the Bloomberg administration’s regulation requiring parents to sign a consent form notifying them of the risks of metzitza b’peh (an esoteric bris procedure that leads to rare, but sometimes deadly, cases of herpes).
There have been several civic scandals “with Orthodox fingerprints on them,” said Fuchs. Two grand juries are hearing testimony regarding de Blasio’s financial and fundraising improprieties, and there’s a bribery case in which Orthodox Jews paid several hundred thousand dollars to the police. It has been debated whether the mayor’s move to end the horse-and-buggy trade in Central Park was motivated less by concern for the horses than concern for real estate developers who had their eyes on the valuable properties occupied by the stables.
But as problematic as these cases may be, Fuchs said, “there’s a big difference between issues that people have opinions on and issues that actually impact votes.” However, these stories are not over. Grand juries can go down dark allies, and optics may matter as much as legality come election time.
The charedim are hardly the entire Jewish vote. Sephardim tend to be more aligned with Republicans, said Fuchs. And “within the secular and Manhattan Jewish communities, a general antipathy has emerged about de Blasio being not particularly effective on quality-of-life issues, such as his handling of the homeless issue.”
Sometimes the perceptions are false; 34 percent of Jews say crime is up, although crime is down. “Maybe,” said Fuchs, de Blasio spent too much time “being in a battle with the police department … And now he has these ethics problems,” with grand juries on his trail. “Combine all that and people have come away with doubts. There’s also the sense that the mayor is sanctimonious, self-righteous.”
Although de Blasio has accommodated the growing Orthodox population on the bris issue, and retreated on the city’s “civil rights” case against a public pool in Williamsburg that had special swimming hours for women, there are other concerns — Israel, for instance — that have nothing to do with the city and yet everything to do with how the mayor is perceived.
New York City, of course, is famous for being the only city in which the mayor is expected to have a foreign policy, and for the Orthodox, therein lies the dawg food.
The mayor is a progressive in the Bernie Sanders wing (far more critical of Israel than the Clinton wing). He supported President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and the abstention vote on Israel at the U.N. Security Council — and was strongly against the congressional invitation in 2015 to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The mayor also is a vocal supporter of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison for chair of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, was Sanders’ point man on the Israel plank at the Democratic convention that was critical of Israel, and Ellison supported (but has since disavowed) Minister Louis Farrakhan, and the abstention in the Security Council. Some influential Jewish Democrats such as Alan Dershowitz — who have already accused Obama of stabbing Israel in the back — have said they would quit the Democratic Party if Ellison were elected DNC chair. Traditional Israel-supporting Democrats can’t avenge Obama’s Israel policies at the ballot box anymore, but if de Blasio runs as an Obama-Ellison Democrat, how much will that matter in November?
And yet, attitudes to Israel are a matter of perception. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a liberal Jew and Senate minority leader, supports Ellison, too. Moreover, Victor Kovner, who sits on the J Street executive committee, told The New York Times that de Blasio was too often in sync with “the most right-wing portion of the community” on Israel. Kovner also spoke of his “deep disappointment” with the mayor’s 2014 address to AIPAC, the Israel lobby, supporting the Israeli government, but Kovner did say the mayor “deserves credit” for taking on Netanyahu.
Closer to home, according to NY1/Baruch, only 32 percent of Jews think the mayor’s done enough to increase availability of affordable housing. Many Jews fear that their grown children will never be able to afford housing in the decreasing number of affordable Jewish neighborhoods. Jewish seniors also feel the pinch.
“We have a disproportionately geriatric population,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. As it stands, said Pollock, the only people finding apartments are “the very rich, the very poor, and the very lucky.” Is that de Blasio’s fault? The problem certainly didn’t start with him, said Pollock, but once you’re mayor, if there are problems, “you own it.”
The mayor and charedim may have had a “transactional” relationship, as Fuchs said, but that didn’t mean it’s been heartless. Over the years, de Blasio would do things such as paying a shiva call to Chabad executive Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, and going to the wedding of the Skverer rebbe’s son. And now, Ezra Friedlander, a chasidic CEO of the Friedlander Group, a public policy consulting firm, reminded us over the phone that although he was a supporter of Quinn in 2013, he wants to see the Jewish community give de Blasio “the support he deserves.”
In Hamodia, an Orthodox newspaper, Friedlander pointed out that the mayor has worked around church-state issues to include yeshivas in the city’s universal pre-K funding; provide after-hours yeshiva busing; and provide financial support for security efforts in yeshivas. Additionally, Friedlander added, “Many tears were shed by parents of special-needs children who tried desperately to have the Department of Education approve services in [yeshivas]… with city government refusing to show a modicum of mercy for parents of special-needs children.” Now, the mayor has made it easier for the city to subsidize the enrollment of special-needs children in yeshivas.
The mayor has been more conservative than liberal on church-state issues, often affirming the legitimacy of the progressive critique but then allowing the religious group to have their “safe space.” For example, with the bris case, the mayor acknowledged the bris procedure’s health risks but “given the sacred nature of this ritual to the community, the administration is pursuing a policy centered around education … and respect for traditional practices by the religious community.” After all, added the mayor, “Increasing trust and communication … is critical.”
It still is winter. The bare trees will turn green and then bare again before you, the voter, will decide what to make of all of this come Election Day.