Like the candidate, the audience was Orthodox and likely to be staunch in its defense of Israel. So Noach Dear lost no time in making his pitch explicit.
“We have how many shomer Shabbos politicians?” he asked the Sunday morning bagels-and-cream-cheese crowd gathered to hear him at the Young Israel of Far Rockaway last month, using the term for Sabbath observers. Touting his campaign to represent them in Congress, Dear urged, “This is a way to contribute to the community.”
Dear, among four candidates running in the Democratic primary to succeed Rep. Charles Schumer in the 9th District, makes no bones about what distinguishes him in the field.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dan Feldman may be running as a traditional mainstream New York liberal. His Assembly colleague, Melinda Katz of Queens, seems to be stressing her profile as the only woman in the race. Anthony Wiener, the City Council member from Midwood , may still be developing his political profile.
All are Jews. But Dear, 44, has no hesitation in stressing he is the Orthodox candidate in this contest to represent his heavily Orthodox stronghold of Borough Park as well as Midwood and Flatbush in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens.
“This election is being watched,” he told the Young Israel audience, “watched to see if an Orthodox man can be elected, and elected because of the support of his community. Doing so will send a message.”
Among other things, Dear promised, voting for him would ensure their concerns, which he shared, would be heard at the centers of power. But voting, he suggested strongly, was hardly enough.
A champion fund-raiser for Democrats in the Orthodox community, Dear did not hesitate to remind his audience there was also the matter of money.
“Let me tell you about ethnic organizing,” Dear told the crowd. “We’re far behind the eight-ball. Look at the Cubans. Every country in the world has relations with Cuba. [But] this country has such sanctions you can’t even buy a Cuban cigar.
“Why is that?” he asked. “Just one reason: a quarter-million Cuban Americans. Most don’t vote. But what do they do? They give big money to the Democratic Party.”
Referring to recent reports about the Cuban lobby’s support for assassination attempts against Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Dear cited one member of Congress who referred to the Cuban American Foundation as nothing but “a front to kill Castro.”
“Could you imagine an organization to make sure Yasir Arafat gets his day?” Dear asked. “The JDL is on the [State Department’s] terrorist list. But not the Libyan who kills innocent people. … We’re being lulled into passivity.”
Libya, of course, has been under international sanctions at the behest of the United States ever since its agents became prime suspects in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, eight years ago . And in an interview later, Dear clarified that by no means was he advocating that the United States condone the Jewish Defense League setting out to murder Arafat.
But whatever the shortcomings of his election pitch in terms of clarity and accuracy, amid a slew of ’90s candidates who speak in euphemisms, Dear stands out as a striking original. He speaks his mind bluntly and acts with an unabashed directness that could leave most other politicians seen as paragons of subtlety.
A confidante of Vice President Al Gore, Dear is said to have raised some $2 million for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, in addition to the $1.3 million he has raised for himself in his House bid. His labors have given Dear, a City Council member since 1983, a unique level of access to President Clinton himself. Often, with little urging, he lays bare for all to see the blunt arm twisting, quid pro quo style of contemporary, fund-raising-driven politics.
When New York Times reporter Elizabeth Bumiller accompanied Dear to a Clinton fund-raiser in New York last year while doing a profile on him, Dear wasted no time on the usual niceties when he approached President Clinton.
“She’s doing a story on me for The New York Times,” Dear told the president as he leaned his head aginst Clinton’s chest. “Tell her what you think of me.” As described by Bumiller, Clinton seemed to fix on the 5-foot-4-inch Dear a moment, place him in his mind, and in the canny bat of two or three eyelashes replied, “He’s an amazing man, and there aren’t many like him.”
To Dear’s critics, this style constitutes a prime drawback.
“Everyone thinks you just can’t have a quiet relationship with him,” said one Washington Democrat close to the administration who would speak only on condition of anonymity. “You can’t do anything discreet with him. He has never not tried to get credit for something he’s done.”
Still, even this critic added, “I must say, Gore is a fan. I have never heard him privately dumping on the guy. The relationship [between the two] is a real thing.”
This kind of access helps give Dear, who survived a ballot challenge brought by Feldman, the reputation of a man who can get things done at the federal level in ways that are unique for a mere City Council member.
“I get calls at 3 a.m. from the government, and I’m not even a congressman yet,” he told the Far Rockaway crowd. In one case, he said, a young Orthodox man from Canada who had just gotten married there to an American was not being allowed to return to the United States for sheva brachot by U.S. immigration officials who were suspicious of his declared justification for needing to cross over.
“Of course, I pulled some strings,” Dear said. “Whatever I must do, I do.”
Closer to home, Dear’s position as chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee has enabled him to wield influence in ways large and small on almost anything that moves in this city.
One constituent praised him for pushing the Transportation Department to erect barricades at a dangerous stretch of road in Far Rockaway. “He persisted until it got done,” the constituent said.
According to The New York Times, an analysis of campaign finance records shows that Dear received $170,000 in donations over the last five years from taxi and livery interests, including tens of thousands of dollars that came in just as he took steps to help the industry. But in an interview, Dear dismissed the role of donations in deciding his positions.
Pointing to his defense of the horse-and-buggy men who take tourists around Central Park when environmentalists were pushing for bike paths that would usurp their bridal paths, Dear said, “They didn’t do anything for me. They were amazed at my actions on their behalf.” In fact, said Dear, the main reason he became their advocate was that by and large they were Irish, and their line of work a traditional New York Irish bastion.
“I worked for Paul O’Dwyer,” he said, referring to the legendary New York political leader who ran guns for Israel in the 1940s and fiercely defended Israel long after. “This was a way of paying back the Irish. … We always asked the Irish to be close to our causes.”
The same motivation moved him to meet with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams when he and Sinn Fein were still widely denounced as a political front for the terrorist Irish Republican Army.
Asked if this did not undercut his opposition — at least until the Oslo Peace Accords — to dealing with Arafat because he was a terrorist, Dear replied, “I can’t start raising issues [about] whether every gentile will be righteous or 100 percent kosher. Their cause is right, and that’s what’s important.”
Famous for his Yogi Berra-like malapropisms — he recently said he tried to mediate between Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and striking taxi drivers in order to “help save havoc” between them — Dear orates in a breathless, scatter-shot style that often seems to leave one thought only half articulated before the next one swallows it up.
At the Far Rockaway event, Dear tapped into the current passion over HMOs and health care, inveighing passionately against the HMOs. He spoke up strongly for gun control, an issue Schumer made his hallmark, and backed the cause of government vouchers for parochial schools as a matter of “freedom of choice” in education.
Questioned about abortion, Dear replied, “I must tell you I’m an Orthodox Jew. As a congressman I’m not the one who will tell you, you can’t have an abortion. But I will fight late-term abortions.”
Dear’s most passionate oratory, however, at least before this crowd, seemed reserved for Israel, and denunciations of the pressure to which, he charged, the administration was subjecting it.
“I don’t know who’s advising the president,” he told them. “No doubt it’s our ‘good friends’ [National Security Council chief] Sandy Berger and Madeleine Not-All-Bright,” he said, referring to the secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. “I told the president in our community, that’s what we call her.”
At another point, he almost shouted: “Hebron! What the Tomb of Rachel means to us! Who will stand up to the Sandy Bergers?”
Wouldn’t voters who shared such sentiments do better voting for a Republican who opposed the administration rather than a Democrat who boasted of his closeness to it, Dear was asked in an interview afterward?
“It’s better to fight from within than from the outside and beat Berger at his own game,” he replied. He pointed to his success at getting Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan), a close administration ally with whom Dear has a good relationship, to write a letter to Clinton warning him against pressuring Israel.
“I’ll do what’s good for the State of Israel, my constituents and the country — in that order,” he vowed.