‘Agonizing Choice’

‘Agonizing Choice’

Suppose you’re on a lifeboat with your two best friends and must toss one overboard. How do you make that agonizing decision? How to look one in the eye and say “Sorry, buddy, but you’re shark food’’?

That’s the position New York’s Jewish community finds itself in with the stunning come-from-behind victory Tuesday of one good friend, veteran Brooklyn Rep. Charles “Chuck” Schumer, in the Democratic race for U.S. Senate. Schumer pulled in 69 percent of the Jewish vote, with Public Advocate Mark Green getting 16 percent, Geraldine Ferraro 15 percent and Eric Melendez 1 percent.

That sets up a battle royale with the community’s other staunch ally, incumbent Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.Jewish groups and residents have less than seven weeks to decide which friend gets its substantial financial and organizational support — which could very well make the difference in the Nov. 3 general election.

Two facts from Tuesday’s primary point to the importance of Jewish support:

# Jews comprised 25 percent of the statewide primary vote, according to Edison Media Research.

# Although the city Board of Elections reported that turnout was near an all-time low, with roughly 12 percent of registered Democrats coming out, the umbrella group of New York Jewish community organizations said the percentage of registered Jews who voted was about twice that number.

“Jews were disproportionately represented in the primary,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. He noted that Jews traditionally vote in significantly higher numbers than other groups.

Such a low turnout in November means greater influence for minority groups that vote as a bloc. But Jewish leaders say there has never been such a tough decision like the battle between D’Amato and Schumer.

“This is going to be among the most agonizing and difficult decisions New York voters will have had to make in years,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the JCRC. “These are two proven friends on core issues of concern to the Jewish community.”

To be sure, Schumer and D’Amato are popularly identified with divergent Jewish issues, although both are known as strong supporters of Israel. D’Amato, a Long Island native, has become known as one of the heroes in the “Swiss gold” story, helping Holocaust survivors get compensation after 50 years for the millions of dollars in gold and assets looted by the Nazis in World War II.

D’Amato, who garnered 40 percent of the Jewish vote in his 1992 contest against another Jewish candidate, Robert Abrams, also endeared himself to the chasidic community when he appeared in Crown Heights to show support during the 1991 riot.

Schumer has been in the forefront of national anti-terrorism efforts, sponsoring legislation that calls for stronger punishment against terrorist groups like Hamas.

Schumer, from the Midwood section of Brooklyn, also is credited with persuading U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to pursue a federal civil rights case against some of the perpetrators in the Crown Heights murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, who were ultimately found guilty.

As to Israel, D’Amato appears to have the support of the more hard-line Likud types, observers say. One issue that D’Amato may use against Schumer, sources say: Schumer’s vote against military action in the Persian Gulf war eight years ago.

“Some felt Schumer’s vote was a diminution of support for Israel,” said one Jewish leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Many felt Iraq was a mortal threat to Israel’s existence and America needed to take military action to eliminate the Saddam Hussein threat.”

But with the failure of the Republican Bush administration to eliminate Saddam, who still plagues U.S. policy today, it is unclear whether this issue would resonate.Schumer already said he intends to make character and trust an issue. He is accusing D’Amato of breaking promises not to run for a third term and failing to make New Yorkers “proud.”

The Clinton scandal could also play an unexpected but major role. Schumer has been a Clinton insider but now sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which may yet vote for impeachment hearings. D’Amato has been a loud critic of Clinton.

On the domestic front, there are several key issues that divide Schumer and D’Amato affecting their support within the Jewish community’s divergent subgroups.

Schumer is against school vouchers, an issue putting him at odds with the Orthodox and yeshiva community that strongly supports such federal aid. He is also pro-choice on abortion, an issue that may not win him votes with the ultra-Orthodox but will with liberal Jews, particularly women.

The question, many say, is whether Schumer can cut into D’Amato’s traditional core support among the chasidic and “black-hat” world, whose thousands of voters could swing a close race, observers say.

“In a close race, 11,000 votes could make all the difference in the world,” said one Jewish official.“The Jewish vote is going to be up for grabs,” said Mitchell Moss, the Henry Hart Rice professor of politics at New York University.

Jewish leaders say it is unknown how the centrist Orthodox community and “new” Jewish voters in the Russian community will respond to the race.

“The yeshiva and chasidic world have been for D’Amato,” said one Jewish political mover who asked his name not be used. “The mostly modern [Orthodox] have been for Schumer. But what will they do now? What about the Park Slope Jews, a more liberal, educated type? Will they flex their muscles?

“How much power does the Orthodox community really yield? This race will be a test of that power,” this observer said.

For New York Jews, the Senate race also revives the classic dilemma of whether they would rather have a Jewish senator vs. non-Jewish, or an incumbent vs. a challenger.

“A question like this has not been asked for many years,” said Miller.But Moss said, “Jews are very sophisticated voters. They never vote their religion, they vote their interests,” noting that in 1961, Jews chose Robert Wagner over Arthur Levitt for mayor. He added, however, that “Jews never penalize someone who has been good to them.”

Since both Senate candidates have been “good,” it begs the hand-wrenching decision Jews face.

But for Brooklyn Democrat Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who strongly backed the Republican D’Amato in 1992, the answer is easy.

“D’Amato has been an incredible, remarkable friend to the Jewish community, and you don’t abandon your friends simply like that,” said Hikind, elected Tuesday as new Democratic leader in the 49th Assembly District.

That friendship has also demonstrated itself in steering federal dollars and programs to the Orthodox and chasidic communities, something that stays with community voters.

In an interview with The Jewish Week last month, Schumer acknowledged D’Amato’s support of the New York Jewish community but charged that D’Amato does it out of political expediency rather than personal conviction.

“I think D’Amato has done some good things for the Jewish community,” Schumer said. “I compare my record to his on Jewish issues every step of the way. I work just as hard and just as long and I think more effectively than he does because when I speak in Washington, people believe its out of conviction, not simply out of political opportunity.

“I would say to the Jewish community something very simple: We are Jews and we are proud Jews. But we’re also Americans and as an American, D’Amato should make us ashamed as to who our senator is. He doesn’t represent us, he doesn’t hold a high standard. “His voting record on so many issues is anti-New York and extreme.”

At his victory speech Tuesday night, Schumer did not appear to be a man ready to be cast into the ocean.

Speaking in the cramped, smallish room at the Grand Hyatt, with few celebratory adornments — no food, mineral water going for $3.75 a bottle (cocktails $6.75) — Schumer, bouncing on stage to the thumping rock tune “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” recited his campaign theme: D’Amato has been in office too long, voters can’t trust him and Schumer will make them proud.”

D’Amato shot back immediately with a fax saying that the Democratic Party had again chosen the most “left-wing” candidate.

Let the agonizing begin.

read more: