It should have been no surprise that Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose to make his first campaign appearance with his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, at a breakfast to which more than 1,000 Jews had been invited at the Hyatt last Friday.
By packing the room with Jews, a great number of them Orthodox, Bloomberg was assured a hearty and enthusiastic response from a crowd that was enamored of him and his fellow Republican and erstwhile chief executive.
The crowd was full of supporters like Jay Goldberg, a Democrat and retired public school teacher from Fresh Meadows, Queens, who said that while he did not agree with Bloomberg on all topics, "he is concerned with quality-of-life issues, and he is someone who is not afraid to speak up in a situation, regardless if it’s going to be politically correct."
Goldberg, who was invited to the breakfast as president of the Utopia Jewish Center, added that Bloomberg "is not as overbearing as Giuliani."
Polls show the free-spending billionaire with a double-digit lead over Democrat Fernando Ferrer among likely voters heading into Tuesday’s election. And if surveys by Marist and Quinnipiac colleges released this week are accurate, Jews for Bloomberg will comprise the largest group of ethnic supporters of either candidate. This despite a fair share of controversies on Jewish issues, such as his ties to activist Lenora Fulani, during his term.
Both polls show more than two-thirds of Jews polled supporting the mayor. That’s even larger than Ferrer’s support among Hispanics, which according to Quinnipiac is at 51 percent.
The numbers suggest that Bloomberg has won over the Giuliani Jews, a liberal-conservative blend that supported the former mayor in his successful campaigns. Like Giuliani, Bloomberg is a progressive Republican. And as Goldberg noted, he is more affable than his predecessor, making Bloomberg perhaps more palatable for crossover voters.
As in the Giuliani years, safety and security are a dominant theme, and crime statistics have continued to drop while the city adopts an aggressive anti-terrorism footing.
"The idea of what a mayor is supposed to be has changed because of 9-11, Katrina and the London bombings," said history Professor Fred Siegel of Cooper Union, author of "Prince of the City," a book on Giuliani. "Security and governability are the issues."
In what could be seen as an example of the kind of overkill one might expect from a candidate likely to obliterate his own record for local campaign spending, which he set in 2001, Bloomberg has spared no effort to snare Jewish votes.
In addition to his own Jewish liaison, he’s hired those of Gov. George Pataki and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, among others, and named Borough Park Councilman Simcha Felder as a campaign co-chair.
The campaign says there are "hundreds" of volunteers and paid staff working on Jewish outreach, and that a 4,000-square foot office in Borough Park is the largest such operation ever opened to target Orthodox communities in the five boroughs. The campaign has blitzed the Jewish media with ads and radio spots.
By contrast, Ferrer’s campaign has no full-time Jewish operation and just two people on staff who do Jewish liaison work among other duties. Although Ferrer has appeared at Jewish forums and visited some chasidic leaders, the Democrat has not made as many appearances in Jewish communities as the mayor and has not advertised in the Jewish media.
Some top Jewish leaders said in interviews this week that Ferrer has done too little throughout his yearlong campaign to build inroads among Jews.
"He hasn’t made his presence felt," said one leader, who requested anonymity to avoid harming his ties with the candidate. "He could have gone to Israel to get himself on the radar. Or if I was him, I would stand outside the Iranian Embassy to say [the recent call for Israel’s destruction by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] is an outrage to all New Yorkers."
Kalman Yeger, executive director of Ferrer’s campaign and his top Jewish adviser since 1996, insisted Tuesday that "Freddy has campaigned tirelessly throughout the city, including Jewish communities, and to say otherwise is a lie. He has more Jewish-elected support than Mike Bloomberg."
Judy Rapfogel, the chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Ferrer ally, noted that with Ferrer’s tight budget he could not hope to come anywhere close to the operation Bloomberg has mounted.
"The disparity in resources is very difficult to overcome," she said.
Bloomberg’s RecordEarly in the campaign Bloomberg did not seem to command the enthusiasm Giuliani earned by kicking Yasir Arafat out of Lincoln Center in 1996 or as champion of the embattled Crown Heights chasidic community after the 1991 riots.
But by the middle of the Democratic primary it was clear that Bloombergís courting of Jewish voters (and his record in office) were paying dividends. He has earned points for being responsive to many Jewish concerns during his tenure and supportive of events like the massive Siyum HaShas celebration at Madison Square Garden.
Bloomberg’s campaign did not respond to requests by The Jewish Week for an interview to discuss his record.
His Web site notes that he visited Israel four times since he was elected; dedicated a wing at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem in his motherís honor; opened the "Shabbos Park," a Queens Valley playground, which received a $600,000 renovation; and rezoned city-owned land to allow construction of a Hatzoloh facility in Brooklyn.
But Bloomberg has had his share of controversies on Jewish issues, perhaps more than any other recent mayor. The biggest is his alliance with the wing of the Independence Party wing run by Fred Newman and Lenora Fulani, who has said Jews are "mass murderers of people of color" and "sold their souls to acquire Israel."
The mayor emphasizes that Fulani is only one member of a diverse party. But Bloomberg has been so solicitous of Fulani herself that in addition to the at least $250,000 he gave to her party, he gave her All Stars Theater Project a donation the same year it produced a play about the 1991 Crown Heights violence that was panned by the Anti-Defamation League as "disturbing." In an interview with WNBC-TV’s Gabe Pressman last month, Bloomberg noted that he denounced Fulani "as publicly and as accurately, as vociferously as you can," but did not rule out contributing further money to the All Stars project "if it does good work."
In another dustup, Bloomberg in 2002 appointed a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission who was blasted by Jewish activists and City Council members for ties to an anti-Israel Arab-American organization.
In 2003, Bloomberg’s corporation counsel raised hackles during the civil trial of officers who had shot a hammer-wielding Gideon Busch in Borough Park four years earlier by trying to depict witnesses as collaborators with the plaintiffs.
The city has done legal combat with the Busch family over its police misconduct claim, even as it quickly settled other police-related suits, including one by the Rev. Al Sharpton for allowing him to be stabbed by a civilian.
The Law Department under Michael Cardozo won the Busch case, then tried to have the grieving family pay the court costs before the verdict was tossed out by the presiding judge, who questioned police testimony.
Felder, the co-chair of Bloomberg’s campaign, considers the city’s handling of the Busch case "outrageous" and said he is also chagrined by the mayor’s ties to Fulani.
"I don’t agree with [the mayor] on everything," Felder said.
Still, the Brooklyn councilman said the top issues, as he sees it, are "terror and security" and a continuing drop in crime.
"People are confident that in a Bloomberg administration, crime will be the top priority," Felder said.
This year, chasidic voters were perturbed initially that Bloomberg’s health commissioner, Tom Frieden, took action against a mohel suspected of spreading herpes through a controversial procedure, but the issue seemed to evaporate when the administration sent the matter to a rabbinic court.
Some voters who do not value the practice known as metzitzah b’peh may yet see the matter as endangering the health of Jewish children.
Bloomberg’s popularity seems to be high enough, however, for few of these issues to matter.
In numerous meetings at Jewish venues in which he fielded questions, Fulani’s name never came up, even as Ferrer has often had to explain his endorsement by Sharpton. Asked why Sharpton’s endorsement of Ferrer was worse that Fulani’s of Bloomberg, Felder said, "Ferrer is bragging about his endorsement by Sharpton while Bloomberg has denounced Fulani."
Style Or Substance?
Following a lunch in Borough Park for Holocaust survivors last spring, a woman too young to be a survivor approached Bloomberg on his way out of the ballroom. The mayor’s mention of a war memorial in London reminded the woman of a long story she wanted to share.
It probably wouldn’t have made headlines if the mayor told her he had places to go, people to see. Instead, Bloomberg told the woman to step away from the crowd so he could hear her better and was seen nodding his head as the tale unfolded.
As a candidate and incumbent, Bloomberg seems to have mastered the same playbook as another out-of-towner, Hillary Clinton. During her maiden 2000 campaign for Senate, Clinton knew that winning people over meant coming down to earth from the status of first lady and national figure. Bloomberg also seems to see the value of posing for pictures with people and exchanging pleasantries, stripping away the billionaire aura.
"I don’t think he enjoys the political part of being mayor, but he has learned that it’s important to interact well with people and give them an opportunity to take a picture," said Felder. "Maybe he has come to enjoy it."
Bloomberg has also mastered the art of bearing gifts. At a breakfast in Borough Park, he announced the Hatzoloh garage. Speaking before Agudath Israel leaders, he announced that his deputy mayor had been assigned as a liaison to yeshivas. And his virtually limitless personal largesse has made its way into nearly every corner of the Jewish community, from museums and social service agencies to a Russian immigrant council.
Russian Jews, who tend toward the candidate they perceive to be more conservative, have been particularly supportive. At the Bet Gavriel Bukharian Jewish Congregation in Forest Hills, where leaders assured Bloomberg as a 2001 underdog that he would be elected, the mayor won a rousing reception during Simchat Torah last month. Rabbi Rabbi Emmanuel Shimonov laid his hands on the mayor’s head and uttered a blessing before dancing horas with him.
"Under Bloomberg, the streets are cleaner and more beautiful," said Ariel Landhorov, a deli owner in Rego Park. "Bloomberg comes across as a real gentleman, and we appreciate that."
For all the missteps in his campaign, and there have been many, Ferrer has never hit a bump in his relations with the Jewish community. Some in Riverdale still resent his neutrality during a 2000 race-based challenge to Jewish Rep. Eliot Engel engineered by Ferrer’s top political ally, Roberto Ramirez, but aside from the Sharpton issue, it is the only negative he faces.
Still, Ferrer seems to have been swimming upstream from the beginning.
"He’s been trying, but I guess much of the community feels comfortable with the incumbent," said Jerry Goldfeder, a Manhattan election lawyer who worked for former Democratic mayoral candidate C. Virginia Fields. "People believe [the mayor] has been responsive to the community and that there’s no need to make a change."
Bloomberg’s heavy support among Jews may have much to do with his style and record as well as the air of inevitability hanging over his re-election campaign. But it may also stem from a continuing shift among Jewish voters, who seem increasingly eager to support Republicans. Most backed Rudy Giuliani in 1993 and 1997, and George Pataki for governor in ’94, ’98 and ’02, although their Democratic opponents had solid bona fides on Jewish issues.
"The Jewish community has moved to the right outside Manhattan, and they are more comfortable voting Republican more frequently," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant.
But Siegel insists it’s the job description of the mayor that’s shifted, from social service provider to protector and emergency bulwark.
"The office Freddy Ferrer is running for doesn’t exist anymore," he said.
Correspondent Walter Ruby contributed to this report.