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Cuomo, Paladino and The Jewish Vote

Cuomo, Paladino and The Jewish Vote

It’s rare for people who finance their own campaigns to win elections, and one reason is that they often don’t spend their cash wisely. If you had millions to splurge on an uphill run for governor, as Carl Paladino does, you might want to get some reliable demographic data about the state and hire a few advisors who specialize in familiarity and access to key constituent groups.

The Jewish community in New York isn’t as big as it once was but it’s still the largest, and most diverse in America. It’s difficult to win statewide without a majority of the reliable-turnout Jewish vote, though not impossible. (Hillary Clinton, in her successful 2000 Senate bid upset the conventional wisdom bid that a Democrat needed two thirds of the Jewish vote, winning with only about half.)

Paladino’s campaign doesn’t give any impression of being well thought out. He’s been running from the gut, like a guy trying to win a race for union leader or co-op president rather than leader of a state with 19 million people, very few of whom are alike. His inattention to nuance and lack of preparation stick out like a sore thumb.

This week, when I asked Paladino if he had campaigned before any non-Orthodox Jewish groups in the state, he confessed to not knowing the difference between the Orthodox and the larger Reform or Conservative denominations. Which explains how he got mixed up early in his campaign with a fringe rabbi, Yehuda Levin, whose entire agenda consists of fighting gay rights and abortion. So desperate was he for Jewish friends after being accused of anti-Semitism, Paladino never had an opportunity to learn that for the vast majority of New York Jews, like those in the rest of the country, their priority is opportunity for all people and programs that improve the communities where they live.

From what I hear, Democrat Andrew Cuomo has some reliable advisors who well understand the Jewish community, including his right hand man, Joe Percoco, his AG chief of staff Steven Cohen, Abraham Eisner, a Borough Park businessman and consultant Ezra Friedlander.

In his emailed response to the same question I asked Paladino about Jewish diversity, Cuomo (or his campaign) said: "Throughout my career I have traveled the state meeting with a wide variety of Jewish leaders in different communities." That may be true of his time as an advisor in his father’s administration and as attorney general, but he didn’t show it in this campaign. The sole foray into organized Jewish life, as far as I can see, was a visit with Satmar and other chasidic leaders in Williamsburg and Borough Park on a single day.

"There are very few places where a politician can gather votes on a wholesale rather than retail basis," says David Pollock, the Jewish Community Relations Council’s resident political guru. "The Orthodox community is unique in that there are specific leaders who command hundreds, if not thousands of votes."

Pollock’s research suggests, based on the outcome of recent local elections cross-matched with endorsements, that the Aaron faction of the Satmar movement controls about 1,700 votes, while the rival Zalman faction controls between 4,500 and 5,000. Crown Heights, which is currently without a rebbe who can make endorsements, is good for about another 1,700 votes, he says. In an election with millions of votes cast, though it’s better to have them on your side than your opponent’s (especially considering fundraising), this is a drop in the bucket.

But the rebbe-picture approach is also a cost-effective way to reach Jews who don’t care what the Pupa rebbe or either feuding Satmar brother has to say (and don’t even known their names.) Just as getting Al Sharpton’s endorsement sends a message to all black voters that there is no race issue with this candidate, a secular Jew can be assured that if you’re OK by the Satmar, there’s not an anti-Semitic bone in your body. So in addition to a few thousand votes presumably transfered with the wave of a blessing hand, the candidate also comes out with a heksher kashrut.

The danger of this is when chasidim get arrested, as they far too often have of late, it tends to cast aspersions on the quality (and motivation) of those heksherim, which may be why Rosanna Scotto of "Good Day New York" this week jarringly asked Paladino if he had "cut any backroom deals with the Orthodox to stay alive." (Nice that Scotto ascribed to these gentlemen the power of granting that stumbling campaign longevity, but polls suggest it would take an assist more on the level of divine intervention.)

Campaign time is limited, but for any candidate, to truly understand New York State Jews would mean spending time with Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach, with Holocaust survivors in Washington Heights, with seniors in underfunded senior lunch programs in the Bronx and Queens, with job fair attendees in Westchester or with business owners in the struggling Catskills who are trying to maintain the region’s fading status as the Jewish Alps. Most of all, they should visit some of the publicly funded agencies, like the COJO of Flatbush or JCC of the Bronx, struggling to answer growing desperation with increasingly paltry state subsidies and donations. That would give a real perspective on the legislative member funding now under fire because of a few bad apples accused of feathering their own nests.

Visiting modern Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews in Patchogue and Poughkeepsie, Bighampton and Buffalo, the candidates might learn that their concerns about about jobs and taxes — about keeping programs that help the needy and give everyone a leg up while cutting wasteful sending — tend not to be much different than those in Catholic, Protestant or Muslim communities.

"It’s very hard to identify unique Jewish issues this year," says Pollock of the JCRC. "The overarching issue for all voters is who can make New York functional again, and who can accomplish the necessary cuts to the budget in a smart ways, rather than devastating ways."

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