In 1999, far in advance of the 2001 mayoral race, Chanina Sperlin and his Crown Heights Political Action Committee gave their blessing to Fernando Ferrer, then the Bronx borough president seeking the Democratic nomination.
This year, with barely nine months to go until this year’s election, the jury is still out in Crown Heights.
“Nine times out of 10, they deliver,” said Sperlin, who has lent his Yiddish-tinged voice in early support of many a political candidate in recent years, when asked about the administration of Michael Bloomberg. “The mayor is doing a good job and his office is always responsive. But it’s too early to say” what his committee will do.
A few miles and chasidic sects away in Borough Park, Assemblyman Dov Hikind –– a Democrat who seems to back Republicans as often as candidates of his own party –– also has nothing negative to say about Bloomberg.
“He’s doing OK,” said Hikind. “But if you walk on any street [in Borough Park] I don’t think you’re going to find enthusiasm for Bloomberg to a great extent. He’s going to have a very tough race.”
Nearly four years after Republican Bloomberg and Democrat Mark Green split the Jewish vote nearly down the middle, the mayor isn’t showing any strong signs of boosting his standing. While he does not generate anything near the antipathy that David Dinkins garnered in his 1993 re-election bid, amid criticism over the Crown Heights riots, he also has not approached the popularity of his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, who won 70 percent of the Jewish vote in 1997.
That puts the Jewish vote, estimated at 22 percent of the turnout, firmly in play in what recent polls show as a tight election.
Organizational leaders like Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council consider Bloomberg supportive of their mission. “There isn’t an issue we have brought to their attention that they haven’t adopted and moved forward,” he said.
The mayor has visited Israel three times since the election and routinely hosts receptions and events for Jewish holidays. But he has not been as outspoken on issues and causes as Giuliani, who famously endeared himself to the a good portion of the community by tossing Yasir Arafat out of a Lincoln Center concert in 1995.
Perhaps recognizing that Orthodox Jews are more likely than others to vote Republican, and overwhelmingly backed Giuliani’s campaigns, the mayor has moved to shore up his support in their communities. Late last year he paid a visit to the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and this week he will attend the mammoth celebration at Madison Square Garden of some 20,000 who have completed the seven-year cycle of daily Talmud study. Bloomberg’s attendance is noteworthy given that he has been boycotting events at the Garden –– including the Knicks games for which he holds season tickets –– because of his feud with its owners over his proposed West Side stadium development.Bloomberg also showed deference last week to Russian immigrants, another Jewish segment with a pro-Republican track record, by holding a Town Hall meeting in Brighton Beach (see below). It was his first such session, although he has attended and hosted other Russian community events outside Brighton.
“The mayor won 52 percent of the Jewish vote in 2001 and we expect to do even better this time around,” said Jonathan Greenspun, Bloomberg’s primary liaison to the Jewish community and commissioner of the Community Assistance Unit. “People will vote for him because of what he has done as mayor and what he has done as a Jewish mayor, in support of Israel and through his presence in the community.”
But Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf predicted that how well the mayor fares will depend heavily on who wins the Democratic primary.
“If it’s Freddy, Jews will vote heavily for Bloomberg,” said Sheinkopf, referring to Ferrer, who is making his third bid for City Hall and fared poorly among Jews in 2001. “If it’s [Rep.] Anthony Weiner, less so.”
Weiner is Jewish and his congressional district is considered the most heavily Jewish in the nation. He was overwhelmingly re-elected last year, but lags in polls and fund raising in the mayoral race.Because the billionaire mayor is largely perceived as out of touch with ordinary folks, and because some are peeved at him for raising property taxes, Sheinkopf said Bloomberg “will have to work the Jewish vote. But it’s not enough to work the Jews of the outer boroughs. Jews in Manhattan will have a higher propensity to vote for Freddy.”
One Manhattan-based Jewish leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he believed many voters were turned off by the mayor’s sometimes tough fiscal medicine.
“Some may not appreciate when he acts like a CEO,” he said. “But in the end I still think they are going to have to have a good reason not to vote for him.”
Civic affairs commentator Fred Siegel added that “the mild recovery of housing values” would benefit the mayor and predicted he would get “most of the Jewish vote.” But he cautioned that the election could easily be turned on its head between now and November.
“There are landmines ahead,” said Siegel. “The city and state are in perilous financial condition. If something triggers a financial crunch there could be a tremendous meltdown that would change things.”
In a show of support for the Jews of Gaza, Dov Hikind is planning a mission later this month to several communities the Israeli government intends to evacuate in July. He’s bringing along a busload of constituents and two local judges, David Shmidt and Eric Prus, of State Supreme Court.
“It is an absolute tragedy to remove Jews from their homes,” said Hikind in a call from Israel.
Hikind said he “jokingly” extended an invitation to Ferrer to come along, but thus far has not reserved a seat for him.
Hundreds of Hadassah ladies will lobby this week in Albany for state funding of stem-cell research. Members of Hadassah from 30 states will be calling on legislators and officials to commit funds for the research, which has been severely limited on the federal level.
In New York, legislators have proposed committing $1 billion to promote the research and set up an institute to regulate the studies, which could eventually yield cures to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and genetic diseases as well as cancer.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is expected to announce a new initiative during the Hadassah visit. Previous bills passed by the Democrat-led Assembly have been stalled in the Republican-led Senate.