Sen. Alfonse D’Amato made an impassioned pitch for support at a closed-door breakfast meeting with Jewish leaders this week while denouncing his Democratic challenger, Rep. Charles Schumer, as a “putzhead” who could not match his record on Israel, according to several participants.
The comments, including the Yiddish vulgarism, allegedly were made during a meeting at the Manhattan offices of George Klein, a Republican Jewish activist and real estate developer. Recounting his support for various Jewish causes, D’Amato expressed surprise that polls did not show him faring better among Jews.
“You guys need to get the message out,” D’Amato, who is seeking his fourth term, reportedly told the gathering.
One source said the senator also mimicked a Schumer ally, Manhattan Rep. Jerrold Nadler, calling him Jerry “Waddler,” an apparent reference to the congressman’s girth. Nadler had appeared the previous day at a Manhattan press conference defending Schumer from D’Amato’s attacks.
According to sources at the breakfast, some of the 40 Jewish leaders appeared uncomfortable with D’Amato’s “putzhead” comment, but none raised an objection.
In a phone interview, Klein denied that the remarks were made. “[D’Amato] spoke about his record and how outstanding he’s been and always available,” said Klein, honorary chairman of the pro-Republican National Jewish Coalition.
D’Amato’s campaign spokesman, Harvey Valentine, said the account was “Ridiculous. It never happened.”
But former Mayor Ed Koch, a prime D’Amato ally who was seated next to the senator at the breakfast, acknowledged the remarks and said they were “inappropriate.”
“[D’Amato] said it in the context of Schumer having called him a liar,” Koch said. “If someone had called me a liar, I would probably have responded in stronger terms.”
As for the “Waddler” comment, Koch said, “People have been telling Jerry for a long time that he should lose weight.”
However, Koch said, it was wrong to use “any personal invective” in a campaign.
Nadler called the alleged insult “personally offensive and stupid. It demeans the process and frankly shows more about Senator. D’Amato’s [character] and nothing about mine.”
Schumer’s campaign declined to comment.
The breakfast took place as D’Amato is launching his most aggressive assault yet on Schumer based on Jewish issues. On Sunday, flanked by Holocaust survivors, he rapped Schumer for missing two House votes last year on Holocaust issues. The next day, Koch attacked Schumer in a radio ad for alleged inaction during the Crown Heights riots and for voting against the U.S. deployment against Iraq, both in 1991.
In the ad, Koch quotes Crown Heights community leader Rabbi Joseph Spielman as saying, “D’Amato was with us from the very beginning. We were in the middle of a pogrom. Schumer was nowhere to be seen.”
Schumer’s campaign countered with comments from another Crown Heights community leader, Rabbi Shea Hecht, who said, “Schumer kept on top of the situation.”
Schumer leads among Jewish voters in all polls, with roughly 70 percent to 30 percent for D’Amato. Analysts say D’Amato will need to whittle away at least 10 percent of Schumer’s support, reaching the roughly 40 percent of Jews he won in his last two races, to stay in office.
D’Amato also came under fire this week for injecting the Holocaust into the political debate.
“I wish he wouldn’t have done it,” said Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It does not cross the standard of civility but as a survivor, I hate to see the Holocaust used as a political football.”
Less reserved in his criticism was another Holocaust survivor, Raymond Harding, chairman of the New York Liberal Party, which has endorsed Schumer. While hailing D’Amato’s efforts as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to win a settlement of Holocaust survivors’ claims against Swiss banks, Harding said on the cable news channel New York 1 that he had “crossed the line” and that the survivors promoting him were being “exploited.”
In a later interview Harding, who survived an Italian concentration camp as a young child, said he objected to the use of footage of Jewish camp inmates in a D’Amato commercial featuring Estelle Sapir, whose assets were recovered from a Swiss bank.
“I found it to be … a painful misuse of history’s greatest tragedy,” Harding told The Jewish Week.
Schumer, for his part, also accused D’Amato of “using the Holocaust for political purposes,” as did his allies, city Comptroller Alan Hevesi and Nadler.
Also at the breakfast, D’Amato was presented by Rabbi Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress with a letter from Knesset member Abraham Hirchson. The letter invites D’Amato to Israel to receive the Knesset Award for Conscience and Courage for his efforts on behalf of Holocaust survivors.
Meanwhile, Sapir of Queens, the survivor whose claims against Swiss banks D’Amato successfully championed, called on the senator this week to get the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali to honor a $100 million settlement to survivors, withdrawn last month.
“The survivors need his help now more than ever,” she told The Jewish Week. “I want the senator to put it [the $100 million Generali payment] back the way it was before. Everybody has to understand that this money is not charity; it belongs to the families.”
Generali balked at paying the money, which was to settle a class-action lawsuit by survivors and their heirs, after Jewish groups and insurance companies said they would consider the $100 million as the minimum it owed survivors. They said the final figure would be determined following an audit of Generali’s books, a process that could take two years.
“They are all hungry for the money,” said Sapir, who has a claim against an Austrian insurance company. “This money belongs to the survivors. The organizations want to be partners to everything. They want to make money on the ashes — from my parents, my aunts, my uncles, from 203 people in my family who died.”
Her attorney, Edward Fagan, said the insurance commissioners and Jewish groups had all signed an agreement saying the money was to be paid in full satisfaction of outstanding claims. In addition, he said, it called for Generali to turn over records relating to the policies of other insurance companies — documents that could generate another $400 million in claims.
Fagan said the $100 million Generali agreement “allowed us to put money into survivors’ hands now and it has been stolen from them.”
But Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said no one wanted to interfere in the class-action suit but “we have made it very clear … we won’t know their ultimate liability” until an audit is performed. Until then, he said, the insurance companies have agreed to contribute to a humanitarian fund to help needy survivors. The amount of that fund has not been announced.
“I love Estelle Sapir,” said Steinberg, “[but] as in the Swiss bank case, none of the insurance money will go to the WJC or other groups. It hasn’t and it won’t. It will go for the benefit of Holocaust survivors and the Jewish people. We don’t want it to go for the benefit of lawyers or organizations.”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.