Over the past few months, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been quietly visiting Jewish communities that have traditionally supported more conservative candidates, seeking to address concerns about her record on Israel and other issues.
The forays into areas of Brooklyn and Queens were described by one source as a "mini-listening tour" intended to offer the first lady and Senate hopeful a "different perspective" on Jewish issues than those of some of her longtime Jewish associates, who have ties to the dovish Americans for Peace Now and Israel Policy Forum.
The "tour," which began before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced his diagnosis with prostate cancer and his pending separation from his wife, takes on an added significance now that the mayor’s candidacy has been thrown into doubt.
Political pundits are giving better than even odds that he will bow out of his undeclared Senate bid. This could swing many of the Republican’s supporters back to their traditionally Democratic roots, possibly giving Clinton the two-thirds of the Jewish vote traditionally needed to win statewide office.
"[Giuliani] had cultivated a special relationship with elements within the Jewish community," says Lee Miringoff of the Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. "That benefit would not transfer to the next Republican. Hillary would be the beneficiary among Jews who feel positively about both Hillary and Rudy but have a special connection with Rudy over the years. The anti-Hillary vote is not as strong among the Jewish community as other voters."
While the most likely Republican campaign successor, Suffolk County Rep. Rick Lazio, has a strong record on Israel, he is not expected to command the kind of appeal among Jews as the better-known Giuliani, who is hailed not only for his positions on Jewish issues but for his anti-crime record as mayor.
Clinton’s Jewish meetings, which have not appeared on the first lady’s public schedule, have been coordinated by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. As Clinton seeks to expand her support beyond largely liberal voters to conservative, outer-borough Jews, the Orthodox speaker of the Assembly has become an increasingly important ally. Advice from supporters on the left is believed to have led to an early misstep in her campaign, the controversial November visit with Suha Arafat in Ramallah.
But Karen Adler, one of Clinton’s closest Jewish advisers, and an executive board member of the Israel Policy Forum, said the meetings were not a shift in course. "Hillary is determined to reach out to people of all beliefs and interests and concerns," she said. "The best voice for Hillary is her own voice. She wants to put her positions out there for them to hear from her, and not go by what they think and believe they are."
Silver last month urged Clinton to reach out to Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a critic of the Oslo Accords who has previously backed many Republicans (including Giuliani) for public office. Accompanied by Silver’s chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel, Clinton paid a shiva call to Hikind, who was in mourning his father.
Silver declined to speculate on the prospect of a Giuliani withdrawal, seeming instead to hew to the Democratic Party’s line of remaining positive on Clintonís candidacy while avoiding all criticism (direct or implied) of the mayor.
"She’s made terrific headway and done some very positive things in the Jewish community," said Silver on Monday, the day before the party was to officially name Clinton their Senate candidate at their convention in Albany. "I think what’s important is for her to go out and reach out to everybody, no matter who the Republican candidate is."
Silver cited Clinton’s recent comments at an Independence Party forum: in which she urged members of the state’s third largest party to reject the "shrill voices" of presidential candidate Pat Buchanan on the right and radical activist Lenora Fulani on the left: as an example of how she was breaking new ground among Jews.
"It was a bold statement to make [considering] that in the past Independence produced thousands of votes for Chuck Schumer," said Silver, referring to the more than 100,000 votes relied upon by Schumer in his successful 1998 Senate bid.
There has been little apparent movement among statewide Jewish voters in light of recent revelations about Giuliani’s personal life. His slight edge among Jews, 48-42, in a March Marist poll, is smaller than the poll’s margin of error for subgroups, creating a statistical dead heat. A Quinnipiac College poll released Tuesday also suggested a tie, 46 percent for Giuliani and 45 for Clinton.
The mayor sent mixed signals about his campaign this week, canceling a California fund-raiser but attending one in Manhattan, where he told some 50 supporters that he was "very much inclined to do this."
But regardless of Giuliani’s decision, Clinton clearly has many obstacles to overcome in her bid for support among the Orthodox and those who are hawkish on the peace process.
"There is a genuine disaffection for her which is hard to overcome," said one Brooklyn Orthodox leader who supports Giuliani. "People are uncomfortable with the way the president is perceived to be pressuring Israel. I don’t see the rank and file going for her even if someone like Dov [Hikind] went for her."
But Marvin E. Jacob, a Manhattan attorney with ties to Silver who hosted a meeting in April between Clinton and "several significant Orthodox Jews," says he found the first lady "very engaging and intelligent. She was very well informed, and we spent a good deal of time with her. If she continues down the path she is now embarked upon, the people in that room who may today not wish to be identified would shortly not be reluctant to so identify themselves."
Among the issues discussed, he said, was Palestinian statehood, the case of Jonathan Pollard and the Aug. 30 police shooting in Borough Park of a mentally disturbed man, Gidone Busch, which has led to some Orthodox criticism of the Giuliani administration.
Jacob, a partner in the firm of Weil Gotshal and Manges, said he had voted for Giuliani for mayor, but declined to say how he would vote in a Clinton-Giuliani Senate race. "I would characterize myself as an independent voter," said Jacob, whose brother, Harold, runs the Lower East Side cooperative where Silver lives.
Hikind has been seeking the advice of local rabbis about his meeting with Clinton. He said he had encountered an adverse reaction in Borough Park to the notion of endorsing Clinton, but said had been encouraged to meet with her to articulate his views. "Everyone I have talked to says I should meet with her, that if she wants to hear us out we have an obligation to meet with her," he said.
Whether Giuliani’s public flaunting of a relationship with Manhattan divorcee Judith Nathan and the allegations of infidelity by his wife, Donna Hanover, would have any bearing on the race is the subject of much speculation. Some say his advocacy of placing the Ten Commandments in public schools and his battle against what he termed anti-religious art might paint him in a hypocritical light.
"On the right, they have argued that these kinds of personal morality issues have a place in the public sphere, so that’s where they have a bigger problem if they want to be consistent," said Ester Fuchs of Columbia University’s Center for Urban Policy.