With the election for governor headed into its final week, as much as a third of the Jewish community is believed to be uncommitted, and how they make up their minds is expected to be a key factor in the election.
Trailing by double digits in most polls, Democrat H. Carl McCall needs to beef up his standing among key constituent groups to prevail, say observers. And Jews make up a large share of the reliable turnout figure in a state in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 3.
“Pataki is very popular among Jews and is holding the same comfortable lead among Jews as with other groups,” said pollster and consultant Mickey Blum, citing the findings of her firm, Blum and Weprin. “McCall is not doing as well as he ought to be doing, as well as Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton did” in their recent successful Democratic Senate bids.
Some polls have shown the two main contenders about evenly split among Jews, with a negligible showing for Independence Party candidate Tom Golisano. Pataki won about 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1998, and has made recent inroads among unions and Hispanics, also key Democratic constituencies.
“If Hispanics don’t come home and Jews don’t come home, the election is over for us,” said one Democratic insider knowledgeable about the campaign.
At this point in the ’98 governor’s race, a solid majority of Jews were supportive of the Democratic candidate, Peter Vallone. But for a variety of reasons, say observers, Jewish voters this year seem to be paying little attention, and some Democrats believe as many as one-third of them are still uncommitted.
“I haven’t heard much feedback from my friends about their preference,” said Robin Greenbaum, the founder of a political club for young Jewish professionals on the Upper West Side. “In other elections, like last year’s mayoral race and even previous gubernatorial races, people were a lot more excited.”
Alan Eysen, a Jewish political consultant in Suffolk County, said that although Pataki’s campaign was pushing for a strong turnout in the heavily Republican area, “I haven’t sensed a great deal of excitement about this race. There is nothing that has fired the imagination coming from Pataki, McCall or Golisano.”
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the state’s top Jewish elected officials, confirmed the sense of malaise.
“There is a general apathy, and concerns about the ongoing events in Israel, which are more important to many American Jews,” said Silver, who predicted the situation would change this week.
Silver also said McCall could not get his message out because of the “disparity” in funding between the Democrat and Pataki, whose coffers are overflowing with cash. The governor’s campaign had $12 million as of its last filing three weeks ago, while McCall had only $1 million.
Silver also noted that there has not been an issue of exclusive concern to Jewish voters. “Cleary there is nobody who has been defined as being the most supportive of Jewish causes or less supportive,” he said.
Consultant Hank Sheinkopf, until recently an adviser to McCall, blamed the state’s Democratic leaders for failing to “create excitement” and articulate to Jewish voters and others a strong rationale for unseating Pataki.
“Jews have to be given a reason to undo the behavior of last year,” when a majority supported Republican Michael Bloomberg in the mayoral race, said Sheinkopf. “Democratic leaders are failing Carl McCall. He’s the most competent, qualified candidate to come along in some time. If they can’t do it for Carl McCall, who can they do it for?”
Perhaps sensing an opening, Golisano — who did not appeal directly to Jews in his two previous bids for governor — has launched a major push for Jewish votes in the home stretch as part of his self-financed, multimillion-dollar campaign directed mostly at Pataki.
He picked up the endorsement of former Brooklyn Councilman Noach Dear this week and is preparing an extensive direct mail, phone and advertising campaign targeting the Jewish community. At a press conference in Flatbush, Dear cited Golisano’s support for private school tuition vouchers, an issue of great interest to Orthodox voters.
That could mean some good news for McCall, said Blum, as any increase in Golisano’s Jewish support would likely be at Pataki’s expense.
“That’s something McCall would be rooting for,” she said. “In general, [Golisano] usually takes a bit more from Pataki than he does from McCall. He attracts more conservative voters. One would think the liberal Jewish voters would stay with McCall.”
Golisano could be wasting his money, though. An official of a major Jewish organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that because Jews have a history of carefully considering the efficacy of their votes, “they rarely support third party candidates,” who are generally unlikely to win.
While many see a large share of Jewish voters settling on a candidate at the last minute as a problem for McCall, Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said it could also be a bad omen for Pataki.
“Usually an incumbent doesn’t get much of the undecided,” said Forman. “And national trends show that Republicans who believe they are making inroads in the Jewish vote end up having a very sad Election Day.”
Pataki has long been accused by Democrats of stealing their thunder, and his recent ceremonial signing of a workplace religious accommodation bill did little to dispel that impression.
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Silver were key proponents of the bill, which was passed in numerous versions in the Democrat-led Assembly before the Republican-dominated Senate took it up this year.
But when Pataki “signed” the bill (which became law in September) during a day of campaigning at Jewish venues on Long Island, Spitzer wasn’t invited.
“I’m used to the fact that in Albany there is often a disjunction between who shows up to claim the credit and who actually did the work,” Spitzer told The Jewish Week, when asked about the ceremony.
The event was held at Cedarhurst Village Hall, in the district of Republican Sen. Dean Skelos, who wrote a Senate version of the bill. Silver was notified less then 48 hours before it happened, and had already made another commitment.
Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon said Spitzer was quoted in a press release about the passage of the bill, and that Silver had also been invited to supply a quote but did not.
The American Jewish Congress, which played a major role in gathering support for the bill, was also feeling left out.
“I assume it was an oversight, that it was put together at the last minute,” said Marc Stern, the legal affairs expert at AJCongress. “We were disappointed.”
Four years ago Spitzer was elected by such a slim margin that the outcome was contested in court, and Republican Dennis Vacco refused to concede for weeks.
There is none of that drama in the air this year. A Marist poll this month shows Spitzer romping over Republican challenger Dora Irizarry, 58 percent to 22 percent. Spitzer has gained such prominence with his attacks on Wall Street greed and corporate misbehavior that he is assumed to be hard at work on his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, with an eye toward the White House.
In an interview, Spitzer said he wasn’t taking victory for granted. “Every race is hard fought and uncertain until the last vote is counted. I’m working as hard as I can,” he said.
Still, Spitzer is running commercials only on cable and giving away chunks of his overflowing war chest to McCall’s campaign and the state Democratic Party. Campaign appearances are rare.
“The job I’m doing has gotten some attention … that’s more important than merely showing up at political events,” he said.
Spitzer calls Irizarry, a former appellate judge, “charming” and “qualified” for the job, but questions her priorities for the office.
For her part, Irizarry says Spitzer has been “soft on crime” and has focused too much on white-collar crime.
“That has its place, but he has done it to the exclusion of other areas,” she told The Jewish Week, pledging to “refocus the office to target the pedophiles who are preying on children over the Internet.” Irizarry also said she would reorganize the Organized Crime Task Force to deal with drug kingpins and gang violence, and combat identity theft and auto insurance fraud.
Countering the “soft on crime” charge, Spitzer’s spokesman, Darren Dopp replied that the organized crime task force had eliminated mob influence on the New York waterfront, and its arrest record was comparable to that achieved under Vacco’s watch and had increased the amount of guns and drugs seized. Dopp said Spitzer had formed a task force with State Police to fight Internet sex crimes and that Pataki had designated Spitzer a “special prosecutor” on auto insurance fraud.
Spitzer said he had a “good professional relationship” with Pataki and would continue working well with him if both are returned to Albany. Asked what he expected to be doing in four years, Spitzer said “working on Carl McCall’s re-election campaign.”
And if McCall is not elected governor? “I don’t deal with hypotheticals,” he said.