When it comes to rallying the Jewish vote, former Mayor Ed Koch has emerged as the Bush-Cheney campaign’s weapon of mass discussion.
Koch, a Democrat, is on a tour of speaking engagements at Jewish venues in battleground states, making the case for Republican President George W. Bush’s re-election.
His schedule this week called for debating New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a supporter of Democrat John Kerry, in suburban Philadelphia, then traveling to Florida. An Ohio trip was also in the works.
“I think I’m making an impact,” said Koch, 79, who served three terms in City Hall ending in 1989 and remains among the nation’s better-known Jewish political figures.
Koch, a prolific author and commentator on Bloomberg Radio (1130 AM) and NY1 cable who has ruled out future bids for office, is known for his blunt rhetoric.
In a phone interview Tuesday from his Midtown office, he called Kerry’s position on North Korea “the dumbest thing I’ve heard in years” and said the Massachusetts senator “doesn’t perceive international terrorism as the kind of threat Bush supporters like myself believe it to be.”
From early on in the election, Koch made it known that he disagrees with Bush on every domestic issue, but he still favors the president because of his handling of the war on terrorism and his pledge to hold perpetrators and supporters of terror equally liable.
Speaking Monday night at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, Pa., Koch urged the heavily Democratic crowd to “have the best of both worlds” by helping Democrats take control of Congress while re-electing Bush.
“It’s very hard to break the habit [of voting Democrat] if you’ve done it your whole adult life,” Koch told The Jewish Week. “But domestic issues are overwhelmingly controlled by Congress, while foreign affairs are overwhelmingly controlled by the president. You can protect all the things you want to protect — abortion, Social Security — by voting for Democrats for Congress.”
Koch said he believed he changed some minds at the Pennsylvania event, where most of the crowd appeared to be Democrats.
“[Nadler] got a big hand, but I got an even bigger hand,” he said. “I think I moved many of them.”
An organizer of the event, Eric Colchamiro, the Philadelphia region field director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Koch was an “entertaining speaker and fiery orator. There’s a reason he was on the People’s Court. If this was an event measured by decibels, he would be the winner hands down.”
But he said Nadler “won the event in the eyes of every voter” by arguing that Bush’s “road map” for Middle East peace was bad for Israel because it called for a divided Jerusalem. Nadler, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, also accused Bush of using aid to Israel as leverage to influence the route of Israel’s West Bank security barrier.
On Wednesday, Koch was off to Florida for visits to Miami and Boca Raton.
“He’s well received by both Democrats and Republicans,” said Michael Leibovitz, the Bush-Cheney campaign’s Jewish coordinator, who said Koch volunteered his services. “Like a lot of Jews he doesn’t agree with the president on everything, but he does agree [on] what is important to most people as Jews, which is the [president’s] support for Israel.”
Recognizing that Florida could be the most important battleground in the nation, as it was in 2000, both sides have dispatched speakers to the Sunshine State to shmooze Jewish voters. Two weeks ago another ex-New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, was hosted by Republicans in Boca Raton. Last weekend Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Joseph Lieberman, the 2000 vice presidential nominee, stumped for Kerry in South Florida Jewish communities along with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.
Koch has supported Republicans in some high-profile New York races, including contests for mayor, U.S. Senate and governor. But he said he would have supported Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware had he run for president this year, and would back Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in a 2008 White House bid.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.