Union Township, N.J. — It’s been seven weeks since Sen. Joseph Lieberman was nominated by Al Gore to be his running mate and, judging by the reception he received Tuesday in New Jersey, the enthusiasm over his selection has not worn off.
“I don’t normally come to these things,” said Justin Mamis of Watchung, N.J., as he waited for Lieberman to arrive at the Union Township Senior Center. “But I came to identify with Lieberman and to get a feeling for what kind of a person he is. … He comes across as more thoughtful and more caring than a normal politician.”
Elaine Ratner, 70, said of Lieberman: “He’s fantastic. We’re very proud.”
“He’s breaking the barrier,” added Dominick Pante, 85, noting that Lieberman is the first Jewish person to be nominated by a major party for the vice presidency. “I’m Italian and I think that’s good.”
And Elsie Bierbaum, 80, said Gore “couldn’t have picked a better candidate. Compared to the man [Texas Gov. George] Bush picked, I think we’ll stand a better chance.”
That sentiment was echoed at a fund-raiser later in the day by Leonard Cole, chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and an adjunct political science professor at the Newark campus of Rutgers University.
“Whether Gore realizes it or not, this may end up to have been the smartest move he made in the campaign,” said Cole, speaking as a professor. “Bush is now backtracking in areas he had taken for granted, like Florida. And he’ll have to focus more of his appeal to moderates whom he had assumed would be leaning his way.”
These glowing comments came at a time when Lieberman has been criticized largely in the Jewish community for saying that there was no prohibition in Jewish law against intermarriage and for liberally sprinkling his speeches with references to his religion. Among the most outspoken was the Anti-Defamation League.
“Some people [in our senior discussion group] had a knee-jerk reaction to his talking about his faith,” said Susan Silberner, the senior director of the YM-YWHA of Union County. “A lot of seniors couldn’t get jobs [years ago] because of their last names, and so for them it was hush-hush — a general sense that you don’t say too much.”
Lieberman, however, refrained from speaking about his faith in Tuesday’s appearances in northern and central New Jersey. The closest he came was when he told the virtually all Jewish crowd at the fund-raiser that the seven weeks of the campaign reminded him of the “seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.”
Among the 300 who came to hear Lieberman here were 50 seniors from the local Y and leaders of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.
Keith Zackheim, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Central New Jersey, said that among Jews in the community “there has been a swelling of the chest [since Lieberman’s selection].”
“People are very proud,” he said at the senior center. “Even people who have nothing good to say about Democrats have nothing bad to say about Lieberman.”
Lieberman was introduced by Bernice Kessler, whose late husband, Albert, was president of the Y. As she waited for him to enter the room, Kessler told the audience that she had just met him and that “he’s just as beautifully delicious in person as he is on the television.”
In his remarks, Lieberman spoke about his 85-year-old mother, Marcia, and how she “walks around with pill boxes … and talks to me about the cost of the drugs.” He then outlined the Gore-Lieberman 74-page analysis of Medicare that was released Monday. Polls show that Medicare and the Social Security retirement program are the top concerns of voters, particularly the elderly.
“Medicare is a bond between the government and senior citizens,” said Lieberman. “It must never be broken, must never be weakened, must never be taken away.”
But he said it faces “serious challenges as baby boomers retire and the number of people [receiving it] more than doubles. … We put together a strong, comprehensive plan to preserve Medicare not only for this generation but for all generations.”
Noting that there is an anticipated $360 billion Medicare surplus, Lieberman said the Democratic plan is to place that money in an “iron-clad lock box with a sign that says, ‘Politicians, keep your hands off.’ ” He said the money would be restricted to either strengthening Medicare or reducing the national debt.
“It would also use interest saved from debt reduction to pay for Medicare and extend its solvency until at least 2030,” he said.
Unless changes are made, the 35-year-old insurance program is expected to go bankrupt by 2025.
He said also that the Gore-Lieberman plan would have a voluntary prescription drug benefit for everyone on Medicare and allow people aged 55 to 65 to buy affordable coverage through the program.
“The Bush-Cheney plan will not protect Social Security … and not provide drug coverage,” Lieberman said. He added that the Republicans would also take $259 million from the Medicare trust fund and use it for a tax cut, “43 percent of which would go to the wealthiest” Americans.
At the fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee in Florham Park, N.J., hosted by developer Charles Kushner, Debra Grashom of Aberdeen said she found Lieberman “very dynamic.”
“He has strong values. I wish he were running for president,” she said.
The event took place in a tent on the grounds of Kushner’s business complex while a heavy rain fell outside.
Jocheved Orbach of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, said she came with her husband, Joseph, because “we’re 100 percent for Gore and Lieberman. We think they’re fantastic. I think they make a great team and will be good for the country.”
In commenting on the enthusiasm of crowds he has seen during the campaign, Lieberman said one sign at a Latin American event caught his attention: “Viva Chutzpah.”
Referring to opinion polls that now show the election too close to call and whip-sawing back and forth, Lieberman said this “had been a close election, and we made it closer. It wasn’t there for awhile.”
In New Jersey, which had been considered a toss-up, opinion polls this week gave the Gore-Lieberman ticket a 16-point advantage.
Campaign officials said $500,000 was raised at the New Jersey fund-raiser and that another $1.5 million was raised at two other events Tuesday night at private homes in Manhattan. One was at the home of Revlon chairman Ronald Perelman and his wife, the actress Ellen Barkin.
Aside from a campaign appearance by Lieberman to support Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton two weeks ago, Gore and Lieberman have only come to New York to raise money and appear on network television shows. They hold a commanding 25-point lead in the polls and the Bush campaign has all but written off the state.
“Our opponents have almost unlimited access — not unlimited but much larger access — to financial support than we do,” Lieberman said at the New Jersey fund-raiser. “We’re not going to ever match them, but we need to stay competitive to be able to get our message out and to show the differences between the two campaigns and the two tickets. The support you have given today … will help us do just that.”
The American Jewish Committee this week released an update of its report, “The Christian Right at the Millennium,” which says the “attitudes of Christian conservatives toward Jews will be tested” by the Lieberman nomination.
“An observant Jew, Lieberman was popular among Christian right leaders because of his personal piety, criticism of the entertainment industry, and denunciation of President Clinton’s behavior in the Lewinsky scandal,” wrote the author, John C. Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron.
“The initial reaction to the Lieberman nomination among Christian conservatives was positive — more so, in fact, than their reaction to the Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Albert Gore, himself a Southern Baptist. Whether such views survive the rough and tumble of the campaign remains to be seen.”