UPDATED 9: 30 AM 9/18/13 WITH POLL NUMBERS
The long and bitter Democratic primary for mayor officially ended Monday with runner-up William Thompson, Jr. throwing his support behind frontrunner Bill de Blasio, who won around 40 percent of the vote on Sept. 10.
But for many of Thompson’s top Jewish supporters, decision day is elusive. Several prominent backers told The Jewish Week following Thompson’s concession that they were still making up their mind as the general campaign kicks into high gear and de Blasio and Republican nominee Joseph Lhota trade barbs.
“It’s wonderful that the Democrats are united,” said Rabbi David Niederman, a Thompson endorser and head of the United Jewish Organizations in Williamsburg, shortly after the announcement. “But the [community] leadership will have to sit down and discuss what is best.”
Rabbi Niederman is part of the Satmar chasidic faction that follows Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum, one of two sons of the late Satmar rebbe. The faction that follows Aaron Teitelbaum, the second son, backed de Blasio in the primary.
Rabbi Niederman said he and others were seeking meetings with both de Blasio and Lhota. “We want to make sure that the elderly, children and poor receive services, and that business in the city can flourish.”
The rabbi then added, “and that services will be delivered in a way that conforms to each community’s religious and
Two prominent Orthodox backers of Thompson, Chaskell Bennett and Jonathan Schenker, declined to comment when reached by The Jewish Week Monday, saying they were digesting the latest developments. Bennett is a board member of Agudath Israel of America, and Schenker is a former Thompson aide in the comptroller’s office who worked as a campaign consultant to gather Jewish support.
A Marist poll sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and NBC 4 released Wednesday showed that Jews are more closely divided than Catholics and Protestants in the general election, with 56 percent of likely voters favoring de Blasio and 36 percent backing Lhota. The 36 percent, which includes undecideds who are leaning toward a candidate, was higher than the 26 percent for Catholics and 16 percent for Protestants. (Jews represented 14 percent of the 930 voters contacted by Marist). Among all voters, de Blasio garnered 65 percent of likely voters to Lhota’s 22 percent.
Most Jews are Democrats, but in New York they have proven decidedly nonpartisan, heavily backing socially liberal Republicans like Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (now independent) and Gov. George Pataki. De Blasio will have to lure them back into the mainstream Democratic camp after two decades.
“Bill de Blasio has a challenge ahead of him in terms of being able to not only connect but sensitize and educate mainstream Jewish voters to his message,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and leader of the Hampton Synagogue.
“His following is in the more progressive community. [Politically] conservative Jewish voters have not had the chance to get to know him and his policies.”
One de Blasio backer, Leon Goldenberg, a real estate agent from Brooklyn who is active in Orthodox politics, said he believed the presumptive nominee will do well with Orthodox communities, which tend to vote and contribute as a bloc. Supporting yeshivas with public money, to the legal extent possible, Goldenberg predicted, will be a key issue.
“We are not one large community; we are made up of many different communities with different needs, but yeshivas are what bind us all together,” he said. “[De Blasio] understands the needs of the yeshivas.”
He noted that de Blasio represented a Brooklyn district with a large Orthodox population on the outskirts of Borough Park in the City Council from 2001-’09. “When [the former councilman] Steve DiBrienza was term-limited out, there were eight people running for the office, and [de Blasio] was the only one who reached out to the Orthodox community,” Goldenberg said. “He spent time with us, understanding us.”
On Friday, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, another Orthodox former Thompson backer, said he was leaning toward backing de Blasio. But he acknowledged that the liberal public advocate may be a tough sell among conservative voters like those in Borough Park and Flatbush who oppose increasing taxes on wealthy families or limiting the controversial police tactic of stop-and-frisk.
“We will have to have some very serious conversations,” Hikind said.
The indecision of some Thompson supporters presents an opportunity for Lhota, the former MTA chairman and ex-deputy mayor under Giuliani, to win some of the crossover Democrats he desperately needs to win in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1 — albeit one that has not elected a Democrat chief executive in five elections.
Since de Blasio won about 9 percent of the nearly three million registered Democrats, Lhota’s target will be not only be those who supported other candidates, but the majority who stayed home
Thompson, whose network of Jewish contacts goes back decades because of his father’s political career, had extensive Jewish backing in part because he was seen as a political moderate, particularly in terms of his approach to crime and the business community. De Blasio, on the other hand, is seen as an unabashed liberal who wants to increase taxes on those earning more than $500,000 and drastically reform police procedure.
Lhota’s attack line against him is that the city can fund universal pre-K, at a cost of about a 1 percent increase in the city budget, by cutting other spending, and that the tax-the-rich approach is only a populist — almost punitive — appeal that could drive away job creators and harm the middle class.
“What Bill fails to understand is that his knee-jerk reaction to raise taxes in the highest-taxed city in the nation hurts the economy and actually harms the very people who need the government the most,” Lhota said this week. “The key to expanding the middle class — and our tax base — is to create good-paying jobs that people can raise their families on.”
Without mentioning him by name, Lhota has evoked the last Democratic mayor, David Dinkins — who was voted out of office in a time of high crime — by alluding to the failed policies of the past.
De Blasio was an aide to Dinkins, but told The Jewish Week earlier this summer he learned lessons from that administration about the need to be more decisive and communicate a unified message to the public more clearly.
Dinkins won just 39 percent of the Jewish vote in his unsuccessful 1993 re-election bid, low for a Democrat; Giuliani garnered 60 percent, according to exit polls at the time.
One group of Jewish voters de Blasio can almost certainly count out is what Dinkins once called “Park Avenue Jews,” who will likely be put off by the tax increase.
One key Jewish supporter and fundraiser for Thompson, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, has yet to announce her allegiance in the race. Her husband, James Tisch, a major Jewish philanthropist and CEO of Loews Corporation, is a fundraiser for Lhota, and in comments to The New York Times, boasted of cross-party appeal for the campaign.
“I’ve heard from people who would usually be inclined to support the Democratic candidate,” James Tisch said in the Sept. 9 interview, adding that de Blasio was seen in his circles as “destructive” to the business-friendly policies of Bloomberg.
Merryl Tisch did not immediately return a call on Tuesday asking whether she would support de Blasio. An assistant said she was in Albany for meetings.
Historian Fred Siegel, scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and author of a book on Giuliani, said the contrast between de Blasio and Lhota may not be as apparent as Republicans would like.
“De Blasio is coming off as much more reasonable than Joe will hope,” said Siegel. “What shot [Lhota] has depends on painting [de Blasio] as a radical.” If de Blasio, as some expect, wins the backing of former Police Commissioner William Bratton, under whose watch crime numbers started to plummet, “that’s the kind of thing that can push some middle-class Jewish voters into voting for de Blasio.”
But when coupled with heavy union and extensive minority support (just 3 percent of likely African American voters supported Lhota in the Marist poll, with 86 percent backing de Blasio), even a moderate slice of the Jewish vote might be enough to propel de Blasio to victory.
Chaim David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, which takes no sides in the race, told The Jewish Week Tuesday that in this election, familiarity with the candidate could trump disagreements over policy.
“Sometimes the single-most important thing in a community’s relationship with political leadership is access, even more so than philosophy about specific issues or general issues,” he said, noting that his community has an open dialogue with the Democratic candidate.
He added, “Though I’m sure many people will be attracted to Lhota and his background and issues. He was a top lieutenant to Giuliani, who was quite popular in our community, so it will be interesting to see.
“Both are in certain ways attractive candidates,” Zwiebel continued, “though diametrically opposed in overall philosophy.”