Now that H. Carl McCall is the uncontested Democratic candidate for governor, the extent of Jewish support for his candidacy is expected to come under close scrutiny at a crucial moment in black-Jewish political relations.
McCall, the state comptroller who would be New York’s first African-American governor (and the second in the nation’s history) was expected to win overwhelmingly among Jews in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, making what some viewed as an important statement in the wake of two divisive congressional races in the south.
In those contests African-American Reps. Earl Hilliard in Alabama and Cynthia McKinney in Georgia (both considered anti-Israel) were ousted by challengers heavily backed by Jewish money. (The challengers were also black.)
With Cuomo now out of the race throwing his support behind McCall in the fight against Republican Gov. George Pataki (who was re-elected with nearly 40 percent of Jewish votes in 1998, considered high for a Republican) Jewish support in the general contest is up in the air.
Throughout the McKinney contest last month, members of the Congressional Black Caucus hinted that Jewish voters and contributors were trying to oust her and that this could have a damaging effect on black-Jewish political relations.
Black politicians have generally viewed the Jewish community among their most reliable allies.
"Blacks and Jews expect so much from each other that if it’s less than overwhelming, we are disappointed in each other," said Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem, a top McCall backer. "We do have and should have a higher expectation rate of support among each other than most people do because of our common history and the programs that we jointly support."
Given the high hopes riding on McCall among African Americans, some are viewing the governor’s race as a bellwether on the traditional black-Jewish coalition.
"After two elections in which it appeared that Jews manipulated black power because of their own Middle East interests, it would be so valuable to see an election in which Jews rally around an African American," said one Jewish Democratic insider, insisting that Jewish votes for McCall in Tuesday’s uncontested primary would not have the same impact as a clear choice for McCall over Cuomo. "No one is going to call this a victory," he said.
McCall has a long history of friendship with the Jewish community, encompassing his tenure as a state senator representing a district with a sizable Jewish population, through his years as comptroller. During that time he visited Israel three times and invested millions in state pension funds in Israel bonds.
"The mutual relationship between myself and the Jewish community has been one that I cherish," McCall told a gathering of Jewish supporters over pastrami sandwiches at Mr. Broadway’s deli in Manhattan last week. He recalled his youth at Roxbury Memorial High School for Boys in Boston.
"Most of the students were Jewish. … I benefited from the efforts of the Jewish parents in that school and their insistence that every one of us get a first-class education."
He was surrounded by a who’s who of Jewish officials, from Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to members of Congress, state Assembly and City Council. The state’s top-ranking Jewish official, Sen. Charles Schumer, who has endorsed McCall, addressed the gathering by telephone from upstate.
"His story is the story of immigrant Jews from 100 years ago," said Spitzer.
McCall even racked up the endorsement (for the primary only) of the Jewish Press, an Orthodox weekly in Brooklyn. The Daily News, owned by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations chairman Morton Zuckerman, was the first daily to endorse McCall.
That solid Jewish backing is a far cry from some other recent campaigns involving local black candidates. When David Dinkins ran for mayor in 1989, Jewish support was initially strong but waned in the general election against Republican Rudolph Giuliani. And Dinkins 1993 re-election bid saw heated Jewish antipathy after the Crown Heights riots. The Rev. Al Sharpton’s support among Jews in his campaigns for mayor and Senate was virtually nil. And last year, black and Jewish leaders were largely on opposite sides of a divisive mayoral primary. African Americans backed Fernando Ferrer, while many Jews looked askance at his "other New York" campaign, favoring Mark Green, who won the primary.
"Because he has run first and foremost on his resume and credentials, as opposed to being someone who runs on an appeal specifically to minority voters, [McCall’s] chances to receive broader Jewish support than Dinkins are good," said John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.
But Mollenkopf noted that "Jewish voters have been most likely to defect from minority Democratic candidates to Republicans," as they did in the case of Dinkins and Giuliani. The same dynamic could help Pataki, who has also been a staunch advocate of Jewish causes, and has been rounding up the endorsement of Democratic leaders, most of them Jewish.
McCall won more 79 percent of the community’s vote in 1994, when he was elected comptroller against a Jewish opponent, Herb London.
But this year few expect him to win over Jewish areas of the state that have heavily supported Pataki, such as Borough Park and Crown Heights in Brooklyn, or Kiryas Joel and New Square upstate.
The dilemma of McCall vs. Pataki is best exemplified in the predicament of Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who endorsed McCall twice for comptroller and has maintained strong ties with him. A close Hikind ally, Wolf Sender, works as a Jewish adviser to McCall, and Hikind accompanied McCall to Israel last spring.
But Hikind, who has also twice backed Pataki, came under strong pressure last week to endorse the governor before the primary, and joined in a press conference of Democrats for Pataki. That group already included former Mayor Ed Koch, Queens Assemblyman Michael Cohen, and state Sen. Carl Kruger and district leader Michael Geller of Brooklyn.
"The Jewish community knows damn well that George Pataki has been on the front lines in support of Jewish issues," said Herbert Berman, Pataki’s adviser on Jewish affairs and a former Democratic City Councilman from Brooklyn. "They are not going to forget that support."
An official with a major Jewish organization noted that Pataki’s share of the Jewish vote increased from 28 percent in 1994 to 38 percent in 1998, and predicted the figure could rise as high as 50 percent this year.
"George Pataki is a popular incumbent who has made it a point to reach out," said the official. "Jews have a tendency to regard incumbents highly because of hakores hatov [gratitude]."
And how will the outcome impact on black-Jewish relations? National Jewish leaders don’t see a problem.
Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement said he did not expect the McCall race to be viewed in the same way as the Hilliard and McKinney races. "You’re dealing with apples and oranges," he said. "We’re now dealing with two people in a general election who are greatly admired in the Jewish community here. It will be very interesting to see on what grounds [they] make up their vote."
Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, said Jews would base their votes on traditional domestic issues, such as education, housing and the economy.
"They’ll be looking at a variety of issues," said Rosenthal. "Most voting blocs in this country tend to vote with the majority, which would normally favor the incumbent. But with the economy the way it is and McCall’s historic nomination, that could change."