Initially thought to be a throw-away as far as the Republicans are concerned, the contest for state comptroller is shaping up to be a horse race after all with the nomination of Nassau County’s Bruce Blakeman to challenge Democrat H. Carl McCall.
The first African American elected to statewide office in New York, McCall was seen by many observers as a virtual shoo-in for re-election.
But Blakeman, the only Jew on an otherwise all-Catholic Republican ticket, has changed that assessment.
While the jury is still out on whether Blakeman can win — a strong showing for Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Al D’Amato could lead many to vote straight down the Republican line — he is all but certain to give the comptroller a run for his money for the Jewish vote, which McCall won comfortably with 76 percent in 1994.
Blakeman, presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, has strong ties to Long Island’s Jewish community, and has received honors from institutions such as the Yeshiva of South Shore and Nassau County Hatzoloh as well as Long Island’s division of UJA-Federation.
“Most people thought [the anti-McCall candidate] would be asleep, but he may turn out to be a sleeper,” says political consultant Hank Sheinkopf.
Blakeman’s nomination may have come as a surprise to those who have noticed the cordial relationship between Pataki and McCall over the past four years. They recently traveled side-by-side to Israel, and Pataki appointed McCall’s wife, Joyce Brown, as the $140,000 a year president of Fashion Institute of Technology.
But Blakeman downplayed that relationship in an interview. “I think they have a professional relationship,” he said. “I don’t think they have the same values and opinions as to what is necessary to make New York successful, to create opportunity and provide prosperity. To that extent I think the governor is squarely with me.”
McCall’s spokesman, Steve Greenberg, also denied any non-aggression pact between McCall and Pataki, noting that the comptroller has criticized the governor for using pension funds to close budget gaps, and for his efforts to eliminate remedial programs at the City University. But he added: “Voters expect the people they elect to work well together and get things done.”
McCall has raised $2.8 million for re-election as of his January filing. Although he has made an ardent effort to maintain his Jewish base while in office, sources say McCall feels his actions on Jewish causes have been largely unrecognized. He has withheld investment of the state’s $100 billion pension fund in Switzerland while its role in the Holocaust is investigated; strengthened New York-Israel economic ties and complained as a former ambassador about United Nations’ treatment of the Jewish state, which he has visited twice.
But unlike other executive offices, there are few Jewish or concrete political issues in the race for comptroller.
The difficulty in making the case against the state’s chief financial officer at a time of economic prosperity was apparent when Blakeman was asked for a direct criticism of McCall’s performance.
“In the weeks and months ahead I’m going to be setting forth my own agenda as to how I think the comptroller’s office can be improved. I have my own way of governing,” said Blakeman before launching into a series of his own accomplishments, never mentioning McCall. He added: “I want this race to be about issues, not name calling.”
According to Sheinkopf, Blakeman could win the race “if he’s funded properly and if the top of ticket does extraordinarily well. He starts out with a suburban base which can only help anyone running statewide.”
But another consultant, Cynthia Darrison, who is currently raising funds for Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel, said, “there should be some concern as to whether Pataki and D’Amato will have strong enough coattails to sweep all the Republicans in.” Jewish voters, in particular, “have a history of crossing back and forth across party lines,” rather than voting straight down a ballot, she added. “And the Democrats will ultimately field a good slate.”
# During last month’s state Democratic convention, Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross spoke with this column in her “war room” while waiting for delegates’ votes to be tallied for the gubernatorial nomination.
(The former Republican would win less than 4 percent of the vote.)
During a 10-minute, private interview McCaughey Ross was eager to bash the governor for failing to pass his proposed anti-bias crime legislation. But when the conversation turned to other matters before the state Legislature, such as an Assembly version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, McCaughey begged off. “I don’t usually get to do a substantive interview like this,” she said, explaining that she had expected questions about the convention. She asked to continue the interview later, but was unavailable.
Repeated calls to her campaign office — which has been rocked by the departure of key staff in recent weeks — to continue the interview have not been returned.
# Pataki’s executive assistant and principal Jewish liaison, Jeff Wiesenfeld, is off to Berlin and Dresden this week on a trip organized by the German government. Wiesenfeld, 40, was among several young North American business and government leaders named by the local German consulate to participate in a weeklong program to introduce the “changing face” of modern Germany.
“As the son of Holocaust survivors, it is a strange thing to be invited to Germany,” says Wiesenfeld, whose mother survived a Ukrainian concentration camp, and whose father fought in the underground.
A frequent speaker at Holocaust events, Wiesenfeld says he’s “going to take the younger generation [of Germans] at face value. More than the Swiss, they have been up-front about their culpability.”
# To the surprise of no one, Borough Park Councilman Noach Dear officially kicked off his candidacy for Congress Wednesday with rallies in Brooklyn, Queens and at City Hall, followed by a closed-to-the-press fundraiser at the opulent Shaare Zion Sephardic synagogue in Midwood. Among the scheduled guests were Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Missouri).
While Dear apparently hopes to cash in on his ties to the Clinton administration, Crain’s New York reported this week that Dear has been ordered by the White House not to use the President’s image in any campaign materials. The rebuke came in response to a complaint by Queens Assembly member Melinda Katz of Queens, one of Dear’s rivals for Rep. Charles Schumer’s seat.Another rival, Brooklyn Assembly member Dan Feldman, had a more mundane complaint. Feldman accused Dear of using confidential records to send birthday cards to constituents.
Dear’s campaign manager, Andy Hahn, shot back: “If Dan Feldman is upset that he didn’t receive a birthday card, we’d be happy to send him one next time around.”
# “Put a real vampire in Albany,” is the campaign slogan of Al “Grandpa” Lewis, who may turn out to be the only Jewish candidate for governor this year. Lewis, who portrayed the ghoulish Grandpa on TV’s “The Munsters,” told New York 1’s Dominic Carter that local politicians, including Pataki, have been “sucking taxpayers’ blood long enough.” Lewis, 88, is only the latest Jewish celebrity to flirt with a political campaign. Four years ago Howard Stern threatened to run for governor before endorsing Pataki. Last year, Kenny Kramer — the purported model of a Seinfeld character — ran for mayor just long enough to extend his 15 minutes of fame.
#At Sunday’s Lower East Side Festival, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — supposedly neutral in the Democratic primary for governor — made the rounds on his home turf with candidate Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney. Silver also warmly introduced Hynes at the podium.
# Senate candidate Geraldine Ferraro recently stood up an audience at the Conservative Synagogue of East 55th Street, where she had agreed to lecture. “We screwed up,” said her spokesman, David Eichenbaum, blaming a scheduling snafu. The event is to be rescheduled.