On what is arguably the most important day of the campaign home stretch — the Sunday before Election Day — Gov. George Pataki is planning a whirlwind tour of Orthodox communities in Brooklyn and upstate, demonstrating the key role he is expecting those bloc voters to play in his re-election bid.
In what a top Jewish adviser called an “unprecedented” 12-hour pilgrimage that will take him from Brooklyn to Kiryas Joel in Orange County and parts of Rockland, the governor’s schedule includes courtesy calls on chasidic rebbes, what is expected to be a large Borough Park concert and rally, and appearances at charitable dinners.
“This is an unbelievable number of stops in a 12-hour period, certainly more than I’ve ever seen,” said Jeff Wiesenfeld, a Jewish aide to Pataki.
The chasidic tour comes on a day that is likely to see intense media coverage, and also on a day that will see travel around the city hampered by the New York City Marathon. But the governor clearly sees in the Orthodox community an opportunity to surround himself with large, enthusiastic crowds.
The Borough Park rally, organized by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, will feature Jewish music acts, such as the Torah Tots, likely to draw families, even if they are not interested in politics.
Pataki — widely expected to win a fourth term on Tuesday, barring a drastic change of political tides — has been heavily supported by chasidim in his previous two bids, and is seen as likely to capture the bulk of Orthodox support this year.
“My guess is that the Orthodox Jewish community will go about 90 percent for Pataki,” said David Zwiebel, a vice president of Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox umbrella group. Zwiebel and a group of some 150 young Jewish leaders of Agudah recently met with Pataki at the offices of Republican Jewish activist George Klein.
Wiesenfeld said the governor felt a bond with Orthodox Jews dating back to his days in the state legislature, when he represented upstate districts in Orange County with large concentrations of chasidim.
“He’s more familiar with the esoteric aspects of Orthodox Judaism than the average Jewish or non-Jewish public official because of his exposure to these more insular communities,” said Wiesenfeld, a former executive assistant to the governor. “While they are not representative of all of Judaism, it certainly gives him a fuller picture of the underpinnings.” He said the governor had held meetings with representatives of the larger, non-Orthodox movements at other points in the race.
Both Pataki and his Democratic challenger, H. Carl McCall have solid records on Jewish issues, strongly supporting and visiting Israel and speaking out against anti-Semitism.
What’s more, the two candidates’ positions on social issues of importance to the broad Jewish community — from abortion rights to the environment to gun control — are similar. Education is considered the foremost issue to all voters, and the two have not articulated drastically different visions.
“McCall probably would try to get a little more money into the big city schools, but overall I don’t see a very big difference,” said political consultant Norman Adler.
Despite this lack of substantive difference, however, it is Pataki who is seen as carrying momentum in the Jewish community.
Most polls show the two about even, but because the number of people interviewed in ethnic and racial groups is generally small, the figure is considered unreliable. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that Pataki will easily match the 40 percent of the Jewish vote he garnered in 1998, if not exceed it.
“McCall did very well among Jews in the primary against [Andrew] Cuomo, before Cuomo dropped out, and yet he does not seem to have figured out how to hold that,” said Adler.
Observers attribute this development to two factors: the benefits of incumbency for Pataki, and the fact that it is easy to forget that he is a Republican. He has become increasingly moderate since defeating Cuomo’s father, Mario, in 1994.
“He’s done what Bill Clinton did in the 1996 election, only in reverse,” said one Jewish community official, who asked not to be identified. “Clinton moved to the right, Pataki moved to the left. When he first came into office, he had to be the anti-Cuomo. But four years later he had to broaden his appeal. … He’s morphed into a Democrat, [doling out] money anywhere he can.”
Since his re-election in 1998, Pataki has been credited with an increasing interest in the agenda of Jewish social service agencies. “In the past four years, the governor has reached out to Met Council agencies to better understand those issues that we’re concerned about, dealing with senior citizens, immigration, families in crisis and at-risk youth,” said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. “He’s made an effort to work with us to improve the quality of life of poor and near poor Jewish New Yorkers.”
Pataki has shown an affinity for using state resources to address the needs of Jewish communities, in particular the Orthodox. After the governor was introduced by Hikind to a group that was concerned about drug addiction among Orthodox youth in February 2000, the state’s office on substance abuse six months later provided the funds for the group to open an office. More recently, he worked with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to create funding for infertility treatments not covered by insurance — a measure heavily backed by Agudath Israel.
Pataki also appears to be made of Teflon. While the revelation that McCall wrote official letters to help friends and relatives find jobs was a turning point in the campaign, sending him into a tailspin, Pataki seems to be unscathed by several controversies. They involve allegations that the governor’s appointees arranged a parole in exchange for campaign contributions; that he has allowed mentally ill to be virtually imprisoned in nursing homes run by a major contributor; employed city correction workers to help his campaign and, of most concern to Jews, courted left-wing extremist Lenora Fulani in his bid to gain the Independence Party nomination.
Former Mayor Ed Koch, who heads up Pataki’s committee of Democratic supporters, calls the governor a mensch, and said the controversies and investigations hadn’t changed that impression.
“I wish they hadn’t happened,” said Koch. “But I think people know that he is an honest and decent man and they are not concerned. They think his commitment to Israel is sincere.
Pataki’s Fulani courtship is the only Jewish issue to emerge against the governor. Jewish groups have blasted the activist as anti-Semitic. And last summer, Russian immigrants in Brooklyn were incensed that Pataki operatives tried to recruit first-time voters in their community to the Independence Party in an unsuccessful attempt to influence its primary, which Pataki lost to Thomas Golisano.
“We were glad he lost this primary,” said Arkady Kagan, senior editor of the Russian Forward newspaper. “It was a good lesson for him: Don’t court anti-Semites.” But Kagan said the governor was highly attentive to the community, and had visited Brighton Beach as recently as Sunday. “He’s been a friend,” said Kagan, noting that Pataki has appointed a liaison, Julia Parnas, to the Russian-speaking community.
He has, however, appointed few members of the Jewish community to top positions in his administration. Wiesenfeld, who served as an executive assistant to the governor and remains his appointee to the CUNY Board of Trustees, was hard-pressed when asked about Jews appointed to the top echelons.
He mentioned Neil Levin, the former superintendent of banking and insurance and director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; tax commissioner Arthur Roth and his predecessor, Michael Urbach, as well as Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, who was named chief chaplain of the National Guard and now serves as a community liaison.
“People tell me, half jokingly, that if you want to understand the Jewish community there is none better than George Pataki,” said Wiesenfeld. He said he was not troubled by the shortage of appointments because “people who are Jewish don’t always act in the interests of the Jewish community.”
Adler, the political consultant, said he was surprised that McCall’s candidacy had not been embraced by Jews. “McCall is exactly the kind of candidate that Jews could be comfortable with,” he said. But he added that Pataki’s shift to the center had “cut a highway right down the middle and left him with nowhere to go. And McCall has run a very poor campaign.”