The Battle Yet To Come

The Battle Yet To Come

While the candidates in the contentious battle for Senate wage all-out war for the Jewish vote, sparks have yet to fly in the governor’s race, in which Republican George Pataki is far outpacing Democratic challenger Peter Vallone.

That could change as the race enters its home stretch. Gov. George Pataki will tour Brooklyn’s chasidic communities in Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Borough Park on Sunday, and attend a fund raiser with one of his staunchest Jewish allies, Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind on Monday. Hikind’s was the only Brooklyn assembly district Pataki captured from incumbent Mario Cuomo in 1994.

Vallone’s itinerary includes services this weekend at Temple Israel of the Upper West Side and the New City Jewish Center in Rockland. Both candidates are expected at Sunday’s annual breakfast of the Council of Jewish Organizations in Civil Service. At stake for Pataki, who is favored in every poll for re-election, is the chance to increase his share of the Jewish vote, of which he won about 25 percent in 1994 — more than other recent Republican candidates for his office, but considerably less than the share won by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1993 and 1997, and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato in 1986 and 1992.

For Vallone, the speaker of the City Council, cashing in on his ties to the Jewish community means solidifying a crucial segment of his political base. Observers do not expect Vallone to capture the three quarters of the Jewish vote incumbent Cuomo won in 1994.

Varying polls suggest that the Jewish vote could go either way in this race. A survey by the Zogby Group found Pataki leading among likely Jewish voters with 42 percent, compared to 37 percent for Vallone, with a margin of error of 10 points. But a Marist College poll found Vallone in the lead, with 62 percent vs. 29 percent for Pataki with five point margin of error.

“Jews in New York City have learned to vote Republican thanks to [Mayor] Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Al D’Amato,” says Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “But Jews will do what they usually do downstate — stay with the Democratic candidate.”

In 1994, Pataki appealed for Jewish votes — primarily Orthodox — by making an issue of Cuomo’s response to the 1991 Crown Heights riots, suggesting that the then-governor should have superceded the mayor of New York City, David Dinkins, to end the anti-Jewish violence.

In this race, Pataki has yet to raise a Jewish issue against Vallone, and would be hard put to find one.

Both candidates are strong supporters of Jewish issues. Both traveled to Israel within days of each other earlier this year and came down firmly on the side of Israelis on contentious issues such as settlement of the West Bank.

As speaker of the Council, Vallone has had the opportunity to fund Jewish social service groups and defend them from budget cuts, even restoring funds slashed by the Dinkins administration to Jewish community councils. He has also guided numerous resolutions through the City Council condemning anti-Semitism and supporting Israel.

Pataki has also aided Jewish social services, such as continuing $3 million in aid for a residence for the mentally ill in Manhattan built by the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty. The governor also set aside $10 million for the construction of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Manhattan, in addition to allocating $2 million annually for its operation. He dedicated an economic trade office in Jerusalem earlier this year and established a joint New York-Israel cultural exchange commission. Jewish leaders uniformly report that Pataki is highly accessible, and quick to respond to situations such as the devastating fire at Central Synagogue in Manhattan.

(Pataki made available a state armory for High Holy Days services.)

Despite all of Vallone’s attacks on the governor and their different party affiliations, the two are not far apart on issues. Both are fiscal conservatives, pro-death penalty and pro-choice. Both favor some kind of tuition aid for private schools, support a state bias crime bill and the special chasidic school district in Kiryas Joel. One issue that separates them is campaign finance reform, which Vallone favors. Pataki views fund raising as protected by the Constitution. Vallone also opposes Pataki’s position on charter schools, which he fears would undermine other public schools.

Several Jewish leaders declined to be interviewed about the race, citing close ties with both candidates and the fear of offending one. “Both these men will probably remain in power for quite some time,” said one leader.

But while neither candidate can claim a lock on the Jewish vote, the race seems clearly to be Pataki’s to lose. The Marist poll gives Pataki a 29 point lead. This week, the courts struck Vallone’s campaign a crushing blow by refusing to force the Board of Elections to include his referendum on the future of Yankee Stadium, which might have boosted Election Day turnout. Pataki seems in no hurry to schedule a debate.But to say that Vallone’s campaign has not caught fire may be an understatement. His funds are nearly depleted, he remains unrecognizable to many voters and has yet to seize on an energizing issue.

During a press conference outside City Hall last week, in which Vallone blasted state cuts to child care, a passerby with a beard and yarmulke stopped to ask what was going on. When told that Vallone was holding a press conference, the man said “Oh,” and kept walking.

A few minutes later, a young woman asked, “Is he running for something?”Pataki, for his part, barely acknowledges that this is an election year. In an interview with The Jewish Week lasting nearly an hour, the governor never mentioned Vallone’s name, and only once mentioned on his own that he was up for re-election.

But Vallone insists he’s upbeat about his prospects. “I was 20 percent ahead of the closest pollster in the primary,” he said in an interview, referring to his large margin of victory in September. “People will begin to start focusing on the debate within the next 10 days. I feel very good about the Jewish vote. People know they have a friend in me.”

Pollster Lee Miringoff of Marist College would not rule out a surprise Vallone victory, but he added: “Without funds, and with people feeling the way they do about Pataki, it’s more than a long shot.”

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