A few weeks ago, Gov. George Pataki traveled to Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park to symbolically "sign" a measure requiring insurers to cover the cost of treatments for infertility: a measure of great interest to the Orthodox Jewish community.
The measure had gone into effect several months earlier with the passage of the state budget, rendering the signing (postponed from July) completely ceremonial. But coming at a time when public attention was beginning to focus on the race between Pataki and what were then his two Democratic rivals, it quickly became a campaign-like affair featuring Republican Jewish activist George Klein praising the governor, in the words of one guest, as "the next best thing to Moses."
Heading into what is shaping up to be a tight re-election battle against popular Democrat H. Carl McCall, the governor is making good use of the power of incumbency to further endear himself to the Jewish community, which has shown him increasing support. A poll of likely voters released this week found Jews evenly split between McCall and Pataki, an encouraging note for the Republican since Jews are overwhelmingly Democrats.
The past month has seen a flurry of activity of Jewish interest on the governor’s schedule. He has signed a measure (again, symbolically) that would designate familial dysautonomia, a genetic disorder that affects Ashkenazi Jews, a disability eligible for various benefits; announced the construction of a sukkah on I-87 for travelers to observe the Feast of the Tabernacles; appeared with a Labrador retriever named in his honor to endorse a program donating bomb-sniffing "Pups for Peace" to Israel; and arranged to dine with the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum and the father of accident victim Gavin Cato to mark the anniversary of the 1991 Crown Heights riots. (Rosenbaum, who lives in Australia, gave the governor a ringing endorsement at that event).
Last weekend, Pataki attended two different Rosh HaShanah services, at the Central Synagogue and Temple Emanu-el, both major Reform congregations in Manhattan.
"He’s using the power of his office in order to ingratiate himself with Jewish voters, no question," said Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is backing McCall. "But to the extent that Carl McCall can use the power of his office, he’s doing the same."
The effort by Pataki, a Republican, may be more pronounced because he needs to cut a large chunk out of traditionally Democratic bases to win in a state where GOP members are outnumbered 5 to 1.
"Pataki has embarked on a two-year effort to reach out beyond traditional Republican constituencies because he knows the map is against him," says Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens. "That’s why he’s vacationing in Santo Domingo, and that’s why he’s davening at the Central Synagogue."
Pataki sailed to re-election in 1998 against a weak Democratic challenger, Peter Vallone. But he now leads McCall by a less-than-overwhelming 15 percent with eight weeks to go until Election Day, according to a Marist College poll released Monday.
Pataki gained 10 percent of the Jewish vote, from 28 to 38 percent, between 1994 and 1998. But McCall’s campaign, in the words of political consultant Norman Adler, shows signs of "reassembling the classic Democratic coalition of blacks, Jews and Catholics."
Even the governor’s Jewish supporters acknowledge that McCall could take a bite out of Pataki’s existing support, and stave off an increase. McCall has been an outspoken advocate of Israel and black-Jewish ties, and as state comptroller played a role in pressuring Swiss banks to return funds to Holocaust survivors.
"There will be a peel-off, but much less today than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago," said Jeff Wiesenfeld, a former executive assistant to Pataki, who remains a confidant and is a campaign supporter.
Wiesenfeld, now an investment broker, suggested that Jewish support for McCall would be an homage to his historic role as the first viable black candidate for governor, whereas Pataki’s support would be a result of loyalty.
"Some people think symbolism is more important than functionality," said Wiesenfeld. "If anyone deserves loyalty for extreme outspokenness on behalf of the Jewish community as a whole, and delivery of services, clearly it’s [Pataki]."
Asked about McCall’s support of Jewish causes, Wiesenfeld said "he’s been a friend, there’s no question about it. He’s a non-threatening, non-radical. But that doesn’t mean you throw out someone who has a proven record in the particular role in question. … Symbolism in and of itself is no reason to put someone out of office."
Silver agreed that there was no Jewish cause on which Pataki has not been a friend. "I don’t think there is anything the Jewish community can criticize him for," said the speaker.
Some of the governor’s activism on behalf of Jewish causes has been dictated by the times. For example, state courts recently invalidated the laws governing kosher food inspections, handing Pataki the benefit of fighting ardently to restore the law during an election campaign. This week, he announced that the federal Court of Appeals granted his request for a stay of the ruling while the state appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In other matters, the governor and his allies have arguably steered events for political benefit. Orthodox Jews and others, together with Assembly Democrats, had lobbied for the fertility measure for years, but faced obstacles from insurance lobbyists and Catholic groups who oppose some reproductive procedures. This year, Republican leaders made a priority of passing a women’s health package before the election, which included the fertility bill. "He didn’t want this hanging over his head," said one Albany insider.
In coming months, Pataki and McCall are sure to remain highly visible in Jewish neighborhoods, particularly in New York City, where the community has proven increasingly inattentive to party labels.
In the last statewide race, for U.S. Senate, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton won just over half the Jewish vote, although it was inaccurately predicted that she would need two-thirds to win.
"This is going to be an interesting race that will test the proposition that Jews are reliable Democratic voters," said Weiner. "It’s definitely not a given anymore that they pull Democratic levers automatically."