It’s nothing new for one in a voluntary leadership position with a Jewish nonprofit group to take sides in a political race. But the endorsement of U.S. Senate candidate Rick Lazio by Meryl Tisch, president of the city’s leading Jewish anti-poverty group, raised a few eyebrows last week.
Some who read the comments were surprised that Tisch made no apparent effort to distinguish her personal view from that of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, a tax-exempt organization enjoined from endorsing candidates.S
peaking about the Suffolk congressman supported by much of her prominent philanthropic family, Tisch said she was "very comfortable about where he stands on issues of helping people help themselves."
"That’s our mission at Met Council, and he has been a great partner, an advocate and listener for us," she said in comments reported by the Forward.
Toby Nussbaum, a former Met Council vice president and current board member, said Tisch "probably misspoke."
"I’m sorry that Met Council was mentioned in connection with an endorsement," she said. "I certainly don’t think it reflects an official position by Met Council."
Nussbaum, whose husband, Bernard, was White House counsel in the first Clinton administration, is active in the campaign of Lazioís Democratic opponent, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Pointing out that supporters of both candidates serve on the Met Council board, Nussbaum said Tisch was "a public person involved in many organizations. When she speaks, she doesn’t speak on behalf of all those organizations. I don’t think there is any cause for concern that she is being misunderstood in that fashion."
The executive director of Met Council, William Rapfogel, had no comment. Several Met Council board members contacted by The Jewish Week did not take issue with the quote. But some Jewish leaders confirmed that her comments had created a stir.
In an interview, Tisch said she was unaware of any controversy. "No one has mentioned it to me, and my phone is always ringing about these kinds of things," she said, insisting she was stating her personal view.
But an expert on charities law said Tisch’s statement appeared to skirt the boundary of what might be considered partisanship by a nonprofit group, which in a worst-case scenario could lead to revocation of tax exemption by the Internal Revenue Service.
"The law says a charitable organization cannot participate or intervene," said Bruce Hopkins, author of "The Law of Tax-Exempt Organizations."
"What she seems to be saying is [Lazio] is endorsing principles that parallel what the organization is doing. My take is that she went right to the edge but might not have crossed the line."
The issue points up the tangled web woven by outspoken leaders in the Jewish community who seek to balance personal opinions and interests with those of the organizations they represent.
On the morning of June 4, Tisch was the host of Met Council’s annual breakfast, in which Clinton was a prominent participant. Tisch marched later that day in the Salute to Israel parade with Lazio. Last Friday Tisch and her husband, James, president of UJA-Federation, and other family members hosted a fund-raiser for Lazio at their Loews Regency Hotel, attended by some 70 prominent Jews.
But the Tisches are not the only ones balancing personal activism with the neutrality of their organizations. Last fall the president of the Orthodox Union, Mandell Ganchrow, welcomed former Senate candidate Rudolph Giuliani to a fund-raiser at his Monsey home shortly before Clinton attended an OU event. Ganchrow said the event was organized by his wife.
Taking a public stand for candidates, especially those in tight elections, can reap dividends for Jewish communal activists and the organizations with which they affiliate. Both Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki had extensive Jewish backing in their initial close races, and as a result the community enjoys unprecedented close ties and access at City Hall and in Albany.
But Mitchell Moss of New York University’s Taub Center for Urban Research terms such endorsements "a high-risk gamble" since each election has a winner and a loser, and politicians have long memories.
"Politics trumps prudence in New York," said Moss. "No one surrenders their right to be politically active because they head an organization. Everyone wants to be a player, and often an organization’s obligations are subordinated."
One observer of Friday’s fund-raiser pointed out the Tisch familyís substantial tobacco interests. Its Loews empire includes cigarette manufacturer Lorillard Tobacco. "The Republican Congress and Senate are much more likely to be supportive of tobacco’s concerns," said the observer.
Although Lazio has declined recent tobacco lobby contributions and voted in favor of some measures to fight teen smoking and a 1996 bill to curb federal aid for tobacco, he voted against a 1997 measure that would cut federal funds for tobacco crop insurance and increase spending by the Food and Drug Administration to fight teen smoking.
"I’m not aware of what his voting record on [tobacco] is, to be perfectly honest," said Meryl Tisch.
He also voted against a 1999 measure that would protect pending anti-tobacco lawsuits from changes in class-action law. Clinton’s campaign is heavily supported by trial lawyers who stand to profit from pending anti-smoking litigation, noted another observer.
This may shape up to be a banner year for identity politics.
First, a challenger wants to unseat Bronx Rep. Eliot Engel on the grounds that it’s time to elect an African American from that district. Putting an Orthodox congressman in the House of Representatives is a central theme of Brooklyn Councilman Noach Dear’s campaign against Rep. Anthony Weiner.
And now Moscow-born Alec Brook-Prokasny wants to unseat Brighton Beach Assembly member Adele Cohen because he believes it’s time for a Russian immigrant to serve in Albany.
"I want to be a bridge between the Russian Jewish and American-born community," said Prokasny, 42, who started out as a deliveryman after emigrating here in 1982 and now owns a children’s entertainment center in Brighton.
Brook-Prokasny says he has no real beef with Cohen’s performance. "She is a good assemblywoman and an experienced politician, but I think I could do better. Forty-five to 50 percent of the constituents don’t speak English. I feel like a bilingual person would be serving this community better," he said.
Cohen, who says she uses college interns as translators, says the 46th District is more diverse than her challenger suggests. It includes heavily minority Coney Island, affluent Sea Gate and parts of Bay Ridge, which is heavily Italian American and Irish. "There are all kinds of communities, and I try to represent everybody. But this is America and anyone can run."
Brook-Prokasny is being supported by Brighton Councilman Howard Lasher, who has a longstanding feud with Cohen dating back to their nasty 1993 Council race.