As Sen. Joe Lieberman and his supporters baked in the afternoon sun and basked in the endorsement of a local congresswoman at a subsidized housing project here Monday, Dan Garrett stood across the street holding a “Joe’s Gotta Go” sign.
“I’m not one of the Jews for Lieberman,” said Garrett, 46, displaying his gold chai necklace, and noting that he supported Lieberman’s past campaigns. “He was fantastic, and now he’s a completely different person since he ran for vice president. The way he supports Bush every step of the way is absolutely ridiculous.”
Garrett’s wife, Lauren, added: “It’s time for him to go. He’s in this [Iraq] war because in his mind he thinks it’s better for Israel, and I don’t agree that it is.”
A couple of miles away, following evening services at Congregation Beth El Kesser Israel, a Conservative temple in the Westville area, Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen also spoke of a changed Lieberman.
“People I have spoken to have expressed disappointment with Sen. Lieberman in his support of the [Iraq] war, but that’s not the only issue,” said the rabbi, noting Lieberman’s stand in favor of court action in the Terri Schiavo euthanasia case and support of custody without trial for terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay military base.
The rabbi, who said he knows Lieberman personally, said he has made the “painful” decision to vote for the challenger in Tuesday’s Connecticut Democratic primary, Ned Lamont, despite Lieberman’s “understanding of so many Jewish issues.”
Rabbi Tilsen said Lieberman’s declaration last week that he’ll run as an independent if he loses his party’s nomination “undermines a lot of his credibility in his commitment to working together on issues I thought we shared.”
During campaign stops in Norwalk, Fairfield and New Haven on Monday, part of his “Tomorrow Tour” of the state, Lieberman was doing his best to appear his usual even-tempered self, expressing confidence while hammering away at the need for high turnout.
His campaign schedule as of Wednesday did not include any stops at a Jewish venue, a sign that he was confident about a crucial base of support.
But polls have shown Jews overwhelmingly opposed to the war — a key campaign issue — and a Democratic poll on the Senate race cited by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency suggested as many as 50 percent are with Lamont, about the same as general voters in the most recent poll by Quinnipiac College.
“The Jewish community is divided,” says Paul Bass, editor of The New Haven Independent, a progressive online magazine, and a member of Rabbi Tilsen’s congregation. “Everyone likes Joe personally, he’s a very sincere person about his religion,” says Bass. “But people are also frightened by the merging of church and state that Joe has advocated with people like Ralph Reed. On the other hand, people are so loyal to Joe they probably are still going to vote for him.”
What, Me Worry?
During a stop at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk Monday with New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a fellow Jewish Democrat, Lieberman declined to directly address whether the Jewish community was behind him.
“Everybody will make up their mind,” he told The Jewish Week. “I’m confident about the vote overall. In the end people have to ask themselves who’s going to do a better job in the future.”
When asked about the pervasive blame-Israel rhetoric in the anti-Iraq war camp — heavily manifested on left-wing blogs — Lieberman said “that worries me,” but refused to say whether it might create a backlash against him. “Israel is a great ally of the United States and it’s a dangerous world,” he said.
Lieberman’s childhood rabbi, Joseph Ehrenkrantz, formerly of Congregation Agudath Shalom of Stamford, said he believed his former bar mitzvah pupil was worried.
“I think every politician until the day after the election is worried so I think he’s concerned,” said the rabbi, who attended the aquarium event. As for the war: “I’m against this war. I wish it were over. But I don’t think Joe Lieberman is a single-issue senator.”
Anticipating that line of defense, anti-Lieberman protestors who appeared along the campaign trail held up signs noting that the 3,000-plus U.S. death toll “is not a single issue.’ ”
As Lieberman crossed Post Avenue in Fairfield during a walk through a retail area, a driver honked and shouted “No more war!”
“It’s unusual for any incumbent senator to be seriously challenged in a primary,” says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. He attributed part of Lieberman’s problem to efforts to create a national profile for his unsuccessful 2000 campaign for vice president and 2004 White House bid. Although consistently voting with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party on social issues, Lieberman has been a hawk on domestic security and foreign policy, while backing conservative Bush appointees — positions out of character with New England Democrats.
“It happens a lot to senators that become famous,” said Sabato. “They forget about the one group of people who can keep them in power: The people in their home state.”
Differences With Lamont
Painting Lieberman as out of touch with his roots has been the core of Ned Lamont’s strategy. “George Bush has taken this country way off the bipartisan, centrist course we’ve been on since World War II, and Joe Lieberman provides an awful lot of cover for that,” said Lamont, the wealthy founder of a cable TV company and political novice, in an interview Tuesday.
Aside from Iraq, the two candidates differ on energy policy, privatization of social security, homeland security issues and, not least, two of the issues Jewish voters care about most: Israel, and the separation of church and state here.
On Monday, Lieberman said he had no problem with the way the White House was handling the current Middle East conflict.
“I’ve been following it from a distance, but I don’t think there’s anything they’re not doing that they should be doing,” he said in Fairfield. “They are pushing for a cease-fire, working with the UN.”
Lamont wants a stronger White House role.
“The administration should be in the peace business,” he said. “When Mahmoud Abbas took over from Arafat, that was an opportunity to re-engage in the peace process. [Iraq has been] a distraction from our ongoing role in helping Israel’s relationships with Lebanon and the PLO. Here we are with Israel under attack and I think Condoleezza Rice was slow off the draw.”
A hands-on approach, he said, was “historically what we’ve done,” Lamont said, citing past efforts by President Jimmy Carter and secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and James Baker.
That’s more in line with Lieberman’s position at the dawn of his 2004 White House bid, when he criticized Bush in an address to Jewish leaders for making strong statements about the Middle East and then having “left the field.” He urged the president then to push for better Palestinian leadership. Today, with the peace process in a shambles, most of the pro-Israel community has backed the White House approach.
Lamont and Lieberman also differ sharply on the roles of religion and government, and Bush’s faith-based initiatives program. “I don’t really want the federal government picking and choosing which faiths they’re going to subsidize with taxpayer dollars and which ones they aren’t,” Lamont said.
Too Little, Too Late?
Despite his considerable name recognition, some say Lieberman is at a disadvantage now because he recognized the threat from Lamont too late.
“He’s going to lose,” said one concerned Jewish Connecticut Democrat who is backing Lieberman. “He should be talking about this Hezbollah crisis and how it proves that we’re in this war on terrorism together with Israel.”
Still, Lieberman seems assured next week of loyalty from most of his state’s Orthodox Jews, who take pride in his support of the Iraq war.
“Lamont is taking advantage of America’s weakness or preference to look away from the issues at hand,” said Eliezer Greer, a chasid, Democrat and co-chair of New Haven’s 24th Ward. “It was courageous of [Lieberman] to support the president.”
Eben Light, a day trader eating dinner with his family at Shelly’s, an eatery on Whalley Street in the heavily Jewish Westville section here, said that while he has “questions” about the war and is “not particularly enamored by this administration,” he would support Lieberman “because I’m an Orthodox Jew.”
But in the end it may be simple constituent work that pays off.
As he dined in the Edge of The Woods kosher vegetarian restaurant in Westville, Steven Weitzman, a Shelton resident, recalled that when he recently had a problem with a federal agency, he contacted Lieberman’s office.
“They were so nice and helpful and diligently pursued the issue,” said Weitzman. “The other guy, just because he’s a millionaire, I don’t think that’s a reason to be a senator.
“I am very much against the war,” added Weitzman. “But when someone helps you, you’re not going to turn away from him because you don’t agree on this or that.”