With New York Picking a Mayor, the ‘Jewish Vote’ Is on the Wane

Smaller and More Fractured, its Influence Is ‘Not What it Was’

By Gal Beckerman

Published October 21, 2009, issue of October 30, 2009.
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Mayor Michael Bloomberg has never worn his Jewish identity on his sleeve, but that doesn’t seem to have hurt him among New York City’s Jewish voters.

The Candidates: Democrat Bill Thompson, left, and Republican Michael Bloomberg.
The Candidates: Democrat Bill Thompson, left, and Republican Michael Bloomberg.

In his successful 2005 re-election bid, he captured upward of 70% of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls, up from a little more than half of the Jewish vote that he took in his first mayoral win in 2001. Recent polls show that close to two-thirds of Jewish voters plan on supporting Bloomberg on November 3 as he seeks a third term. Less than a quarter say they will vote for his Democratic opponent, New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson.

But even as Bloomberg has enjoyed strong support from Jewish voters, New York City’s Jewish vote itself, many political observers say, is declining in both significance and cohesiveness.

For starters, fewer Jews are living in New York City, the Jewish population having dropped below a million for the first time in a century, according to a 2002 Jewish demographic study. Meanwhile, this population is increasingly fragmented, so that there are multiple Jewish votes, from the rapidly growing Orthodox and Russian Jewish communities in the outer boroughs to the liberals of the Upper West Side, each with its own concerns and interests.

“There is no Jewish vote,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a leading Democratic political consultant who is working for Bloomberg this election. “The 11th commandment used to be thou shall vote. The 12th commandment was thou shall vote Democratic. In New York City they did neither in 2009.”

Sheinkopf was referring to the low turnout in a Democratic run-off last month for two citywide offices — comptroller and public advocate — in which the two Jewish candidates lost. John Liu, a City Council member, won the Democratic primary for comptroller, making him a virtual shoo-in to become the first Asian American elected to citywide office in New York. Liu was buoyed by strong support from Asian Americans, a group that, with its numbers in the city approaching 1 million, appears to be pulling ahead of New York’s Jewish community in size.

Moreover, Sheinkopf and some other observers say that Jewish turnout seems to be waning along with the Jewish population.

“Jews have consistently voted more than the norm and continue to do so. But it’s not what it was,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

But political consultant Jerry Skurnik, a respected analyst of election data, said that Jews have always made up 25% to 30% of those voting in Democratic primaries. He said that though he has yet to look at figures for Jews from this year’s elections, he doubted this had substantially changed.

New York’s Jews, of course, are not a political monolith and never were. Pollock pointed to a 1965 referendum to institute a citizens’ complaint review board to provide a watchdog over police abuse. The Jewish vote was split on the issue, with less affluent Jews in the outer boroughs voting against the measure, while more liberal Manhattan Jews supported it.

But if that episode showed a community split in two on the basis of class, today’s Jewish community is fractured into many more parts. For instance, the numbers of Orthodox Jews and Jews from the former Soviet Union living in the city has ballooned in the past two decades. The 2002 Jewish Community Study of New York found that 25% of New York City’s Jewish residents are Orthodox, while another 19% live in Russian-speaking households. Both of these communities tend to be more politically conservative than the Jewish community in general.

“The issue isn’t that there is a Jewish vote, but that there are Jewish votes,” Pollock said. “There are different Jewish constituencies: Russians, Hasidim, yuppies and seniors. Today we have multiple communities. And even within previously united Hasidic communities, there are multiple communities.”

Ed Koch, who was mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989, said he did think there was still a Jewish vote. But when asked to identify its unifying factors, he answered by breaking the community down into its many constituent parts.

“There is the Orthodox Jewish vote, which is different than the regular Jewish vote,” Koch said. “The Orthodox Jewish vote is very conservative. So if you’re liberal, as I am, you have to find an area that appeals to them even though they think you’re too liberal — housing, Israel, something that especially appeals to them.”

Asked if Jews still wield the same political influence in the city as they did when he was mayor, Koch answered, “I think it’s less. Because they moved out.”

Over the past two decades, New York City’s Jews have broken with their traditionally Democratic moorings to back mayoral candidates running on the Republican ballot line. They supported Rudolph Giuliani, a law-and-order candidate who defeated incumbent David Dinkins in 1993. Dinkins suffered from widespread anger over his handling of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, which pitted blacks against Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. Jewish voters overwhelmingly backed Giuliani’s re-election in 1997 over Democratic challenger Ruth Messinger, who today helms the nonprofit American Jewish World Service.

In 2001, Bloomberg, Giuliani’s successor, roughly split the Jewish vote in his inaugural race against fellow Jewish candidate Mark Green. But the billionaire mayor dominated the Jewish vote in his 2005 re-election blowout of Democrat Fernando Ferrer.

This time around, polls have shown Bloomberg consistently ahead of Thompson. The race is considered a referendum on Bloomberg’s record as mayor, though he will likely suffer with some voters as a result of his successful — and highly unpopular — effort to amend New York’s term limits law so that he could run for a third term.

“My instinct tells me that the significant number of Jews will go with the incumbent,” said political consultant George Arzt. “For the most part, Jews stay with the incumbent unless things are radically wrong.”

Contact Gal Beckerman at beckerman@forward.com

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