In Kennedy Race, Jewish Vote Divided

By Matthew E. Berger

Published November 25, 2009, issue of December 04, 2009.

Massachusetts has the highest percentage of Jews outside the tristate New York area, and its Jewish community is known as one of the most politically active in the country. So, as the state’s Democrats get ready to select their replacement for the late Senator Edward Kennedy, why is the Jewish voice barely heard?

Senate Lion: A primary will be held for a successor to the late Senator Edward Kennedy.
Getty Images
Senate Lion: A primary will be held for a successor to the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

“The Jewish community’s all over the place,” said one Boston Jewish political veteran, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There’s a certain recalibrating and regrouping going on now.”

That is because missing from the election are several well-known Jewish lawmakers, fundraisers and liaisons. They include Steve Grossman, former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who is running for state treasurer. Two senior Jewish Democratic fundraisers have been nominated by the Obama administration to serve as ambassadors: Barry White, who is already in Norway, and Alan Solomont, who has yet to be confirmed as the envoy to Spain. And Cameron Kerry, the Jewish brother of Senator John Kerry, is now general counsel of the Commerce Department in Washington.

Many of the candidates most familiar to the Jewish community — such as Reps. Barney Frank and Ed Markey — decided against running for Kennedy’s seat, opting to keep their seniority in the House of Representatives.

That has left a fundraising and outreach vacuum within Massachusetts Jewish circles.

“You lose a bunch of guys like that, it does have an impact,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Massachusetts Democrats will go to the polls December 8. State Attorney General Martha Coakley is considered the favorite for the party’s nomination, having garnered more than a 20-point lead in the latest Boston Globe poll. Her biggest challenge comes from Rep. Michael Capuano. Both enjoy some support within the Jewish community, as do Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca and Alan Khazei, co-founder and former CEO of City Year, a community service philanthropy.

Some Boston donors have been looking to Boston City Council President Mike Ross, who has been raising funds in the Jewish community for Capuano and who organized and penned a letter of support to more than 40 Jewish leaders in the state.

“He’s the only tested congressional voice,” Ross said of Capuano. “He’s been a staunch advocate for Israel. His support of aid to Israel is unshakable, unquestionable.”

Capuano was one of 41 congressional candidates to receive an endorsement last year from the political action committee of J Street, the dovish pro-Israel group. While the endorsement was not very controversial at the time, it could raise eyebrows now, because J Street has been accused of being too critical of the Gaza military operation and Israeli settlement expansion.

Capuano also voted against the Iraq War in 2002. But in Massachusetts, he is best known for a strong stand against efforts to divest from Israel in Somerville, where he is a former mayor.

Coakley has also been receiving Jewish support, analysts said, including some from the criminal justice community and among women. The Anti-Defamation League honored Coakley in 2007, and in October she touted efforts to crack down on butcher shops that were falsely advertising themselves as kosher. She also won over some liberals by announcing earlier in November that she opposed the House of Representatives’ health care legislation because it restricted access to abortion.

Coakley is relatively new as a statewide figure. But she is well known as the prosecutor in the 1997 case of Louise Woodward, the British au pair accused of shaking an 8-month-old boy to death. Coakley’s team achieved a second-degree murder conviction that was reduced to manslaughter by the judge.

Coakley’s campaign has been characterized as cautious, with an unwillingness to risk the formidable lead she has amassed. That has given people few insights into the candidate.

Khazei has received some Jewish backing through his associations with Michael Brown, co-founder and CEO of City Year, and Jeffrey Swartz, president and CEO of Timberland.

“One of the problems in this race is, there aren’t huge differences [between the candidates] in terms of policy,” said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, which does not endorse candidates. “It’s more about personality.”

The winner will most likely face Scott Brown, a state senator running with marginal opposition in the Republican primary. GOP Jewish leaders said they held out little hope of winning the seat, now being held on an interim basis by Paul Kirk, Kennedy confidant and former DNC chairman. A Suffolk University poll in November found Brown losing to each of the Democratic candidates, except for Khazei.

Kennedy was a champion for many of the issues that Jews cared about in Massachusetts, and Kaufman acknowledged that the eventual Senate winner will have a difficult task filling those shoes. “Whoever does it, and we have a terrific field of candidates, it’s going to take awhile,” she said. “Everyone’s aware of that, and there’ll probably be more time to get up to speed.”

Contact Matthew Berger at feedback@forward.com



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