Super Tuesday: Snapshots From Across the Country

Published February 01, 2008, issue of February 01, 2008.
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California
San Francisco

Surrogates Tussle

A week before Super Tuesday, campaign representatives for the three leading Democratic presidential contenders — and former Alaskan senator Mike Gravel, who remains in the race — took turns selling their candidates to San Francisco Jewish Democrats.

In a lively forum at the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club, a group founded in 1983 by one-time Nixon speechwriter John Rothmann, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, representing Clinton, traded barbs with former Bill Clinton-Al Gore foreign policy adviser Jonathan Spalter, who is backing Obama.

Some 400 Bay Area Democrats showed up at the 90-minute event, held at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. A representative for Edwards, Jeff Soukup, criticized Clinton for failing to offer specific solutions with her plan to protect social security. Gravel’s daughter, California resident Lynne Gravel Mosier, represented her father, whose anti-war stance drew loud cheers from the liberal audience.

“I don’t know if people will vote for him, but his campaign added some texture and flavor to the event,” said Ben Tulchin, a Raoul Wallenberg board member. Tulchin, 34, is vice president of the Democratic polling firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, and director of the firm’s California office.

Tulchin said that he is still undecided on whether to support Clinton or Obama.

The forum was co-sponsored by 12 Democratic groups in the area, including the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, a coalition of gays and lesbians, and the African American Democratic Club.

— Rebecca Spence


Hollywood

Stars Choose Sides

These days in Tinseltown, the question “Which presidential candidate has scored the most A-list endorsements?” is generating more buzz than “Which starlet has brought in the biggest box office numbers?” Angelina and Jennifer are out, Hillary and Barack are in.

“In L.A., an endorsement can certainly mean money,” said Donna Bojarsky, an entertainment industry public policy consultant best known for working with Richard Dreyfuss. “People in the business do look to which candidate their colleagues are supporting.”

It should be obvious that Hollywood is overwhelmingly Democratic and, yes, overwhelmingly Jewish. So who are the heavyweights pulling for? While it’s a bit of a toss-up, with the establishment fairly well divided between the two leading candidates, the senator from New York may have edged out the senator from Illinois.

Steven Spielberg threw his weight behind Clinton last June, and in September, Clinton scored the coveted support of romantic comedy director turned politico Rob Reiner. Spielberg later teamed up with Israeli American media mogul Haim Saban to co-host a fundraiser for the senator. Barbra Streisand, a longtime Democratic activist, lent her support to Clinton in November. And a less savory endorsement — not necessarily one the Clinton team will want to plumb — came from Heidi Fleiss, the “Hollywood Madam.”

Obama scored a major point when record industry mogul David Geffen endorsed him last February. Sony Pictures entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton also got behind Obama, as did mega-producer Paula Weinstein. Ari Emanuel, founder of the Endeavor Talent Agency and brother of Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, is also supporting Obama. Other entertainment industry bigs supporting the Illinois senator include Ben Stiller, Paul Simon, Larry David and Seth Green (best known for his roles in Austin Powers films).

It was, in fact, a Jewish performer, Al Jolson, who, according to the journalistic account of newspaper columnist Ronald Brownstein, became the first Hollywood celebrity to endorse a presidential candidate. In 1920, Jolson officially supported Republican Warren Harding. Ronald Reagan continued with the trend not long after, endorsing Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

And the few Jewish Republicans in Hollywood haven’t made their choices a secret, either. Actor Ron Silver, who most recently played Bruno Gianelli on NBC’s “The West Wing,” endorsed Rudy Giuliani, as did comedian Dennis Miller last March. Ben Stein and Adam Sandler have also plugged the former New York City mayor.

— R. S.


South Central L.A.

Murky Waters

While Obama may have scored big with Ted Kennedy’s endorsement, Clinton scored a point the next day with the African American community when California Rep. Maxine Waters endorsed her candidacy.

Waters, however, may not help Clinton shore up the Jewish vote. The pro-Israel community has long considered the congresswoman, who represents California’s 35th district, encompassing South Central Los Angeles, hostile toward Israel. The perception of Waters as being anti-Israel is so widespread that when Joseph Lieberman was fending off a challenge from Ned Lamont in the 2006 Senate race, he pointed to Waters’s support for Lamont as evidence that his opponent lacked a commitment to the Jewish state.

In 2006, Waters was among a dozen congressional Democrats who did not vote in favor of a resolution condemning Hezbollah in the wake of its attacks on Israel during the war in Lebanon.

Despite the nine-term congresswoman’s track record with Israel, Steven Windmueller, a Jewish communal studies professor and dean of Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles campus, said that the endorsement was unlikely to harm Clinton’s good standing with California’s Jewish voters. “Voters at least understand,” he said, “that politicians need a whole array of endorsements to win, and are open to the fact that even people with differing views can support the same candidate.”

A senior adviser to the Clinton campaign, Ann Lewis, said, “I’m proud of Hillary’s leadership on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship and of the support she’s receiving — in the Jewish community and beyond.”

—R.S.


Arizona

McCain Mutiny

When his presidential candidacy was endorsed by Joe Lieberman, John McCain got what is perhaps his biggest Jewish seal of approval to date, and he was already a politician with strong pro-Israel bona fides.

But in at least one of the Super Tuesday contests, the one in McCain’s home state of Arizona, the Jewish community is already familiar with the senator — and he is not universally loved.

Amy Laff, founding chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Arizona chapter, said that many of the 350 people she organizes are prone to switching candidates.

While many of Arizona’s Jews have supported McCain in the past because of his staunch support of Israel and his strong positions against terrorism, Laff said that his recent flirtations with more moderate positions on immigration — a key local issue — seem to have alienated some of the state’s more conservative Jewish voters.

“The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is, ‘Are you for or against McCain?’” Laff said.

— Aaron Greenblatt


Minnesota

Divided Opinion

In late June 2007, Amy Rotenberg, a strategic communications counsel, and her husband, Mark, an attorney, hosted a private luncheon with Bill Clinton for 25 leaders active in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Jewish community.

At the intimate gathering, the former president primarily took questions about his wife’s Middle East policies. According to Rotenberg, he swayed some undecided voters toward the senator from New York. Rotenberg, 41, said that she and her husband, who are prominent folks in Twin Cities Jewish circles, have backed Clinton — as opposed to Obama — because of her experience and, in large part, because of her strong pro-Israel stance.

“The foreign policy issues are so important,” Rotenberg said.

But on the other side of the Democratic fence in the Minneapolis Jewish community, which numbers some 40,000, Sylvia and Sam Kaplan have taken the lead in fundraising for Obama. Sylvia Kaplan, a 69-year-old restaurant owner, and her husband, Sam, a 71-year-old attorney, actually supported the Illinois senator before he announced his candidacy, as part of the “draft Obama” campaign. As state co-chairs of the Kerry campaign in 2004, the Kaplans were first introduced to Obama’s charms when they witnessed his fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention. The mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak, also took note of the rising politician, and he, too, encouraged Obama to run.

Sylvia Kaplan said that when the “ugly” e-mails that falsely claim Obama is a Muslim and anti-Israel began circulating in recent weeks, she and her husband’s role as visible Jewish supporters took on increased significance.

“It’s very important that Sam and I have been prominent Jews that are supporting him,” she said.

— R.S.


Tennessee

Kindred Spirit

Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen hasn’t endorsed anyone in the presidential race — he says he likes everybody — but he confessed that he has come to identify with Barack Obama on a rather unexpected subject: race.

“Because of his race, I really want to reach out and support him, because he’s facing some of the same things I’ve faced in my congressional election,” Cohen told the Forward. “I commiserate with him on that, and I feel a kinship with him.”

Though Cohen is white and Jewish, he represents Tennessee’s Ninth District, a majority black district in Memphis. He won the seat in 2006 after a chaotic and bitter electoral campaign, defeating several black candidates in a crowded primary and fending off an independent challenge to win the general election.

Since then, Cohen has been assailed by several black ministers and community leaders — most recently on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — who have suggested that a black district needs a black representative, not Cohen. He faces a tough primary battle against Nikki Tinker, a black corporate lawyer who came in second to Cohen in the last primary and now has the field to herself. Though Cohen has raised more than twice as much money as Tinker and said he feels “comfortable,” the battle will likely be fierce.

So, Cohen says that when he hears racially divisive comments — such as Bill Clinton’s remark that Obama, like Jesse Jackson, won South Carolina by getting black votes — it makes him recoil.

“We just need to get beyond that,” he said.

Cohen says he expects Obama to sweep his district, taking more than 85% of the black vote and at least 40% of the white vote, as well. Though he says he’s been tempted to make an endorsement (he wouldn’t say which way), his advisers have urged him to stay neutral.

It’s all part of Cohen’s delicate political balancing act: “I’m a little bit like Tevye, and I’ve got to be the Fiddler on the Roof.”

Tinker hasn’t made a presidential endorsement either. She did not respond to a request for comment.

— Anthony Weiss


New Jersey

Muslim Support

The New Jersey Arab American community is expected to vote in larger than usual numbers February 5 — and to throw its support mainly behind Obama. The Illinois senator has fared well in national polls among Muslims, and will reap the dividends in the Garden State despite the popularity there of former president Bill Clinton. “Obama is the only one making sense for the community right now,” said Mohammed Younes, a prominent community figure from Paterson, which is home to some 15,000 Arab Americans. “There will also be some support for Hillary, but Obama is the fresh face and Muslims want one.”

While half of Arab American voters supported George W. Bush in 2000, a strong majority of them now favor Democrats as a result of the war in Iraq and Bush’s unflinching support for Israel, as well as the negative impact of his anti-terrorist policies on their civil liberties. According to Jim Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, a recent survey of Arab American community activists and leaders conducted by the institute showed support for Obama to be double that of all other candidates combined. Although the survey was not as thorough, this is a major change from last May, when an Arab American Institute poll showed that Obama held a slim lead over Hillary Clinton (39% to 36%).

— Marc Perelman


New York

Loyal Constituency

Although no official endorsement has been issued by their rabbis, the Satmar Hasidic communities in Brooklyn and in the upstate enclave of Kiryas Joel are likely to support Clinton in New York’s February 5 primary. But this will not be a consequence of her stances on the Middle East or her health care plans. The reason is simple: Whatever happens in the presidential race, she will still be around, either as a president or as a senator. This — and not the perception among some Jews that Obama is less supportive of Israel than Clinton is — is why the Illinois senator stands little chance of garnering their vote. “Those communities tend to be conservative but also very pragmatic, so they’ll go for Hillary,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant, noting that the Satmars had already supported Clinton in the Senate race in 2002. “Most of them are needy and poor, and they look at who’s best positioned. They know she’ll be around and that they can call upon her.”

—M.P.


Banking on Hillary

Chai for Hillary, the Clinton campaign’s outreach group for young Jewish professionals, is campaigning in New York and other Super Tuesday states after being credited with helping to get out the Jewish vote for Clinton in Nevada. Below is an excerpt from the script that volunteers for the group use when they “phone bank,” or cold-call potential voters (in this case, Jewish voters):

“I firmly believe that Hillary Clinton is the only candidate with the strength and experience to bring about the change we need. I’m supporting Hillary Clinton because I know she is ready to lead.

“Hillary has a long history of support for Israel — from supporting the Jewish State’s right to build a security barrier to standing up against anti-Israel rhetoric and discrimination in the world.

“Hillary’s top priority when she takes office will be to end the war in Iraq and rebuild America’s standing in the world.

“Hillary will provide universal healthcare that offers choices for families while improving quality and reducing costs.

“Hillary will create millions of new jobs by investing in energy efficient technologies which will also cut our reliance on foreign oil.

“Hillary will bring accountability back to Washington and make government open and honest to the American people again.

“I hope you will join me and support Hillary Clinton on February 5th.”

— Marissa Brostoff


Massachusetts

Endorsement Fallout

Shockwaves are reverberating through the Massachusetts pro-Clinton camp, following Senator Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama at a spirited January 28 rally in Washington.

The mood at a tony Clinton fundraiser held that same night at Boston’s The State Room was glum, according to sources at the event. So, will Boston’s Jewish community, widely supportive of the New York senator, switch camps as a result of the Kennedy endorsement?

Not according to Steve Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a Bill Clinton-appointed chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Grossman, president of Grossman Marketing Group, praised Hillary Clinton’s pro-Israel record and said it would outshine any potential fallout from the Kennedy endorsement. “She has demonstrated for most of her adult life a visceral commitment to Jewish values and to Israel that puts her in a different league than her opponents,” Grossman said.

Still, Grossman acknowledged that in Massachusetts, the Kennedy imprimatur carries heavy weight, and the senator has long had the backing of Boston’s Jews. “Ted Kennedy has always had a good relationship with the greater Boston Jewish community,” he said.

Grossman also noted that his ties to the Kennedy family stretch back several generations to 1910. Grossman’s grandfather, the founder of his family business — formerly known as the Mass. Envelope Co., — campaigned for Kennedy’s grandfather, John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, in his re-election bid for mayor of Boston.

Whomever the Democratic candidate ends up being, Grossman said, he and Kennedy are still planning a 2010 100th-year celebration commemorating the ties between the two Boston families.

— R.S.






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