Florida’s Jews Face Stark Choice In Senate Race

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 18, 2010, issue of August 27, 2010.
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Florida’s Senate Democratic primary on August 24 is presenting residents of the mostly Jewish condominium communities of South Florida, and many other Floridians, with an unusually stark choice: a longtime Democrat who for some represents old politics, and a newcomer who brings to the race a fresh face, piles of cash and a Jewish mother vouching for her son in TV campaign ads.

“My Jeff, he’ll shake things up in Washington,” 83-year-old West Palm Beach resident Barbara Greene assures Florida voters across media markets in and surrounding Miami, in one of billionaire Jeff Greene’s campaign ads.

But in the rows of condos lining Florida’s south shores, even the elderly residents targeted by that ad seem divided — including those of Century Village, the retirement community in which Barbara Greene lives.

“Everyone has a Jewish mother,” explained Century Village resident Mae Duke, 83, president of the retirement community’s Democratic Club and a supporter of Greene’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Kendrick Meek.

That is just the beginning of what is turning out to be one of the most complicated and unpredictable Senate races in the country. The candidate chosen by Democrats will have to face not only a strong Republican rival who enjoys the Tea Party movement’s support, but also the state’s popular current governor running as an independent.

Added to all this are fears of racial tensions entering the political game if Meek, an African American and the Democratic establishment’s candidate, comes in second.

“If Meek loses and is not a happy camper in November, we can expect to see a sharp drop-off in African-American turnout across the state,” said Hastings Wyman, a veteran observer of Florida politics and founding editor of Southern Political Report.

According to recent polls, Meek and Greene are running neck and neck, with Meek, a four-term congressman, overcoming a 10-point lead that Greene had early in the race. The campaign has cost both candidates millions, with Meek raising more than $7 million and Greene spending more than $10 million from his own pocket.

As the race reaches its final stages, Democratic heavyweights are rallying behind Meek, a loyal party member who is the son of Carrie Meek, a former congresswoman, whose seat Meek won when his mother retired. Former President Clinton campaigned in South Florida for Meek, who has described himself as the only “real Democrat” in the race, pointing to Greene’s former affiliation with the Republican Party.

Greene’s colorful character has infused the race with a dose of sensationalism and has peppered the discussion with details of yacht parties, Hollywood celebrities and a lavish lifestyle.

Greene, 55, is a self-made billionaire who owes his fortune to betting against the subprime mortgage market. Growing up in a struggling middle-class Jewish family in Massachusetts, he became a millionaire in his 20s and has continued to make money ever since. He has attracted attention not only because of his fortune, but also the way in which he has spent it. His California mansion was equipped with a “love den” where he hosted friends, including Mike Tyson and Paris Hilton. News media have also focused on the exploits of Greene on his 145-foot yacht, depicted as a hot spot for celebrity-studded partying.

To Jewish voters, Greene talks about his other background. He attended and taught Hebrew school, spent six months in Israel during high school and used to blow the shofar at his California synagogue.

His Jewish background also came in handy when responding to press reports during the campaign about tours abroad. When asked about his yacht trip to Cuba, which seemingly defied the American embargo, Greene initially said that the reason for the trip was to visit the Havana Jewish community. Later, he argued that the yacht had sustained a mechanical failure and had to dock. Earlier in the campaign, when asked about a voyage he took to Eastern Europe that, according to Gregory Zuckerman’s 2009 book, “The Greatest Trade Ever” included strippers on board the yacht, Greene’s campaign said he was traveling with his rabbi to visit Jewish sites in Romania and Odessa.

Greene has attempted to brush off questions about his personal life and focus the campaign on what he sees as his biggest advantage — being an outsider. His rival, Greene argued in an August 12 interview with the Forward, is “a big failure” who was unsuccessful in passing legislation in Congress or in helping his state cope with the economic downturn. Greene has presented himself as a candidate who is willing to invest his own money in order to make a change, saying he is “fed up with all these guys with the same kind of experience.”

“That’s just the talking points of Mr. Greene,” Meek responded in a separate interview. He argued that Greene cannot relate to the needs of ordinary Floridians, many of whom live on limited incomes. “Mr. Greene doesn’t have the attitude or the patience to even give the people a quarter of the recognition they deserve,” he said.

The two candidates’ obvious loathing for each other has been a much remarked upon feature of the campaign. In a candidate debate in June, when Greene noted that he’s “not taking a penny of special-interest money,” Meek quickly shot back, “Jeff Greene, you are a special interest.”

The two candidates’ debate over experience versus a fresh face is echoed within Florida’s Jewish community. At the Boca Raton branch of Century Village, as they gather at the clubhouse for the Wednesday dance, residents of this 8,000-unit retirement complex discussed the primaries.

Marvin Manning, 84, was handing out palm cards that recommend Greene. “I don’t think Meek can make the grade,” said Manning, who is also president of the local Democratic club. Manning looked at the polls that showed Meek trailing both Republican Marco Rubio and independent Charlie Crist. Stanley Siegel, 75, also supports Greene. “New blood can’t hurt,” Siegel said. “Greene has fresh ideas.”

But as in any Jewish gathering, there is more than one opinion. Ruth Lubow, 92, sitting across the hall, was not impressed with Greene’s performance in a recent televised debate. “Although I’m Jewish and Mr. Greene is Jewish, I felt he wasn’t up to the real issues,” she said. Joe Chazin, 96, added that Greene is “buying his job with his money.”

The issues of importance for senior Jewish voters, the residents said, are Medicare, Social Security, prescription drug prices and the economy in general.

Over in West Palm Beach, heads of the Democratic Club at Century Village invited candidates over for coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts and then took a vote. Duke said the choice was Meek. Greene, she explained, was too much of a new face. “He’s young, he’ll have a chance,” Duke said.

With a population of more than 600,000, Jews make up more than 4% of Florida voters. Most live in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

This concentration has made the Jewish community a prime target for politicians. Meek and Greene have attended community events and meetings and are quick to show their pro-Israel credentials. Greene even said that had he been in the Senate last year, he’d have publicly demanded that President Obama apologize for mistreating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meek pointed to his support for Israel in congressional resolutions and legislation. “My track record is solid when it comes down to AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and other organizations in standing up for the longest-standing democracy and friend of the United States,” he said.

Another visitor to a mostly Jewish senior citizen community was Crist, the governor now seeking a Senate seat as an independent. Crist could be the big winner of the fight among Democrats. If Greene wins, an alienated African-American community could show little enthusiasm to vote Democratic on election day, and if Meek wins the nomination, some Democrats could choose to support the independent candidate in order to block Republican Rubio.

Will Jewish Democrats be among those slipping toward the independent candidate? Some vow they are diehard Democrats; others say they are open to any option.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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