By E.J. Kessler

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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Cranston Contender: The Republican mayor of Cranston, R.I., Stephen Laffey, is hoping to attract pro-Israel money in his primary bid to unseat the state’s liberal GOP incumbent Senator Lincoln Chafee.

Providence lawyer Norman Orodenker, a supporter of Laffey who described himself as “active in the Jewish community” and “a lifelong Democrat,” said that the campaign soon would be sending a letter to pro-Israel political action committees around the country. “There’s no way for me to stress enough what a significant supporter of Israel Steve has been throughout his whole life,” Orodenker said, noting that he has known Laffey since he was young.

Laffey, a conservative Republican who is supported by the free-market boosting Club for Growth, has been hitting Chafee hard on Middle East issues. In a telephone interview with the Forward, Laffey described Chafee’s views on the region as “two standard deviations outside of American and Rhode Island thought.” In an effort to make the point, he quoted Chafee’s own words questioning the legitimacy of what the senator termed American “gripes” with Iran’s nuclear program.

“We should take people at their word,” Laffey said. “The president of Iran today would like to ‘wipe Israel off the map.’”

Chafee, he said, “doesn’t get it at all” that “there are some really bad people in the world.”

The primary takes place in September.

In a February 1 statement on the Palestinian elections, Chafee called Hamas’s victory “a setback for the prospects of peace” and said that “if Hamas forms a government, it must change its charter to renounce its mission to eradicate the State of Israel.”

Laffey already has received $5,000, the maximum allowed, from Washington Political Action Committee, a pro-Israel PAC founded by Morris Amitay, according to The New York Sun.

“There’s a lot of interest in the race,” Amitay said, echoing other pro-Israel fund-raisers.

“Laffey is just beginning to get around to fundraising,” Amitay said. “Given his positions on our issue, which are excellent, the choice is very stark. [Chafee’s] positions are abysmal, and he’s chairman of the Middle East subcommittee” of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

In a February 7 press release, Laffey urged Chafee to come out in favor of ending all foreign aid to the Palestinians and criticized the senator’s vote against the Syria Accountability Act, a measure that paved the way for American sanctions against Damascus. Laffey also expressed his support for a bill sponsored by Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, which would cut off the $225 million in humanitarian funding sent to the Palestinians through the United States Agency for International Development.

“They cannot hold a suicide bomb in one hand and expect money to be shoved into the other,” he said in the release.

Chafee spokesman Ian Lang did not return requests for comment by press time.

Some establishment Republican Jewish fund-raisers are standing behind Chafee, whose seat is considered important for ensuring the Republican majority in the Senate. A moderate in an increasingly Democratic state, Chafee is the scion of an old Rhode Island political family: His father served as senator before him. Michael Lebovitz, a Tennessee Republican who is close to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, donated $2,000 to Chafee. Asked to respond to the sallies against Chafee, Lebovitz said: “I’m supporting his candidacy. I’m not going beyond that.”

* * *

Gubernatorial Gambit: The anointed frontrunner in New York’s governor race, Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, would seem to have a built-in advantage with Jewish voters: If he wins, he would be only the second Jewish governor of the Empire State and the first in more than half a century — a fact noted by Spitzer’s chief backer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. That, however, doesn’t daunt Nassau County executive Thomas Suozzi, the plucky insurgent who is weighing a primary bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

In a telephone interview with the Forward, Suozzi, who is seeking support around the state before deciding if he will announce his candidacy, said that he wants Jewish voters “to keep an open mind regarding the governor’s race.”

“I can’t win unless I get support from Jewish voters as well as non-Jewish voters,” he said. (He is correct: Jewish voters can constitute up to 18% of the Democratic primary electorate in New York, depending on turnout.) “I’m going to be actively seeking the Jewish vote.”

As chief executive of the suburban Long Island county since 2002, Suozzi has dealt with the demands of a diverse Jewish population, ranging from Iranian Jews in Great Neck to the burgeoning Orthodox community in the so-called Five Towns and large swaths of Conservative, Reform and secular Jews everywhere else. A vivacious campaigner with a deft common touch, he can rattle off both Hebrew and Yiddish phrases with a convincing accent.

A lawyer and a certified public accountant, Suozzi made his reputation by reining in an almost half-billion-dollar deficit in the budget of the then-bankrupt county, once known as a Republican stronghold. He recently earned re-election with almost 60% of the vote.

“I’m a new kind of old-fashioned Democrat,” Suozzi said. “I’m fiscally conservative. I’m a good manager. I’m tough on crime and international issues. I’m compassionate and concerned about poverty, race and the earth and taking care of people who are left behind in a competitive society. That whole image the Republicans forced on us in the last 25 years, of tax and spend and weak, is what I want to shake off. I want to return to being strong Democrats and not in a wasteful way.”

Suozzi spoke about reforming Medicaid, which in New York is rife with fraud and waste. About the cuts to Medicaid in the federal budget reconciliation package, he said, “I typically don’t like Republican cuts,” which he said present “a false choice. Things can be managed better to create savings.” He also gave his views on the Iraq War: He is for a timetable for training Iraqi troops, but not for one on withdrawing American troops from the country. As for the death penalty, he is against it.

Suozzi endorsed Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut for president in the 2004 race. Lieberman is “a successful Democrat with strong values,” he explained. “I want to encourage that in the Democratic Party.”

A Catholic, Suozzi said it distressed him that “Catholic voters abandoned the Democratic Party in record numbers” in 2004. “Republicans have effectively taken away the issue of values, spirituality and religion from Democrats and are trying to portray Democrats as amoral and godless,” Suozzi said. “It has nothing to do with Democrat vs. Republican.”

Asked if he hoped that Lieberman would support him in return, Suozzi said, “He’s not from New York state and I don’t know what the benefit would be.” Noting that much of the state’s Democratic apparatus has swung behind Spitzer, Suozzi added, “I don’t want to put [Lieberman] in an awkward position.”

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