Bloomberg Blurs Party Lines in Bid for Jewish Votes

By E.J. Kessler

Published September 23, 2005, issue of September 23, 2005.
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New York’s Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is leaving nothing to chance in his bid to lock up the Jewish vote in November.

In recent days, the mayor has launched a high-profile “Democrats for Bloomberg” group featuring several icons of New York Jewish liberalism. He hired Governor George Pataki’s Jewish outreach director and declared his opposition to the chief justice nomination of Judge John G. Roberts on pro-choice grounds. Each move appears designed to appeal to a different Jewish constituency.

The Democrats for Bloomberg group showcases several top Democratic activists and fund raisers — including investment banker Felix Rohatyn, longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books; financier Alan Patricof, a key figure in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein — in a bid to create a bandwagon effect

among the elite. Meanwhile, the mayor’s opposition to Roberts seems aimed at least in part at cementing his liberal bona fides among Jewish women, perhaps the most pro-choice group in the nation.

At the same time, in an apparent bid for more conservative Jewish votes, the Bloomberg campaign has tapped Michael Fragin, an Orthodox Jew who worked on President Bush’s re-election campaign in Florida, to serve as Jewish outreach director. Fragin is working on get-out-the-vote efforts, including those in Orthodox precincts.

For Bloomberg — a Jewish self-made billionaire philanthropist who garnered 52% of the Jewish vote in 2001 in a contest against a Jewish Democrat, former public advocate Mark Green — the moves are part of a cool political calculus: If he wants to beat his Democratic opponent, former Bronx borough president Fernando “Freddy” Ferrer, he must do much better than his previous showing among Jews, who can constitute up to 20% of turnout in a general election.

“If Freddy gets the 35% of the Jewish vote that [former mayor] David Dinkins got, and 85% of the African-Americans and Hispanics, he’d be the next mayor,” said a top city Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

All signs look hopeful for Bloomberg in this regard. Jews, like other white voters, largely skipped the September 13 Democratic primary that gave the nod to Ferrer, a Puerto Rican American. Bloomberg’s campaign argued that the poor turnout — only 17% of eligible Democrats cast their ballot — demonstrated disaffection for the four candidates of the Democratic field. For the past several months, polls have signaled that Bloomberg, a former Democrat and arguably the most liberal Republican elected official in the nation, is broadly popular among Democrats.

“Voters are already proving very receptive to the record Mike Bloomberg’s leadership has produced: historic drops in crime, dramatic gains in schools, new jobs and more housing in all five boroughs,” said Bloomberg campaign spokesman Stuart Loeser.

Even so, in a city in which Democratic registrants outnumber Republicans 5-1, Bloomberg still must work hard to offset the Democratic nominee’s built-in advantages.

In light of these conditions, Bloomberg’s moves are canny, observers said.

“Democrats for Bloomberg” puts a high-profile left-leaning face on a group that cites New York patriotism for its very public, political defection. The majority of Jewish voters cast their ballots for a Republican — Bloomberg or former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, another GOP moderate — in New York’s past four mayoral elections. But even so, the thinking goes, some diehard liberals crave a kind of political “halfway house” such as Democrats for Bloomberg to validate the decision to cross party lines. Former mayor Ed Koch, an 80-year-old Jewish reform Democrat, is part of the group. His presence helps with elderly Jewish New Deal Democrats of that stripe.

“I think the Democratic Party is normally the best of all parties, but sometimes their candidates are not,” Koch said. “Today, party means very little to people. If the candidates are roughly equal, they’ll choose the Democrat. If the Republican is better, they’ll cross party lines.”

The Ferrer campaign, for its part, said it was not conceding any community. The campaign listed a host of Jewish officials who had endorsed it.

“Freddy Ferrer is reaching out to all New Yorkers who want affordable housing, better schools and good jobs with benefits,” said campaign spokeswoman Christy Setzer. Naming several prominent Jewish lawmakers, she added, “That’s why we’ve been so proud to have the support of New Yorkers who share our vision, like Chuck Schumer, Rep. Anthony Weiner, Councilman Lew Fidler and State Senator Jeff Klein.”

Allen Cappelli, a former Ferrer aide who is not part of the campaign, said that Ferrer long has had close relations with Jews in his borough and that he had reached out to Jews across the city. In 1999, when police officers killed Gideon Busch, a young, mentally disturbed Orthodox man, Ferrer “made as much a stink about that as he did for the other victims of the police’s aggressive behavior,” Cappelli noted.

Cappelli conceded that the endorsement of Ferrer by the Rev. Al Sharpton, an unpopular figure among city Jews, could damage Ferrer’s cause in the Jewish community. But he added: “The mayor would love to have Sharpton’s endorsement. It’s clear Sharpton’s not someone running Ferrer’s campaign.”

It’s not just low-level Jewish Democratic activists who have flocked to Bloomberg; his campaign employs a number of top Jewish Democratic operatives, including pollster Douglas Schoen, ad man William Knapp and Loeser. The Bloomberg campaign spokesman last worked as the New York press secretary for Schumer, the Empire State’s senior Democratic senator.

“Bloomberg doesn’t share the prototypical traits that turn Jews off,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “He’s endorsed by unions. He’s not a racial polemicist. Prominent Jews have no risk in being with him.”

Jewish-led unions that have endorsed Bloomberg include SEIU 32BJ — which represents janitors, porters and doormen, and served as a stalwart of Green’s 2001 campaign — and Unite Here, the combined needle trades-hotel worker union.

The hiring of Pataki aide Fragin, who will have broader duties in addition to Jewish outreach, is seen among insiders as a savvy move to correct some earlier missteps that owed to an inexperienced campaign cadre. The mayor has experienced some tensions with the Hasidic community in recent weeks, owing to a health-related controversy over an ultra-Orthodox circumcision practice.

“Bringing in Michael Fragin is a good move. It adds extra depth,” said Michael Landau, an Orthodox real estate developer and GOP activist. “He’s a young veteran of Orthodox Jewish politics.”

To counter the mayor’s raiding of their base, Democrats have tried their best to tar Bloomberg with the national Republican label — an unpopular brand in a city that voted overwhelmingly against President Bush.

“Republican Michael Bloomberg’s transparent attempts to distance himself from George Bush aren’t fooling anyone,” said New York State Democratic Committee Chairman Herman “Denny” Farrell in a typical sally. “The mayor has been silent for four long years, while New York City has been shortchanged and hurt by the conservative agenda of his fellow Republicans in Washington and Albany.”

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