‘Coleman Republicans’ Wave Moderate GOP Flag

By E.J. Kessler

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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Call them the “Norm Coleman Republicans.”

A surprising number of Jews running for office in 2003 appear to be modeling themselves after the newly minted Minnesota senator and former mayor of St. Paul — moderate, Jewish Republicans running on urban-friendly platforms.

In mayoral, city council and state senate races in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, these Jewish Republicans sound similar themes: They are pro-business and support lower taxes and smaller government, but remain socially moderate. Declining to call themselves “compassionate conservatives” on the model of President Bush, like Coleman they instead favor the label of “pragmatist” or even “libertarian-leaning.”

Unlike New York City’s Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, these candidates do not consider the Republican Party a flag of convenience. Though they part with the national GOP on social issues such as abortion, they share its philosophy of low taxes, limited government and fiscal restraint.

The most prominent of such candidates is Philadelphia mayoral contender Sam Katz, who is running a tight race in a rematch against incumbent Democrat John Street. Coleman has campaigned for Katz, who cites the Minnesotan as an inspiration for how he would govern in a bipartisan manner; both men are former Democrats.

Coleman “is definitely a role model of how you could work together in a community with varying political views, with an inclusive message,” said Josh Yablon, a talent agent who is running for a New York City Council seat on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on what he and some cohorts are billing as “the urban Republican platform.”

Another Jewish candidate for New York City Council is also running under the “urban Republican” rubric: dentist Jay Golub, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

In northern New Jersey’s Bergen County, legally blind entrepreneur Barry Honig, owner of an executive search firm, is running for a state senate seat against veteran legislator Byron Baer, a Jewish Democrat. Honig, running on a platform of tort reform and tax relief for seniors, also fits the Coleman mold: Last week he was speaking about economic empowerment at the Urban

League chapter in Englewood, a north Jersey town with a large black population.

In Pittsburgh, an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent, Daniel A. Cohen, is bidding to represent the heavily Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

The trend of Jews running under a moderate Republican banner has been a long time in coming, some analysts say.

“It shouldn’t be surprising,” said Pennsylvania pollster G. Terry Madonna. “Many [Jews] are pro-business and socially liberal. Many Democrats are not pro-business. Breaking into the party machinery in cities and suburbs isn’t easy. The Republican Party is a little more open and flexible.”

Some see internal Democratic Party politics as the source of Jewish alienation from the party of Franklin Roosevelt.

“Those Jews who are staying in urban areas are fed up with the Latino and African American tribal politics [of the urban Democratic machines], which are not serving cities particularly well,” said Joel Kotkin, a public policy fellow at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

Kotkin cited large Jewish swing votes for moderate Republican mayors such as Rudolph Giuliani of New York and Richard Riordan of Los Angeles in the 1990s as presaging the Jewish candidates who would carry that banner forward.

Jewish Republican office-holders were a common, if minority, feature of the political landscape through much of the past century, but they became a rarity as the GOP began swerving rightward in the 1980s.

A surge of Jewish Republican office-seekers would come in the wake of a steadily evolving shift that began in the 1970s, when Jews began taking a prominent role as Republican theoreticians and policy-makers and continued more recently with a slow shift of Jewish opinion, particularly among younger and more affluent Jews.

The “Coleman Republicans,” most of whom are running in heavily Jewish districts — and several of whom are Orthodox or observant — are not shy about leveraging issues of Jewish concern to further their candidacies.

Honig, for example, hit his opponent for what he described as less-than-full-throated opposition to rabble-rousers such as former New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka, who was fired from his state post for penning a poem widely regarded as antisemitic, and the pro-Palestinian protesters who tried to commandeer Rutgers University for a conference. “When things like Rutgers and Baraka come along, the community needs a strong voice,” Honig said.

Yablon, for his part, scored his Democratic opponent, incumbent Councilwoman Gale Brewer, for organizing a bus to an October 26, 2002, antiwar rally in Washington, D.C., that featured pronounced anti-Israel agitation. “I was completely offended,” Yablon said. “I’d never find myself in that kind of crowd.”

It remains to be seen, however, just how many of the “Coleman Republicans” will gain office. Katz, who garnered the vast majority of Jewish votes in his initial race against Street in 1999, has faced an uphill struggle in the closing weeks of the current campaign because of circumstances beyond his control: Street, who is black, has seen his base energized by an FBI listening device that turned up in the ceiling of his office. While the feds have declared that the mayor is not a target of their investigation, Katz’s campaign “has been flummoxed by the eavesdropping device,” Madonna said. “The issues are all pushed out of the way.”

Honig said that private polling shows him to be in “a dead heat” with Baer and that he plans to outspend his opponent by sinking more than $300,000 into the race.

Yablon, who is an Orthodox Jew, said an influx of Orthodox families into his district could put him over the top. Both he and Brewer lack name recognition, he said, and matching funds would allow their spending to be comparable.

Whatever the fate of this particular set of candidates, more “Coleman Republicans” are likely to step up to the plate, according to politics watchers.

“The very things the Republicans are extolling — business ability, self-reliance,” New York Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said, “are the very things younger Jews have taken to heart.”

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