By E.J. Kessler

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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Dean Damage Update: More headaches for former Vermont governor Howard Dean: An outspoken Orthodox assemblyman says he is going to make an issue in the New York primary out of Dean’s September gaffe on Israel.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat who represents Borough Park in Brooklyn, is vowing to give Dean grief for his remark that America “ought not to take sides” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“I intend to challenge him publicly when he comes to New York,” said Hikind, who said he would be doing so “at functions” and in his capacity as a Democratic district leader. Hikind confirmed he had confronted Dean’s aide Ethan Geto on the subject at a recent meeting in Brooklyn.

Dean has done major damage control over his remark, which his opponents Senator Joseph Lieberman and Senator John Kerry seized on as evidence that Dean wanted to overturn more than 50 years of policy favoring the Jewish state. As the controversy swelled in late September, Dean wrote letters explaining his position to a raft of congressional critics and to the Anti-Defamation League.

Last month, Dean visited a sukkah at a synagogue in Manhattan and held a powwow with Jewish communal leaders at which he described his comment as a mistake and took a number of strikingly pro-Israel positions. ADL head Abraham Foxman left the meeting praising Dean.

Hikind thinks those moves are garbage.

“I am not satisfied with his explanations,” Hikind said. “His original remarks — I believe he meant those. Everything he’s said since is because he realizes he made a big boo-boo…I will zero in on what he said and flush him out.”

Hikind hasn’t thrown his support to any Democratic presidential contender, but he said, “Joe has reached out to me.”

The lawmaker’s stirring of the anti-Dean pot is likely to hurt: Conservative, outer-borough Jewish voters of the kind Hikind represents are mostly registered Democrats, and can be a potent force in the Democratic primary, which falls on March 2. Israel is a prime issue for them.

“No question about it — [Hikind] will be effective,” said New York Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “If I were Howard Dean, I would take that threat seriously.”

But Dean’s senior adviser for Jewish affairs, Matt Dorf, said that Dean’s clarifications would reassure Jewish voters.

“As Jews are coming to understand, a President Howard Dean would continue the long tradition of support for Israel and its security and that a Dean White House would work tirelessly from day one to end Palestinian terror,” Dorf said.

Hikind’s challenge came as Dean was digging himself out of a hole for another impolitic remark, apologizing last week for having said he wants “to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” Dean’s opponents have been having a field day rubbing the Vermonter’s face in the Confederate flag gaffe: The flag is a symbol of slavery and oppression for African-Americans. Last week at the CNN-Rock the Vote presidential candidates’ forum, the Rev. Al Sharpton and North Carolina Senator John Edwards blasted Dean for his insensitivity.

* * *

Debate Date: Oops! The non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced the dates for the debates between President Bush and the Democratic nominee: September 30 and October 8, 2004, which happen to be the Jewish holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, respectively. What if Lieberman is the nominee?

“They told us [the dates] were not fixed in stone, and that should Lieberman be the nominee, they will do whatever is necessary to accomodate his religious observance,” said spokesman Dan Gerstein.

* * *

Bush Buffing: The Republican Jewish Coalition is buying advertisements in Jewish newspapers around the country to thank President Bush for speaking out against the antisemitic remarks of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

“Our president has been a forceful and outspoken opponent of antisemitism all across the globe,” says the ad, which invites readers to join the coalition. “We thank him for speaking out when so many others have remained silent.”

The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, said he was “stunned” by the ad.

“There is universal agreement that this incident was something the White House should be ashamed of — not one they want to brag about,” Forman said. “While other world leaders and Democratic presidential candidates quickly blasted Prime Minister Mahathir, it took the president four days and lots of domestic criticism to let it be known that he ‘privately’ chastised the prime minister. Even such a White House supporter as the editor at large of the ultraconservative Washington Times, Arnaud De Borchgrave, faulted the president for being so tardy in responding to this most vile of antisemitism.”

* * *

GOP Losers: In what some said was a foretaste of the 2004 elections, Republicans gained strength in the South on Election Day last week, picking up the governorships of Mississippi and Kentucky. But they lost strength in some key contests in the Northeast. The moderate, Jewish “Coleman Republicans” identified in an October 31 Forward story — Philadelphia mayoral contender Sam Katz, New Jerseyan Barry Honig, Manhattan candidates Josh Yablon and Jay Golub and Pittsburgh real estate agent Daniel Cohen — lost in the Northeast Republican rout. Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks was philosophical about the losses, telling the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “That’s how you build a base for the future.”

* * *

Freddy’s Friends: Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City also ranked among the Jewish Republican losers last week, when his ballot initiative calling for nonpartisan city elections was defeated. The mayor’s loss emboldened Democrats, with one, former Bronx borough president Fernando “Freddy” Ferrer, filing papers the next day announcing the formation of an exploratory committee for a mayoral bid.

Ferrer, who narrowly lost the 2001 Democratic primary runoff for the mayoralty to Mark Green, told the Forward he hasn’t decided whether he will challenge Bloomberg, but wants to keep his options open. Believe him.

“I am not getting on the phone and asking for money,” he said, in as good an indication as any that he doesn’t consider himself a candidate yet.

Asked by the Forward to supply the names of some Jewish New Yorkers whom he counts as supporters, Ferrer named attorney Michael Stolper, real estate agent Michael Rosenbaum, lawyer Bill Wachtel and Marvin Shanken, the owner of the magazine Cigar Aficionado.

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