By E.J. Kessler

Published June 20, 2003, issue of June 20, 2003.
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The presidential campaign of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is trying to turn some of the concerns about his candidacy voiced in the Jewish community to his advantage in a fundraising pitch.

“When Al Gore made me the first Jewish American to be nominated to a national political ticket, some people questioned whether I was the best choice,” begins a fundraising letter that arrived at a Forward reporter’s home last Saturday. “They doubted that I could be seen and heard for my beliefs rather than my background. America, they said, simply was not yet ready. They could not have been more wrong.”

The letter appears to be aimed directly at Jews, although Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera, charged with ferreting out that information from Lieberman’s finance staff, did not get back to the Forward by press time. The deadline for second-quarter campaign contributions is June 30, and Lieberman has been casting his end-of-quarter fundraising push in decidedly Jewish terms. According to the Hartford Courant, he “plans to wrap up a frenzied must-produce quarter of fund-raising June 29 with what he calls ‘Super Sunday,’” which the newspaper describes as a “blitz” involving phone banks of volunteers at three Connecticut sites. “Super Sunday” is an apparent reference to the annual fundraising marathon put on by what was formerly known as the United Jewish Appeal and its associated federations.

The letter slyly ties the Jewish faith to what might be called the American civil religion. It talks about how “openly and warmly… Americans of all backgrounds and every faith” welcomed the senator and his wife into their homes, then asks rhetorically if the warm reception of the senator’s 2000 bid was “a miracle,” noting that Lieberman’s mother “was known to say so” and his grandmother “might have agreed.” But no, the senator is not claiming any divine intervention. “[T]here were times when it all seemed a bit miraculous to Hadassah and me,” the letter continues. “But on reflection, our journey was less a miracle than the fulfillment of a dream — the American dream, that is.”

The letter ends by asking readers to open their wallets so that “together, we can reclaim the American dream.”

The letter’s approach contrasts with a fundraising pitch Lieberman sent out last week via the Internet. “My message of strengthening our security, reviving our economy, and honoring our best values is resonating with voters,” Lieberman wrote in that missive, sounding like any centrist Democrat, Jewish or non-Jewish.

Some observers thought Lieberman’s approach in the Jewish-themed letter would be effective. “Is Joe Lieberman going to get support from the Jewish community? The answer is absolutely yes,” said Democratic strategist Marla Romash. Romash said the skepticism about Lieberman evinced by some Jewish political observers is “shortsighted,” adding, “I’ve been in tough fights with this guy. He knows how to win.”

* * *

An invitation to the fundraising dinner for President Bush to be held in New York June 23 shows that a raft of prominent Jewish New Yorkers have committed to raise money for his re-election bid. Among the 62 people listed as comprising the host committee of the event, 18 have recognizably Jewish surnames. Those include such luminaries as financier Henry Kravis, Lehman Brothers chief Richard Fuld, former state senator Roy Goodman, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, American International Group chief Maurice Greenberg, real estate developer George Klein, investment banker Stephen Schwarzman, Chelsea Piers Management president Tom Bernstein and Bruce S. Gelb, a former director of the United States Information Agency.

* * *

The New York political world was also reeling last week from the arrest on rape charges of J. Michael Boxley, 43, a top aide to the most powerful Democrat in the state, the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver. Silver, an Orthodox Jew, also is the New York state chairman of the Lieberman presidential campaign.

The arrest — Boxley was hauled off the Assembly floor June 11 in handcuffs for allegedly attacking a 22-year-old legislative aide — made for some bad press for Silver and the town that insiders derisively refer to as “Small-bany.” An earlier alleged victim of Boxley, former legislative aide Elizabeth Crothers, stepped forward in the New York Post to criticize Silver for not enforcing Assembly rules and reining in his aide. The episode prompted speculation that Silver might suffer politically, as well as calls for the legislature to clean up its act. Many New York Democrats have been publicly and privately critical of what they have characterized as the speaker’s autocratic style. Several years ago, he faced a “coup” from some legislators who united to try to oust him from his leadership role.

“I think this should be a wake-up call for both houses to review their sexual harassment policy and the training we do for both legislators and staff,” State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan told the Forward.

But some scoffed at the notion that Silver, who effectively controls the Democratic Party in New York, would be hurt by the arrest. Silver will remain effective in his job and as the head of Lieberman’s New York effort, said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, because Silver has the most support of any speaker in modern times and because “the built-in political organization the Assembly brings” is the best such network in the state. As for the woman’s complaint, Silver’s record vis-à-vis women’s issues is “unequaled,” Sheinkopf said.

Silver has been tight-lipped about the affair. On June 12, he released a statement saying, “It is inappropriate for me to comment on an ongoing criminal matter.” On June 16, he released a statement saying that Boxley “has requested and been placed upon a leave of absence from his duties as Counsel to the Speaker” and “has ceased earning a salary as an Assembly employee.”

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