Washington - As rival Democratic camps jockeyed for advantage in the days before the so-called Potomac Primary, Jewish residents of the Washington area got their chance this week to get up close and personal with some top endorsers of the Democratic presidential contenders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Both candidates sent out supporters in Congress to make a last-minute pitch with Jewish voters in the region, before the February 12 primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
For Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, this meant spending Sunday evening at the home of the Goldman family in Potomac, Md. One of the first Jewish lawmakers to endorse Obama, Wexler spoke to the assembled Democrats in the Goldman living room about his conversations with Obama on Israel and described the candidate’s views on the Middle East. He even read aloud a letter that Obama sent to the American ambassador to the United Nations, urging him to take Israel’s security needs into consideration when discussing the situation in Gaza.
“More than 20 people came up to me after the meeting and told me they were undecided and now support Obama,” Wexler told the Forward.
The Clinton campaign, reportedly viewing Maryland and D.C. as lost causes, focused its efforts on Virginia, home to a small Jewish community that constitutes just 1% of the state’s population. Still, Clinton did send one of her strongest congressional backers, Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, to shore up support among that state’s Orthodox Jews. Mikulski, accompanied by Clinton campaign officials, met February 7 with Orthodox rabbis in Baltimore to secure their backing in the primary. Both the Clinton campaign and Mikulski’s office declined to provide information on the meeting; however, a Jewish Democratic activist from the area said there was “good reason to believe” that the Orthodox community — centered mainly in Baltimore — would give most of its votes to Clinton. The activist based his assessment on the long-standing relations between the candidate and the Orthodox community and on community voting patterns in the New York and New Jersey primaries the previous week.
In the end, while Obama swept all three primaries, exit polls indicate that Clinton won 60% of the Jewish vote in Maryland. No data was available in Virginia and Washington.
Clinton campaign senior adviser Ann Lewis said the campaign had been reaching out to the Jewish community for many months. Efforts in the capital region, she said, were focused on talks by Mikulski and Clinton’s Jewish community liaison, Josh Kram. Lewis also noted the ongoing work of phone banks in the region and the “Chai for Hillary” campaign, aimed at young Jewish voters. “Hillary is winning among Jewish voters because of her record of support on issues that are important to the community,” Lewis said.
For the Obama campaign, sending congressional surrogates out to the Jewish community was a matter not only of showcasing the Jewish lawmakers endorsing the candidate but also of hiding other backers.
This was the case with Virginia Rep. Jim Moran, who endorsed Obama and attended rallies throughout the state. Moran drew the ire of the Jewish community in 2003 after arguing that “if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this.”
In Obama’s public events, most notably the Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech Saturday in the Virginia capital of Richmond, carried live by news networks, the candidate warmly welcomed Moran’s support, calling him “a wonderful congressman and great friend.” But the campaign sent out a different message to the Jewish community. “There are clear instances where he disagrees with views expressed by individual supporters, and that is the case with Congressman Moran’s comments on the Jewish community’s role in the decision to wage war in Iraq,” a campaign statement said.
Rep. Steve Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat who backs Obama, said he had no problem with Moran’s endorsement. “It does not bother me one iota,” Rothman told the Forward, adding that he has worked closely with Moran for 12 years and is sure he “understands how vitally important Israel is for America’s national security.” Rothman said that Moran’s past statements had been “misinterpreted and overblown.”
Rothman, like Wexler, is making the rounds for Obama within the Jewish community. He said he stresses in his talks that while Obama might be unfamiliar to many Jewish voters on the East Coast, he has long-standing ties to the Illinois Jewish community, “and they simply adore him.”
Other Jewish members of Congress working to increase support for Obama among Jewish voters are Adam Schiff of California and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. Schakowsky said in an interview before the primary that Obama appeals to the Jewish community because of his stand on social issues. “It’s a Jewish agenda,” she said.
The Potomac primaries provided what might be the last instance in which the Jewish vote will play a role in the primary process. Most states with large Jewish populations voted on Super Tuesday, February 5.
Maryland is home to more than 200,000 Jews, constituting more than 4% of the state’s population. In addition, there are an estimated 25,000 Jews in D.C. and 76,000 in Virginia. After this week’s primaries, the remaining states with sizable Jewish communities still to vote were Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The Democratic Party made a special effort to engage young Jewish voters in the capital region, hosting an event at a local bar the Thursday before the primary. With cocktails such as the “Obama Rama” (banana liqueur and vodka) and “Cosmo a la Hillary” (vodka and cranberry juice), more than 150 young Jewish supporters of the party celebrated a pre-primary happy hour. “Both candidates are supportive of issues important to the Jewish community,” said Susan Turnbull, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“I came because it sounded like fun,” said Benjamin Balte, 21, holding a martini. “I’m not even close to making up my mind about who I’m going to vote for Tuesday.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman