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War for Jewish Vote Seen in Philly Mayoral Race

Four years ago, a whopping 82% of Jewish voters in Philadelphia’s mayoral election cast ballots for Republican Sam Katz, who narrowly lost to Democrat John Street. Next month, Katz faces Street again in a rematch, but Street supporters say that many city Jews may abandon Katz this time around.

Street adviser David Hyman, a former president of the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee, thinks more Jews will support the incumbent mayor — an African American with working-class roots — in his re-election bid, despite the fact that the wealthy, moderate Katz, a Jewish businessman, is well known in Jewish social circles. The reason: The mood in the state is turning sharply partisan, and Philadelphia Jews are overwhelmingly registered Democrats.

Hyman told the Forward that he believes Street will poll better than the 17% support he garnered among Jews in 1999. “I think that right now, in the Jewish community, people are looking along party lines because they’re unhappy with what the Republicans in Washington are doing,” he said. “If the city has a Republican mayor, it could hurt our chances [in the presidential election] next year.”

Katz, for his part, “feels confident that he will get equally strong support” from Jews this year, said his spokesman, Nathan Raab.

The Jewish vote, while only about 5% of the total, could have a disproportionate impact in a squeaker of a race that both sides acknowledge will be a turnout war: Street won by only 9,000 votes in 1999, and pollsters say that only about 50,000 votes are in play this year. The race has national ramifications. The national Republican Party, which sees Pennsylvania as a prime target to flip into the GOP column in 2004, has been aiding Katz: President Bush showed up at a Katz fundraiser last month.

Some observers in Philadelphia’s Jewish communal world say it is impossible to tell whether Jews will defect from Katz. The Jewish Community Relations Council’s executive director, Burt Siegel, said he has no indication that there will be a significant shift.

On the plus side for Street, Siegel said, “The Jewish community had no reason to be angry at John Street. We don’t have any David Dinkins kind of issues, where the Jews say he has been a disappointment.”

Siegel said that Street “has been accessible” to the Jewish community and that Governor Edward Rendell, a popular figure among Jews who is himself Jewish, has been making the same argument as Hyman. Still, Siegel said, “Sam is not marginal to the Jewish community. One of his children went to day school, and he’s an active member of his synagogue.”

The Democrats, for their part, are emphasizing aspects of the Katz campaign that they think will play badly with Jewish voters, such as the fact that Katz’s campaign chairman, Brian Tierney, is an anti-abortion activist who in 2000 headed a group called Catholics for Bush.

The war for the Jewish vote is extending into the city’s Jewish publications. Street and his wife took out a full-page Rosh Hashana greetings ad in the September 26 issue of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent. Street also got support from other Democratic quarters: The National Jewish Democratic Council took out an ad in the same issue, thanking the mayor for his stances on a number of issues it deems important to the Jewish community. Katz, for his part, bought greetings the next week.

Polling does not supply any clue as to Jews’ leanings, but it does show Street holding enough of the white vote to win re-election. A Daily News/Fox Philadelphia Keystone Poll of 411 voters taken from September 25 to September 29 showed Street with an 8% lead among likely voters. A private poll by the firm of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates September 10 to September 13 shows Street with 45% to Katz’s 40%, with 13% undecided. According to that poll, “Katz leads among white voters with 64%, but Street garners sufficient backing from whites (23%) to win this election.” The 1999 Jewish vote for the African-American Street was about the same as that of other white voters, but in earlier Pennsylvania contests, Jews supported African-American candidates at higher rates than other whites, communal officials say.

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