Local Kerry Support Shows Softness

Sen. John Kerry, the Boston Brahmin who has so far won the vast majority of Democratic primaries and caucuses, appears to have opened up an insurmountable lead over rival Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) for the presidential nomination. A victory in delegate-rich California would cement Kerry’s status as an unbeatable front-runner and undoubtedly boost his profile in the local Jewish community, where, according one observer, the four-term Massachusetts senator and Vietnam veteran remains a bit of a "mystery man."

With his extensive foreign policy experience, strong pro-Israel voting record and left-of-center political views, Kerry would seem a particularly attractive candidate to Southland Jews who identify themselves as Democrats by a two-to-one margin. That Kerry’s paternal grandparents were born Jewish and his youngest brother and close adviser, Cameron, converted to the religion more than two decades ago might also curry favor, experts said.

Arden Realty Chairman and Chief Executive Richard Ziman, a long-standing Kerry supporter, said he expected more Jews to embrace the senator as they come to know him.

"I like his politics. I like his presence. I like his intellect. I like his experience," said Ziman, who has sponsored two large fundraisers at his home in the past year for Kerry that have raised more than $700,000. "Most of all, I think he’s the only person capable of beating Bush."

Maybe. At this point, though, local Jews, even Democrats, have yet to fall in love with Kerry — they are in "like." Simply put: Jewish support for Kerry appears softer than for some past Democratic presidential candidates, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A relatively more conservative Jewish electorate, Bush’s pro-Israel policies and Kerry’s fondness for the United Nations, an organization viewed by many Jews as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic, mean that the aristocratic legislator with a shock of gray hair must work hard to attract Jewish votes and dollars.

Kerry also has something of an image problem. Unlike former President Bill Clinton, whose charisma and warmth made him a favorite in the Jewish community, Kerry is "a cooler emotional package" who has so far failed to arouse as much passion, said supporter Howard Welinsky, chair of Democrats for Israel, adding that he considers Kerry "Lincolnesque."

None of this is to suggest that Kerry won’t win a majority of Jewish support both locally and nationally, if nominated. In the once crowded field of Democratic hopefuls, Kerry has emerged as a local favorite.

He connects better with the community than both Edwards and ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the former front-runner who just quit the race, said Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss. Dean’s promise of a more "balanced" approach to the Middle East and his description of Hamas members as "soldiers" frightened many Jewish voters and could have led to mass defections to the Bush camp, Weiss said. A Kerry nomination would reduce that likelihood, he said.

The senator plans to fight for every Jewish vote, said Ari Melber, a Southern California deputy political director on the Kerry campaign who’s responsible for Jewish outreach. Melber and other staff members have assembled a group of prominent Jewish Democratic supporters to spread the word about Kerry in the community. Among Kerry’s foot soldiers are Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

"We don’t take any single community as a given," Melber said.

Kerry has history on his side. No Republican presidential candidate has won a plurality of the Jewish vote since 1920, when Warren G. Harding took an estimated 43 percent to Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs’ 38 percent and Democrat James Cox’s 19 percent, Steven Windmueller of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion recently wrote. In the 2000 election, Bush carried a paltry 19 percent of the Jewish vote.

Kerry’s progressive agenda appeals to many in the community, said supporter Lee Wallach, president of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California. Unlike Bush, the senator favors abortion rights and opposes drilling for oil in Alaska, Wallach said.

"It’s night and day with Bush and Kerry," he said. "Kerry is very supportive of environmental guidelines that protect our children, so we have a better world for them and for their kids."

Kerry also has a kind heart, said Ruth Singer, a major Southern California fundraiser. On several occasions, the senator called her family to check up on the health of her late husband, who recently died. "That’s something that someone in his position doesn’t need to do," Singer said.

For many partisan Jewish Democrats, the fact that Kerry isn’t Bush is reason enough to support him, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton. In their view, Bush stole the last presidential election and misled voters by running as a moderate but governing from the right, Sonenshein said.

However, the era of the monolithic liberal Jewish vote has drawn to an end, said Joel Kotkin, senior fellow with the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University. In the California gubernatorial recall election, Republican candidates Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill McClintock won 40 percent of the vote. As Jews have shifted to the center from the left, moderate Republicans, such as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have fared surprisingly well in the community, Kotkin said.

On the right, Orthodox Jews generally seem to support Bush, said Rabbi David Eliezre, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. Not only do they see him as a staunch defender of the Jewish State, but they share many of his social policies, including his opposition to gay marriage and his support of vouchers for religious schools, he said.

Bush’s staunch support for Israel has won plaudits. So has his war on terror, including the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, once the Jewish State’s biggest enemy.

Republicans are so confident that Bush can win more Jewish votes that they have ratcheted up outreach efforts. In California, hundreds of Republican volunteers plan to register new voters and hand out pro-Bush literature at delis, Israel fairs and anywhere else Jews gather, said Bruce Bialosky, Bush-Cheney California Jewish Outreach chair.

Activist Joel Strom said he has already noticed a softening of attitudes toward Bush among Jewish Democrats. The president of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Los Angeles said members of his temple are far more open to Bush now than before.

"Four years ago, people in my synagogue would say he doesn’t care about the Jews. He’s not good for Israel. Look at his dad’s record," said Strom, referring to the first President George Bush. "Now, when I go to synagogue, some members say they don’t like him, but he’s good for Israel. Others like him."

Strom’s optimism might not be misplaced. A survey released in January by the American Jewish Committee found Bush receiving 31 percent of the vote against Kerry’s 59 percent, with 10 percent undecided. If those numbers hold up, that would be a big improvement over Bush’s 2000 performance.

Kerry, who receives high marks from Jewish organizations for his voting record in the Senate, has recently seen some Jews question the depth of that support. Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations in December, Kerry set off a firestorm of controversy when he said that if elected, he might appoint former Secretary of State James Baker III or former President Jimmy Carter or Clinton as a special envoy to the Middle East.

Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman said that although Kerry had a good record on Israel, the senator’s remarks concerned him. "Carter’s anti-Israel. Baker hasn’t been a friend. Clinton didn’t succeed" in bringing peace to the region, he said

Kerry’s approach to diplomacy has aroused fears. The candidate said he wants to rebuild America’s alliances by ending the Bush administration’s go-it-alone foreign policy and working more closely with international organizations, such as the United Nations, a body that once equated Zionism with racism.

"At heart, John Kerry is a garden-variety State Department Arabist, regardless of his public pronouncements," Republican political strategist Arnold Steinberg said. "I think the Jewish community is throwing the dice with John Kerry and could end up with someone like Bill Clinton, who resurrected Yasser Arafat, by inviting him to the White House when he was becoming irrelevant."

Carmen Warschaw, former Southern California chair of the Democratic Party, said she thinks Kerry can win both a commanding share of the Jewish vote and the November election.

Still, Bush possesses an important trump card. A war with Syria or some other foreign adventure could divert attention from domestic problems, galvanize Americans behind the president and propel him into the White House for a second term, Warschaw said.

"I think with the president’s and his advisors’ mentality, they’ll look for a menace or a war or find [Osama] Bin Laden," she said. "They’ll create that kind of atmosphere. I’m not saying they’ll do it purely consciously, but I think that’s their mentality."

Arnold’s Post-Recall Bridge Building

Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger has worked quickly to build bridges to the Jewish community and live up to his promise of including people of all races, religions and political views in his administration. Schwarzenegger, who some Jews have viewed with suspicion because of his father’s Nazi past and the actor’s refusal to spell out in detail his views, has appointed several prominent Jews and other diverse leaders to his 65-member transition team, a move that has garnered widespread praise.

Among those tapped to serve on his advisory group are at least seven Jews: businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad; USC law professor Susan Estrich, also former campaign manager of Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign; Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center; attorney and former state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg; Bonnie Reiss, former president of Schwarzenegger’s Inner-City Games Foundation and founding director of Arnold’s All-Stars; Gerald Parsky, President Bush’s chief political operative in California; and film director Ivan Reitman. In addition, the millionaire actor has appointed liberal San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina and ex-Secretary of State George Shultz, who served in the Reagan administration.

"I think the balance on his transition team shows he’s trying to reach out to everyone," said Lee Alpert, a moderate Republican who held several high positions in former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan’s administration. "[Schwarzenegger] realizes that the state’s economic problem doesn’t affect just one race, religion or one gender. He’s started on the right track."

Howard Welinsky, chair of Democrats for Israel and a strong recall opponent, said it’s too early to say just how strongly Jews will embrace the governor-elect. At present, Schwarzenegger’s "pretty much of a blank slate."

Still, Welinsky said the movie-star-turned-politician has made some good early adviser choices. If Schwarzenegger continues to behave in a nonideological, bipartisan way, he could curry long-standing favor with the community.

A self-described fiscal conservative and social moderate, Schwarzenegger supports abortion and gay rights.

Not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of Schwarzenegger coming to Sacramento. Paul Castro, executive director of Jewish Family Service (JFS), said he worried that the new governor would slash state funding to JFS and other nonprofits that provide counseling, shelter and food to the less fortunate. Given Schwarzenegger’s promise to repeal the vehicle tax and balance the budget without raising taxes, except in an emergency, Castro worries the budget ax could fall most heavily on the elderly and poor.

"There’s a whole education process that needs to happen to make sure the governor-elect is aware of the types of issues facing our constituents," he said. "The fear is that while he’s on the learning curve there could be a dip in the social safety net."

Schwarzenegger’s promised moderation could boost the Republican Party’s future prospects among Jewish voters, said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "The Art of Political Warfare."

Conservative politicians pushing an anti-abortion, anti-gay right, "Christian religious" agenda will never excite the Jewish community. But Republicans espousing tolerance, compassion and choice, along with a dollop of fiscal responsibility, can make inroads.

"Jews are going to vote Democratic," Pitney said. "The question is, will it be by a modest majority or an overwhelming majority?"

In the 2002 gubernatorial race, 69 percent of Jewish voters chose Davis, while only 22 percent went for conservative Bill Simon. By contrast, moderate Republican Pete Wilson won 41 percent of the vote in 1994. Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, a conservative lauded for his candor and knowledge of the issues, together received 40 percent.

In the recall race, 31 percent of Jewish votes went for Schwarzenegger, a respectable showing considering all the negatives he had to overcome, said Michael Wissot, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Southern California. During the campaign, the governor-elect had to fend off allegations that he secretly admired Adolf Hitler and that he shared his deceased father’s Nazi beliefs. He also had to explain his relationship with ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim, the former president of Austria and secretary general of the United Nations under whose leadership the world body passed a controversial resolution equating Zionism with racism.

Schwarzenegger faced his critics head-on, which helped to blunt the sting of their criticism, Wissot said. The actor adamantly denied any fondness for Hitler and publicly disavowed his wedding toast to his former friend Waldheim. With the help of rabbis at the Wiesenthal Center, Schwarzenegger publicized his long-standing ties to the institution. Over the years, he has personally donated $750,000 and raised up to $5 million for the nonprofit.

By neutralizing allegations of anti-Semitism, Schwarzenegger succeeded in highlighting his message of restoring California’s fading luster. He has vowed to bring business back to the state, reform worker’s compensation and reduce the influence of unions, Native American casino operators and other special-interest groups. Schwarzenegger’s self-confidence and poise helped convince some Jews he had the leadership abilities to pull California out of its fiscal abyss, Wissot said.

The Democrats’ lurch to the left also scared some Jews into the Republican camp, said Joel Kotkin, senior fellow with the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, an uninspiring speaker who played to the party’s progressive wing, worried some Jews by refusing to take a strong public stand against the more radical ideas espoused by MEChA, a Latino student group to which he once belonged. Current MEChA chapters still use the organization’s 1960s symbol of an eagle clutching dynamite.

Bustamante received 52 percent of the Jewish vote. Although better than Schwarzenegger, that tally falls short considering that more than two-thirds of Jews are Democrats.

Transition team member Cooper said Schwarzenegger’s showing should send a message to Democrats, especially the party’s presidential contenders, not to take the Jewish vote for granted. Cooper said he would like to see the candidates, especially Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, take a more forceful stand on behalf of Israel.

"This is a wake-up call to Democrats in California, New York, Florida" and elsewhere, he said. "Once [Jews] get used to turning the lever the other way … that can be built on."

Jewish support for Schwarzenegger and McClintock, though, should not be misconstrued as a radical realignment in favor of Republicans. Based on Davis’ strong showing in the community, most Jews would have preferred that the colorless-but-familiar governor remain in the state capital and Schwarzenegger stay in Hollywood. With 69 percent of them weighing in against the recall, Jewish voters proved to be one of Davis’ few stalwart allies.

Jews mostly remained faithful for several reasons, experts said. Davis’ reputation for dirty politics and money mongering notwithstanding, he largely served the interests of the Jewish community, which in turn, filled his coffers.

As governor, Davis visited Israel, signed legislation expanding the definition of hate crimes and helped funnel millions of dollars to the Wiesenthal Center, Zimmer Children’s Museum and Skirball Cultural Center.

"He likes the [Jewish] culture. He likes the warmth. He likes the people," said Terri Smooke, special assistant to Davis and his liaison to the Jewish community.

"I hope [Schwarzenegger’s] advisers help him make good decisions and to continue to work for tolerance for the good of all Californians," said Smooke, who, like Davis, will soon be out of a job.