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Jewish Journal

Hillary’s New York State of Mind

June 10, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Rabbi Jacob Goldstein is one of those scrappy Brooklyn politicos whom reporters love to call for a good wisecrack. A top political operative in the Lubavitch Chassidic community, he was recently named chief chaplain of the New York National Guard in recognition of service to the state Republican machine. Not one to duck a fight, he flew into Israel during the 1991 Gulf War as chaplain of the U.S. Army unit manning the Patriot missiles.

He favors tough-guy quotes like, "We took down Dave Dinkins and we're gonna take down Mario Cuomo, and don't forget who told you that," delivered with a wry grin and a poke in the gut. If not for the beard and fedora, you'd swear he was Irish.

Ask him about Hillary Rodham Clinton's all-but-official campaign for New York's U.S. Senate seat, though, and he turns deadly earnest. "This could bring out a lot of people, this campaign," he says, his voice darkening. "She should be held accountable."

Americans have been dazzled for months by the glamour of a Senate race pitting the first lady against Rudolph Giuliani, much-admired mayor of the Big Apple. They're both larger than life, both pro-choice, pro-business, both social liberals with a mean streak. It's a pundit's dream race.

But this is New Yawk, not Hollywood. There's grumbling about Rodham Clinton never having lived in state. Her husband's scandals may yet explode in her face. Then there's her comment last year when she said she favored Palestinian statehood.

Goldstein doesn't like Palestinian statehood. But that's not what gets him exercised. "I worry about local stuff," he says, ticking off a list of beefs that mainly involve Clinton administration indifference to Chassidic suffering. Janet Reno's reluctance to pursue the killers of Yankel Rosenbaum, murdered in the Crown Heights riots of 1991. FBI Director Louis Freeh's statement that "road rage," not terrorism, was behind the 1994 killing of a Lubavitch youth by an Arab cabdriver.

His voice rising, Goldstein adds Hillary's reported hiring of a top aide to David Dinkins, the black ex-mayor whom Chassidim blame for the Crown Heights riots. "I'd like to hang him around her neck with a noose," Goldstein snaps.

And Palestinian statehood? "That's a valid issue too," says Goldstein, still warming up. "She needs to have answers that aren't in a briefing book."

As Rodham Clinton starts sounding out New Yorkers, Jake Goldstein should have her worried. No, he isn't the whole state. Lubavitchers number barely 20,000 in a state of 17 million. But the Chassidim loom large in the popular Jewish mind. And Jews, all 1.7 million, 10 percent of the state's population, loom very large in New York politics.

Goldstein only needs to swing a few Jews to hurt Rodham Clinton. Conventional wisdom says a Democrat can't win with less than two-thirds of the state's Jewish vote. Case in point: ex-Sen. Al D'Amato. He won in 1992 with 40 percent of the Jewish vote, while fellow Republican George Bush lost the state with 15 percent. Six years later, D'Amato dropped to 20 percent of the Jewish vote and lost, while Republican Gov. George Pataki won with nearly 40 percent.

New York elections consistently turn on that crucial Jewish swing vote of 25 percent, some 200,000 voters. They're a crucial bloc. And there are not many blocs of votes up for grabs. Most voters have their minds made up. Rodham Clinton will try to reach women and minorities. That said, next year's New York Senate race will turn largely on the Jewish vote.

Rodham Clinton's supporters think that she can capture it. Her husband has a famous way with Jewish voters. He took more than 80 percent in New York in 1992, and nearly that in 1996. Rodham Clinton, lacking his messy baggage, should do even better. "I think people are tired of him and curious about her," says feminist author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a longtime Friend of Hillary.

But that's not what the polls show. Most give Rodham Clinton just over half the Jewish vote, compared with one-third for Giuliani. That's not good enough. One poll, by Republican pollster John Zogby, shows Giuliani besting Rodham Clinton among Jewish voters by the same 5-3 margin. Among voters as a whole, they're neck and neck.

It's early, of course. The real race begins next year. But Rodham Clinton's entry was based on her magic appeal to voters. Right now, the magic isn't even working on Jews, her first line of support.

This standoff guarantees a no-holds-barred slugfest for the Jewish swing vote next year. Giuliani can't wait to start. He has close ties to Likud and local Orthodox leaders. He once threw Yasser Arafat out of a U.N. benefit concert. He'll hit Hillary hard, not just on Palestinian statehood but on the whole Clinton Middle East tilt. He -- or his surrogates -- will hammer the Likud line that Clinton favors the Palestinians.

The big loser will be Ehud Barak, Israel's incoming prime minister. He plans to enter the final stage in talks with the Palestinians next spring. He'll be pushing hard for painful concessions, both from the Palestinians and from his own coalition partners. He'll be counting on the Clinton administration for rock-steady backing.

Barak won't want the world's most closely watched election turning into a shouting match between the president's wife and traditional Jewish leaders. She'll be under intense pressure to answer her attackers or forfeit the Jewish swing vote. Whatever she says will be inevitably interpreted as reflecting administration thinking. If she denies sympathy for Palestinian aspirations, Arafat will be insulted and demand compensation. If she admits it, Barak will come under pressure from the right. Either way, the peace process will suffer.

It's still possible that Rodham Clinton won't run. She's supposed to announce formal candidacy next fall. Some Democrats want her to wait four years and then run from her home state of Illinois, for the Senate seat won last year by Republican Peter Fitzgerald.

Late as it is, her quitting wouldn't necessarily leave New York Democrats in the lurch. Rumor has it former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has been making sounds about a Senate race. Insiders say he's asked Wall Street friends to hold off making financial commitments until the fall, when Rodham Clinton's plans are clear.

She would do better against Fitzgerald in Illinois than against Giuliani in New York. Fitzgerald will be a vulnerable conservative freshman in a moderate state. Clinton wouldn't face carpetbagging charges. The White House scandals would be long gone.

And she wouldn't face Jake Goldstein.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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