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Jewish Journal

Arnold’s Challenge

What the moderate Republican must do to win over liberal Jewish voters.

by Marc Ballon

August 28, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Arnold Schwarzenegger waves as he campaigns in Huntington Beach. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Arnold Schwarzenegger waves as he campaigns in Huntington Beach. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

With his bulging biceps, $20 million megawatt smile and charisma, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger has injected some real star power into the circus that is California's gubernatorial recall campaign. As the lights dim on Gov. Gray Davis and shine on the Terminator, scores of voters have thrown their support behind Austria's most famous export, even if his political vision appears not to extend beyond winning the Oct. 7 election.

Yet, for all the excitement surrounding his candidacy, Schwarzenegger has so far failed to galvanize the Jewish community, whose influence and wealth far outweigh its numbers. Although many Jews share Schwarzenegger's liberal views on abortion and gay rights, they part with him over his fiscal conservatism.

More than two-thirds of Jews are registered Democrats, which could make it difficult for Schwarzenegger to generate widespread community support, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development.

And Jews might have difficulty voting for the son of a Nazi storm trooper, regardless of what they tell pollsters. Although political consultants have said that Schwarzenegger has inoculated himself against the sins of his father by, among other things, donating about $750,000 to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and raising up to $5 million for the nonprofit over the years, his refusal to publicly disavow his friendship with ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian president and secretary general of the United Nations, is seen as a negative.

During Waldheim's tenure at the United Nations, the international body passed the controversial resolution equating Zionism with racism.

Schwarzenegger, who has played a cat-and-mouse game with the print media, declined several interview requests with The Jewish Journal. In mid-August, one of Schwarzenegger's press aides said his views on Waldheim had changed, although the candidate has yet to address the issue himself with the media.

To be sure, Jews are by no means a monolithic group, and some ardently support Schwarzenegger. They argue that he is cut from the same moderate political cloth as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Westside Rockefeller Republican with scores of Democratic friends and business associates. Schwarzenegger's steadfast support for Israel has also curried favor.

Still, Schwarzenegger has so far failed to animate the community. Jews, who for the most part have a liberal bent, typically favor left-leaning politicians who support heavy government spending on social programs. Schwarzenegger, who characterizes himself as a fiscal conservative, has said he opposes new taxes to address California's budget crisis.

"There's nothing particularly repulsive about Schwarzenegger to Jewish voters," said Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and author of "The Art of Political Warfare." "But given his conservative economic views, there's nothing particularly attractive about him either."

Schwarzenegger's unwillingness to spell out, in anything but the broadest brushstrokes, his game plan for attacking the state's $38 billion deficit, improving schools or growing the economy could alienate potential Jewish voters. His first television ads promised that as governor he would "work honestly, without fear or favor, to do what is right for all Californians." In speeches, the candidate has vowed to slash spending, except for education, without specifying what would come under the ax.

A substance-lite campaign might score points with voters enamored with Schwarzenegger's tough-guy persona. However, such issue avoidance may backfire with Jews, Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss said.

"The Jewish community in Los Angeles is a highly educated, discerning community that will want to know much more than box office grosses before deciding for whom to vote," he said.

Jews and others might have to wait a while before Schwarzenegger puts forth his vision, assuming he ever does, said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University, Fullerton. That's because his photo-op candidacy has paid off so far. By offering little more than smiles and platitudes, conservatives and liberals can both read what they want into him, he said.

Then there's the Davis question: Despite the growing likelihood that voters will boot him from office, the governor still enjoys a high standing in the Jewish community. With a 30-year track record of supporting issues and programs of interest to many Jews, the community might stick with him and vote against the recall, said Howard Welinsky, chairman of Democrats for Israel.

As governor, Davis has visited Israel, signed legislation expanding the definition of hate crimes to include such acts as painting a swastika on a synagogue. He has also channeled millions through the California Arts Council and the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to the Zimmer Museum, Wiesenthal Center and Skirball Museum.

At an Aug. 25 anti-recall fundraiser in Beverly Hills, Davis admonished a mostly Jewish audience of 450 to support him during these difficult times. After sprinkling his speech with some Yiddish and asking for donations, Davis quipped that he won his first gubernatorial election, against all odds, by "going to more bar mitzvahs than anyone else, a record I intend to keep."

Daphna Ziman, a board member of Arnold's All-Stars, Schwarzenegger's after-school youth program, said she considers Schwarzenegger smart, caring and a good father. But the wife of major Davis donor Richard Ziman said she had no intention of voting for him. Like many Davis supporters, she calls the recall an unjustified power grab and criticizes Schwarzenegger and the other gubernatorial candidates for seeking to benefit from it.

"I'm really mad at him," Ziman said of Schwarzenegger. "This is about abusing democracy and selling it down the river."

Schwarzenegger has failed to attract much crossover support. Recent polls suggest that many Democrats will weigh in against the recall but choose Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante over Schwarzenegger in the second part of the recall ballot.

On the other side of the aisle, many Republican supporters of Riordan seem to be smarting from Schwarzenegger's unexpected decision to run, a move that preempted Riordan's expected entry into the race. Unlike Schwarzenegger, Riordan has significant political experience, strong contacts in the business community and "could have hit the ground running," said Lee Alpert, a lawyer who held several positions in the Riordan administration.

"If you're asking me if Riordan support moving over to Schwarzenegger is an automatic, it's not," Alpert said. "Schwarzenegger is going to have to earn the support of the moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats just like Dick Riordan did. He needs a plan to get us out of this mess, a plan of substance."

On the upside for Schwarzenegger, a few Jews have enthusiastically endorsed him. Having assembled a high-profile team of advisers, including billionaire investor Warren Buffett and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Schwarzenegger has won points for his appointments.

"What he's doing reminds me of George Bush," said Sheldon Sloan, former chair of the Golden Bears of the Republican Party, a group of big donors. "He may not know every issue, but he's surrounded himself with smart people."

Schwarzenegger recently had to repudiate Buffett's statement that California's property taxes might be too low. Buffett's implied attack on sacrosanct Proposition 13 set off a firestorm of criticism.

Jewish Republicans are open to supporting Schwarzenegger, despite some of his liberal social positions, said Michael Wissot, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Southern California. Schwarzenegger's stated willingness to shake things up in Sacramento excites some members, although the organization has yet to endorse any candidate.

Schwarzenegger faces tough competition for Republican voters: conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks and former baseball commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth, who ran the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and is a Republican running as an independent, both dilute Schwarzenegger's strength.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said Schwarzenegger has done much more for the Jewish community than simply contribute to some of its favorite causes. In the mid-1990s, the actor lobbied some friends at Austria's Ministry of Education to punish Austrian students caught at school playing a computer game called "KZ Manager." The game's objective was to "kill" as many Jews as possible at a concentration camp within four minutes. Schwarzenegger's "high-profile interference" helped lead to the enactment of tough laws, Hier said.

Schwarzenegger was one of the first stars who agreed to appear on a CBS television special celebrating Israel's 50th birthday, Hier said. His participation helped recruit other entertainers, he added.

Hier has known Schwarzenegger for more than a decade. In July 1990, the former Mr. Olympia asked the center to look into his father's past. The two-month investigation found that Gustav Schwarzenegger had applied to join the Nazi Party in 1938, just before the notorious Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass. Subsequent inquiries uncovered evidence that Schwarzenegger's father belonged to the Sturmabteilungen, also referred to as the SA or "brownshirts."

Hier said it was unfair to harbor doubts about Schwarzenegger because of his father's misdeeds, arguing that bad parents can produce wonderful offspring. He said the Jewish patriarch, Abraham, for instance, was the son of an idol worshiper.

"Since I've known Arnold, I've never found him to be anything but a friend of the Jews and a supporter of Israel," Hier said. "I have never detected even a scent of anti-Semitism."

Hier's positive feelings notwithstanding, the rabbi said he would like to see Schwarzenegger publicly clarify his views about Waldheim at a press conference or other venue.

Paul Wachter, Schwarzenegger's financial adviser and friend of 22 years, said the actor surrounds himself with Jews both in his private and professional life. His business success, sense of humor and liberal use of Yiddish -- a language close to the candidate's native German -- qualify Schwarzenegger as an "honorary Jew," Wachter said.

On a more serious note, Wachter said his friend encouraged him to accept the chair of the Austrian Bank Holocaust Claims Committee, even though Wachter worried that the time commitment could affect the quality of his work.

Schwarzenegger might have lots of Jewish friends, but he needs more of them to prevail in the race of his life. With Bustamante emerging as the early front-runner, Schwarzenegger must work harder to connect with Californians of all stripes, said Arnold Steinberg, a Republican political strategist.

"Arnold needs to project an image and pursue the reality of reaching out broadly, and that certainly includes to the Jewish community," Steinberg said.

Tom Tugend contributed to this report.

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