When Havi Scheindlin signed on as the local Jewish community liaison for Michael Dukakis, she knew the hours would be long and the stress level high.
But even Scheindlin, a Jewish activist and a veteran Democratic campaign coordinator, was not fully prepared for what followed.
“The phones never stop ringing. The events never end,” Scheindlin said as she arrived at the Century Plaza this week for an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) dinner. “This is the hardest I’ve ever worked.”
Fraction of Electorate
As the presidential race nears its climax, both campaigns have been making an unprecedented push for Jewish votes on the Westside. In more than 40 debates in October alone, in settings ranging from the Beverly Hills Hotel to a North Hollywood synagogue basement, party emissaries are courting and cajoling area Jews as if they are the key to winning the Nov. 8 election.
Never mind that Los Angeles Jews account for only a fraction of the citywide electorate, or that politicians generally consider the Jews’ fund-raising and organizational skills to be more crucial than their votes.
The Democrats see an opportunity to build on their 60% to 70% base of loyal Jewish voters, while the Republicans sense that there is a chance to win converts.
GOP Wants Gain
“My impression is that what the Republicans are trying to do is gain 10% to 20% of the traditionally Jewish Democratic vote and the Democrats, on the other hand, are struggling to retain it,” said Burton S. Levinson, a Los Angeles attorney and national chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League.
Levinson, who attended separate meetings that Dukakis and Vice President George Bush held with leading members of the Los Angeles Jewish community, said both parties are highly supportive of Israel. Each party has also made individual efforts on behalf of the Jewish community.
These and other issues, including peculiarly Jewish concerns such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s possible role in a Dukakis administration and the ramifications of Kitty Dukakis’ marriage to a non-Jew, are being dissected in a near-daily string of joint appearances by local and national campaign aides.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. donned a red velvet yarmulke for a recent appearance at a San Fernando Valley synagogue on Bush’s behalf, while Steve Grossman, a co-leader of Dukakis’ National Jewish Constituency Outreach, recently flew in from Boston to try to bolster the governor’s support among Southern California Jews.
No one knows how much money has been spent on these efforts, since the cash comes from a variety of sources, and many spokesmen are volunteers. But Bush holds an edge in the category of fancy printing. While Dukakis aides have distributed bland position papers, the Bush campaign boasts a full-color brochure showing the candidate praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the last remnant of the ancient temple, and speaking with Israeli leaders and former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky.
At every event, spokesmen for both sides have claimed that their man is more responsive to Jewish concerns.
“George Bush is going to win, and I hope he’s going to have strong support from the Jewish community so the day after (Nov. 8) he’s going to know he was elected by Jewish votes,” said Professor Alfred Balitzer, who spoke on Bush’s behalf at a recent debate in the San Fernando Valley.
“Jews will ultimately rate the candidates on their values,” Grossman said, “and Michael Dukakis’ values are consistent with the values of our people.”
Scheindlin said the rush for Jewish votes started earlier this year, when the Democrats realized that the Republicans were keying on Jackson’s possible role in the Democratic Party as a way to lure Jewish voters to Bush.
In remarks before Jewish groups such as the B’nai B’rith and Agudath Israel, GOP spokesmen have repeatedly hammered home the Jackson theme.
“He’s not the candidate but we consider him to be very instrumental in the Dukakis campaign, and we think he’ll be playing a much larger part in the Administration than has been talked about,” said Marshal Ezralow, Southern California chairman of Bush’s Jewish campaign committee.
Jack Stein, national vice chairman of the Republican Jewish Campaign, has told Jewish audiences that the Democratic Party has been hijacked by Jackson extremists.
Stein and other GOP representatives argue their point by reminding listeners of Jackson’s support for the Palestinian cause and his slighting reference to Jews during the 1984 presidential campaign.
Democratic speakers have adopted a careful response, distancing themselves from Jackson while relaying assurances from Dukakis that Jackson would not help shape Middle East policy for a Democratic administration.
Jackson himself has kept a relatively low profile since the July Democratic convention, dedicating most of his time to voter registration.
Ed Sanders, a Century City attorney who serves as vice chairman of the National Jewish Council for Dukakis, said the Jackson issue is legitimate since Jews have a “long history of trauma.” But as he appears before Jewish crowds on Dukakis’s behalf, Sanders assures voters they have nothing to fear.
“People want to make sure that he (Jackson) isn’t going to have a voice in the administration,” Sanders said. “And that point has gotten home.”
For their part, Democrats point to the prominence in the Bush campaign of Republican New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu. He was the only governor who did not sign an executive order calling for the General Assembly of the United Nations to rescind a declaration that equated Zionism with racism.
They also remind their audiences that Bush once had several alleged “anti-Semites” on his campaign staff, including Fred Malek, who was relieved of his post because of his role in counting the number of Jews in the Labor Department during the Nixon presidency.
As for Kitty Dukakis’ commitment to her Jewish faith, the issue is more whispered than discussed. Although some Jews are excited at the prospect of Passover Seders in the White House, others are concerned that her marriage to a Greek Orthodox Christian is a bad example.
“I don’t know that it’s a factor in determining whether a couple will vote one way or another, but I do know that it’s a serious problem,” said Rabbi Chaim Schnur, head of the Los Angeles branch of Agudath Israel, a nonpartisan group that represents the interests of stringently observant Orthodox Jews.
“The image of a prominent, successful, intermarried couple is for us an example that could spur further intermarriage, and that is something we have to be concerned about, because intermarriage is the one sure way of ensuring Jewish disappearance, if not in this generation then in the next generation,” Schnur said.
Sanders said he has heard the questions raised about Kitty Dukakis’ faith. But he contends that the issue is offensive to most Jews and irrelevant.
“You’ll find that the folks who raise that issue are Orthodox in their religious beliefs, which tends to make them much closer to the extreme right wing of the Christian fundamentalist religion,” Sanders charged.
Marshall Grossman, another local Dukakis supporter, said concerned voters should realize that the Dukakises have long supported issues that matter to Jews, among them fund-raising efforts for an official memorial to the victims of Nazism and condemnation of the U.N. resolution against Zionism.
“Long before Michael Dukakis dreamed of being President, both were on the cutting edge of issues that (concern) the Jewish community,” Grossman said.
If the past is any guide, the Democrats would appear to have a fairly strong lock on the Jewish vote. Surveys have shown that at least 60% of Jewish voters are registered Democrats, with the rest fluctuating between the GOP and no preference. And recent polls show Dukakis well in command of the national Jewish vote.
But Republicans claim that they have made serious inroads in recent years, thanks in large part to the Reagan Administration’s strong support of Israel.
“Younger people are coming (to the Republican side) who see greater opportunity for career growth under the Reagan-Bush economic policies,” Stein said.
“In the main, the Jewish community is traditionally Democratic, but far less than they have been in the past,” said County Sheriff Sherman Block, one of the few local Jewish Republicans in office. “There’s a greater tendency today to be issue-oriented, rather than voting solely on broad philosophical views.”
Shimon Erem, a national B’nai B’rith Jewish leader who lives in Los Angeles, said surveys have shown that the Republicans have won the solid backing of at least one group of Jews. Israeli immigrants tend to vote solidly Republican, as do Russian immigrants, unlike their American-born counterparts. Of the 700,000 Jews living in Los Angeles County, roughly 100,000 are former Israelis, Erem said.
Whatever their political bent, Jews tend to vote in large numbers. According to a survey commissioned by the Jewish Journal, a Los Angeles weekly, 87% of its readers voted in the 1984 election, compared to 73% of the population at large. Jews account for as much as 14% of the vote in Los Angeles elections, pollsters say. They make up about 3% of the population of California but about 7% of registered voters, according to various estimates.
“Jews are concentrated in very strategic places, such as California, New York, Illinois, Florida and Pennsylvania,” said Neil Sandberg, Western regional director of the American Jewish Committee.
“These are states with large numbers of electoral votes, and in a close election, the votes of Jews can make a significant difference, and become particularly important,” he said.
But pollster Steven M. Cohen, a professor of sociology at Queens College in New York, disagrees. Cohen said the real impact of the Jewish community comes more from political donations and organizational know-how.
“Every minority group likes to make the same claim,” he said. “Blacks make the same claim too. There are many more blacks, Hispanics, Catholics, women than there are Jews. And they all say if this group or that went the other way . . . (it would throw the election) but the truth is that the vast majority of the American electorate is already firmly committed to one side or the other.”
Cohen, who regularly surveys Jewish viewpoints on political and social issues, said the fight for undecided Jewish voters can only make a difference between a Democratic candidate winning the top or the bottom of the range between 60% or 70% of the Jewish vote.
“The principal Jewish influence is not so much through electoral power but through financial contributions, political activism, calling meetings, media, technical assistance and a variety of other ways,” Cohen said. “The nice thing about Jews is that they’re easy to reach. They have formal networks, they’re politically active and interested and wealthy.”
Santa Monica City Councilman Alan Katz, who also is active in Jewish affairs, agreed that Jews are not the only minority in the spotlight in this campaign. “It’s symptomatic of what’s happening with a lot of ethnic groups,” Katz said. “These groups are saying, ‘Don’t take us for granted.’ ”
Whatever the motivation, politicos from both sides have missed few chances to carry their message to local Jewish voters.
“In a close election, California will make the difference and in a close election the Jews can make the difference for one side or the other,” said Ezralow, the head of the GOP campaign. “That’s why it’s so important. That’s why both sides are fighting so hard for the Jewish voters.”
“We have something going on every night and I’m running out of speakers,” said Alice Borden, a staffer for the Republican campaign. “Are we changing people’s minds? Who knows?. We’ll see Nov. 8.”
Organizers from both sides say the large turnout at most events has been one encouraging sign. Still, not everyone is happy with what they have heard.
“I came here undecided and I’m still undecided,” Riva Lager of Sherman Oaks said after one debate. “We’re Democrats and we’re going to vote Democratic, but that doesn’t mean we’re crazy about it,” said her husband, Bernard.
“I felt they ought to discuss more than Jewish issues,” said Rochelle Hoffman, who organized a debate at the Adat Ariel synagogue.
“Give me somebody to vote for,” pleaded Phyllis Sarto of North Hollywood, echoing a refrain that has been heard often in the 1988 campaign. “This young man who spoke for Dukakis impresses me more than Dukakis does.”