Brown’s Embrace of Jackson Earns Jewish Cold Shoulder
In January, when he was still an asterisk in the polls and a gadfly among the Democratic presidential candidates, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. hit upon a clever move that attracted attention: name the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a potential running mate.
But in New York, it may be remembered as a serious political mistake, one that could haunt Brown as his face-off with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton approaches in the state’s primary on Tuesday.
Among Jewish voters--a key voting bloc here--Jackson’s characterization eight years ago of New York City as “Hymietown” still rankles. His attitude toward Israel is viewed with suspicion. And Thursday, that hostility toward him was dramatically illustrated during a Brown appearance before a Jewish community group in Manhattan.
Brown himself raised the issue, acknowledging that “it’s on the minds of a number of people here.” But the very mention of Jackson’s name brought boos from the audience. And Brooklyn state Assemblyman Dov Hikind leapt from his seat a few feet from Brown to interrupt his speech, yelling, “You insult the Jewish community by picking Jesse Jackson” as a potential running mate.
“Don’t sit quietly and listen to him,” Hikind exhorted the roughly 200 people in the audience, providing a telegenic moment that local news programs broadcast throughout the day.
Brown attempted to defend his choice, saying he had mentioned Jackson as a potential running mate as a symbol of “reconciliation.”
“I acknowledge and I honor your feelings,” Brown said. “But I want to tell you something: We’re not going to solve the problems of this country unless we find some form of reconciliation.”
But Brown’s statements did little to mollify his audience and seemed unlikely to persuade much of the city’s larger Jewish community. Hikind often represents extreme positions within the Jewish community. But on this subject, interviews with voters Thursday and a new poll showing Clinton running far ahead of Brown among Jews indicate that Hikind yells for a majority.
And that could prove crucial to the outcome of Tuesday’s primary, in which Jewish voters could represent as much as 30% of the turnout.
Last week, on the heels of Brown’s upset victory in the March 24 Connecticut primary, many political analysts thought he could beat Clinton here, delivering a potentially fatal blow to the front-runner. Now, although the race still is considered tight, the apparent ill feelings toward Brown within the Jewish community bolster the growing belief among political operatives that he will fall short.
In other states, invoking Jackson’s name helped Brown win support from activists on the party’s left, who in turn helped his insurgent campaign gain surprising momentum. But not now. Not in places like Brooklyn, home to the largest concentration of Jewish voters in the nation, where memories are long and grudges are cherished.
Interviews with some 20 Jewish Democrats in the borough Thursday made clear the problems Brown faces. Almst all expressed little real warmth for Clinton but voiced a determination to vote for him as a rebuke to Brown, in large part because of Jackson.
A front-page declaration in the Jewish Press, a local weekly aimed largely at Orthodox readers, summed up the view of many. “We Support Gov. Bill Clinton/Brown Will Choose Jesse Jackson as V.P.” read the headline. “A vote for Jerry Brown is also a vote for Jesse Jackson,” the paper declared.
According to a poll conducted earlier this week by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, Clinton enjoys an overwhelming lead among Jewish voters--46% to 20%.
Worse yet for Brown, the former California governor may not have gained much for his troubles. Jackson has played coy as Brown has attempted to embrace him, appearing with Brown but withholding an endorsement. Jackson says talk of the vice presidency “certainly makes my mother feel very good,” but he’s not saying whether he would join Brown’s ticket.
Jackson took more than 90% of the black vote in the New York primary last time around, exit polls showed. This time, polls show Clinton beating Brown among blacks.
Meanwhile, several factors have combined to turn the Jewish vote toward Clinton and away from Brown.
The character issues that have plagued Clinton’s campaign seem to have had less impact among Jews than among other groups, particularly white ethnic Roman Catholics, according to pollsters and Clinton campaign aides.
The words of voters interviewed Thursday seemed to support that notion. “If they had left his sex life alone” the election would have been better, said Lee Weiss as she sat with friends at a senior citizens center run by the National Council of Jewish Women. “They look in the closet for everything,” she added, referring both to the press and to rival candidates.
“What difference does it make? How many of the men that are in our government right now can come out with a clean slate? Why do they just pick on him?”
Even more important, perhaps, Brown has put little effort into courting Jewish voters, while Clinton has done so assiduously. Clinton spent virtually the entire day Sunday at a series of Jewish events, where he sharply criticized the Bush Administration, charging it with bullying Israel and failing to combat anti-Semitism at home.
Those words have been warmly received here, where many Jews feel under pressure from an Administration they perceive as hostile.
“What the President has been doing has the Jewish community outraged,” said Shirley Hollander. “We’re happy to see that Clinton is defending Israel.”
By contrast, “ask Jerry Brown about the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and he starts backing down,” said Robert Isaacs as he sat behind the counter of his kosher bakery, surveying a long display case filled with loaves of braided challah and piles of cookies. “Clinton is pro-Israel. Brown is bluffing.”
Brown has been far more tepid in his support for Israel than Clinton. Earlier in the campaign, he said he would eliminate all U.S. foreign aid programs until domestic needs were fully met, a move that would cut off billions of dollars now going to Israel. In New York, Brown has backed away from that statement somewhat but has suffered for that as well.
“He flip-flops too much,” said Leon Singer, when asked about Brown and his views on the Middle East.
Brown has also made some serious miscues. At a recent rally, for example, Brown denounced Clinton for taking large campaign contributions, reading off a list of contributors that contained several Jewish names and saying that his campaign would “drive moneylenders from the temple.”
Thursday, Brown said he wanted to “dissociate myself” from any suggestion of anti-Semitism in that remark, but Clinton campaign aides have taken pains to ensure wide distribution of it.
Still, these concerns took a back seat to the Jackson issue.
“You know what’s cooking Brown’s goose?” asked Pearl Weisenfeld as she sat at her desk near the senior center’s entrance. “Jesse Jackson.”
“That’s not the only thing,” interjected Weisenfeld’s friend, Gertrude David.
“It may not be the only thing,” responded Weisenfeld. “It’s enough.”
In his speech Thursday to the Jewish Community Relations Council, Brown said that his “No. 1 goal” in naming Jackson as a potential vice president was to “heal the divisions” between racial and ethnic groups “and I believe the Rev. Jackson has the capability to do that.”
But the very mention of Jackson’s name brought boos from the audience and sparked Hikind’s heckling interruption. “You have disqualified yourself among the Jewish community,” Hikind said.
When Brown later pointed out that as President, he would be making the decisions, Hikind shouted, “What happens if you die?”
Hikind then was escorted from the room, some demanding, “Get him out of here.” But it was clear that many in the audience agreed with the lawmaker. Hikind later told reporters that “my community will support Clinton overwhelmingly,” Hikind said. “This is really an insult (by Brown). It’s just sticking his finger in our face.”
Afterward, several in Brown’s audience questioned his commitment to Israel if he chooses Jackson as a running mate. Many offered other names of potential black vice presidents they could support, such as Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
“His commitment to Jesse Jackson is gratuitous and is going to alienate people who otherwise would be for him,” said Alvin Kass, vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis.