“You don’t have to be Jewish to like (Bill) Clinton,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D- Conn.) told a Jewish crowd in Santa Monica here last week, “but shame on you if you are and don’t support him.”
By that standard, there will be few shame-faced Jews in California on Election Day. While President Bush won some 30 percent of the Jewish vote four years ago, the current estimate is that he will be lucky to get 10 percent.
In general, the Bush campaign appears to have given up on California, despite its huge electoral bloc and a record of voting consistently for Republican presidential candidates since 1964.
Clinton’s coattails, his California managers hope fervently, will pull in other Democratic office-seekers, especially in a year when – contrary to usual form – the Democratic Party is united and the Republicans are in disarray.
Democrats here are hoping that Tuesday’s elections will make California not only the first state to have two women senators simultaneously, but two Jewish women senators.
The two Democratic candidates are former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Barbara Boxer of Marin County. Though they are known to have had differences in the past, they have been campaigning together, as they did at the Jewish community rally in Santa Monica last week.
At the Oct. 21 evening event, a band was playing upbeat Israeli folk tunes, blue and white balloons criss-crossed the hotel ballroom, and Clinton and Boxer buttons – in Hebrew and English lettering – were moving fast at $2 apiece.
The audience of 600 ardent supporters was primed for some rousing speeches on the two candidates’ Jewish roots and convictions. But that expectation went largely unfulfilled.
While Feinstein and Boxer pressed all the right buttons on support for Israel, their best shots dealt with such general domestic concerns as jobs, health care, education, crime and women’s rights. Both demanded that Germany and Japan pay for their own defense and relieve American taxpayers of the burden.
Even so, the two veteran politicians paid more attention to Israel this time than they did at a similar event in San Francisco earlier in the campaign, when neither mentioned the words “Jewish” or “Israel” at all.
At the Santa Monica rally, Feinstein recalled her two trips to Israel and quipped: “I had thought it was tough to be mayor of San Francisco until I talked to Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem.”
Congresswoman Boxer praised Israel as “our best friend in the Middle East.”
It was left largely to Lieberman, the only Orthodox Jew in the Senate, to lend the right haimishe touch to the occasion. Pushing mainly the presidential ticket, Lieberman described Arkansas Gov. Clinton as a man “who has worked for everything he has achieved – nothing was handed to him. In this sense, he has led a very Jewish life.”
Clinton’s election, the dapper Lieberman promised, “will be a turning point in American-Israeli history.”
As for Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, Lieberman recalled a Friday in the Senate chamber when the debate ran well into the evening.
Realizing that Lieberman would not be able to use a car on the Sabbath, Gore came over and invited his Connecticut colleague to bed down at an apartment across the street from the Capitol.
Gore then accompanied Lieberman to the apartment and turned on the lights for him. “I call that a very high quality Shabbes goy,” Lieberman said.
Feinstein, a formidable campaigner, is maintaining a comfortable lead of 17 percentage points over colorless Republican John Seymour, the appointed senatorial incumbent, in the race for a two-year term.
A lawsuit charging Feinstein with misreporting $8 million in campaign contributions in her unsuccessful gubernatorial bid two years ago has apparently not harmed her popularity.
The race is much tougher for Boxer, whose comfortable 20-point lead over Republican Bruce Herschensohn has been halved in the last two weeks. According to one tracking poll, she now leads by a statistically insignificant margin of 4 points.
Observers credit Herschensohn, an arch-conservative Jewish television commentator, with getting an early jump in launching an effective campaign of TV commercials. Television is crucial in reaching voters in as large a state as California, and it is a medium in which Herschensohn has a professional edge.
Although both candidates are rated as pro-Israel, the militant Herschensohn has scored some points in the Jewish press by charging the strongly liberal Boxer with voting against foreign aid and military assistance bills that included hefty sums for Israel.
In any case, the fact that three out of four of the senatorial hopefuls are Jewish has played no part in the campaign, and probably few voters even realize that Feinstein, Boxer and Herschensohn are Jewish.
In addressing a Hadassah meeting, Boxer, whose maiden name is Levy, was surprised to learn that most of her audience was unaware that she is Jewish.
There is also a record number of Jews running for the House of Representatives – 18 for the 52 seats at stake. For the most part, the candidates’ Jewishness has not been an issue.
The exception is a bitter contest in a heavily Hispanic district in San Diego, where Republican Tony Valencia has attacked his Jewish opponent, Bob Filner, with blatantly anti-Semitic slurs and innuendos.
The ethnic attacks occurred during a debate when the discussion turned to the imprisoned junk bond dealer Michael Milken.
“Let me state that Michael Milken is of (the) Jewish religion, as is Bob Filner,” said Valencia.
He “clarified” the statement in a post-debate interview by saying that Jews tend to “turn on each other,” since Milken had been “turned in by a fellow of the same religion in New York,” namely financier Ivan Boesky.
“The process is cyclical,” he said, “like Judas and Jesus Christ.
At another point in the debate, Valencia charged that Filner had defaulted on a 1987 campaign pledge as city councilman to learn Spanish, so as to get closer to his constituents in a largely Hispanic district.
“You patronized an entire community,” Valencia said, glaring at Filner. “You thought that Spanish was so simplistic that you could learn it in three to five years. I wouldn’t (think) that about Hebrew.”
Valencia’s slurs were immediately denounced by Hispanic politicians.
“It was disgusting and totally inappropriate,” said David Valladolid, a director of the Chicano (Mexican-American) Federation. “Inflaming the mood, making the race into a Latino versus Jewish thing by attacking someone’s religion, is uncalled for.”
Republican leaders, equally embarrassed, have withdrawn financial support from Valencia.
Filner, who was formerly director of the Institute for Judaic Studies at San Diego State University, is expected to win the race.
Currently, six Jews are serving in the California’s House delegation. Even with the loss of Boxer and Rep. Mel Levine, who was beaten by Boxer in the senatorial primary, it is expected that the post-election delegation will include eight or nine Jews.
California now has a population of 30 million, of whom about 3 percent are Jewish.