Menu JTA Search

Jewish vote key in Philly mayor´s race


Philadelphia mayoral candidate, Sam Katz. (E.A. Kennedy)

Philadelphia mayoral candidate, Sam Katz. (E.A. Kennedy)

PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 28 (JTA) — Election Day looms just around the corner here, and the mayoral race that has garnered national attention of late is eerily shaping up to be just as close as it was four years ago. But it hadn’t been so tight until recently. One month ago, prior to the discovery of a listening device in the office of Mayor John Street, political polls had Republican Jewish candidate Sam Katz enjoying a 10 percentage point lead over the Democratic incumbent. The bug presence and the ensuing revelation that Street has become a subject of a federal investigation into possible corruption at City Hall has, surprisingly, placed the black mayor on top in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of more than 4-1. An estimated 957,000 city residents are registered to vote. Katz, a businessman who lost in 1999 to Street by less than 10,000 votes, had been chipping away at the mayor’s base by casting himself as a crusader against political cronyism. But for the Democratic core of Philadelphia, the investigation has cast Street as a victim of a Republican-controlled and racially motivated U.S. Justice Department. According to the latest poll, conducted by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Street leads Katz among likely voters, 46 percent to 41 percent. With indicators pointing to another nail-biter on Nov. 4, both campaigns are working furiously. Utilizing campaign funds amassed over the past year — at the last tally, the Street campaign had raised $10.3 million to Katz’s $9.7 million — each camp is wooing communities that did not endorse either candidate the last time around. The Jewish community, for instance, has seen a recent flurry of attention. Katz crisscrossed the sprawling city Sunday, visiting two area synagogues. The Street campaign, announced an endorsement Monday from the Shomrim of Philadelphia and Delaware Valley, a Jewish police and firefighters association. Katz garnered 82 percent of the Jewish vote in 1999, but by the candidate’s own admission, failed to turn out enough middle-class Jewish voters and Russian immigrants in Northeast Philadelphia. Street’s ally, Rabbi Solomon Isaacson of Congregation Beth Solomon Suburban, helped the Democrat win votes in the Northeast in the last election. The Republican promised that will not happen again. “The big hole four years ago was the Russian Jewish voter, and I’m going to get all of that,” predicted Katz, who has serenaded groups of Russians in their own language. “I’ve got signs in Russian” and a campaign leaflet in Russian. Isaacson has promised to again bring out Jewish votes for Street. The Street campaign held a rally Tuesday with the Northeast Philadelphia Russian community. Street adviser David Hyman, a former president of the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee, expressed confidence that more Jews will cast their lot with the Democrat. “There is an opportunity for the mayor to significantly increase the amount of Jewish votes he receives,” Hyman said. “In the areas of education and neighborhood improvement, Jewish voters, like other voters, are happy with what’s been going on in the city.” Hyman also alluded to the “more partisan environment” in the wake of the ongoing federal investigation. With many Democrats accusing the Republican Attorney General John Ashcroft of attempting to influence the election from Washington, Hyman was skeptical that Jews, who traditionally support Democratic candidates, could bring themselves to vote Republican. Katz, however, appears to enjoy at least the same amount of Jewish backing as he received four years ago. According to Larry Ceisler, a Democratic political analyst, the Jewish vote tends to track the vote of the larger white community. And recent polls have shown Katz receiving more than 70 percent of the white vote, with Street the choice of only 17 percent of white voters. The rest remained undecided. Such indicators are not a significant departure from the 1999 election result, when Street won 16 percent of wards where the majority of voters were white, and also won 17 percent of the Jewish vote. “I’m voting for Katz,” David Silver, a professor at the University of Delaware, said emphatically. “Katz is going to do the type of things which can turn the city around: lower taxes, trying to rebuild population growth.” Street still can count on some turnout among the Jewish community. Retired police Captain Alan Kurtz, a member of Shomrim’s executive board, explained his group’s endorsement of Street as speaking to Street’s record of accomplishment. “I think the last four years have been an enlightenment for some Jewish voters who have a reflex to vote for a Jewish candidate,” Kurtz said. “I did some soul-searching, and I feel John Street will be the better mayor.” But at least one Jewish voter is troubled by how the mayoral election could impact the 2004 presidential race. “My inclination is to vote for Katz, because I think he would do a lot more for the city than Street,” explained Albert Waxler, a lifelong Democrat. “My problem” is President Bush. If Pennsylvania went Republican because of a Republican mayor in Philadelphia, I would never forgive myself. I think about it all the time.” Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes in the 2000 presidential election went to Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Judging by the appearances of big-name party stars — Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Democratic strategist James Carville campaigned for Street last week; while Rudy Giuliani, the former Republican mayor of New York, headlined a Katz fund raiser — many see national implications in who will be mayor of America’s fifth-largest city. “In order to win the White House, you are going to have to win Pennsylvania,” McAuliffe said in an interview. “I’d rather have the mayor of Philadelphia helping us, and John Street has been a great Democrat.” The appearance of Giuliani notwithstanding, the Republican National Committee is not sharing the concern of their counterparts in the Democratic Party. “We see this as a very local race,” said Pamela Mantis, a Republican committee spokeswoman. “We’ve basically let Katz run it at a local level. The Democrats are acting very desperate.” According to Matt Brooks, however, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, “it’s a top priority race” for his organization. “Everyone’s talking about it.” Deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Caucus David Harris called denying the weight of this election “comically understating reality.” “Pennsylvania is a battleground state, and Philadelphia is a big city,” he said. “We are taking a very close look at it.”