SALEM, Mass. (Aug. 13)
He has spoken out strongly in support of Israel, is skeptical about faith-based initiatives and opposes what he sees as unnecessary restrictions on civil liberties. Those views could help Ned Lamont win more Jewish support in this fall’s election for a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut — even though his major opponent is a leading Jewish politician.
Lamont, a cable television entrepreneur who defeated Democratic incumbent Sen. Joseph Lieberman, 52 percent to 48 percent, used his strong opposition to the Iraq war as the major issue in the Aug. 8 primary.
But David Pudlin, a key adviser to Lamont, said that if Jewish voters look at a broad range of issues, they’ll like what they learn about the political newcomer.
“On civil rights, civil liberties and war and peace issues, Jews in Connecticut, like those in most places, are more liberal than other voters. Ned shares those views,” said Pudlin, a former Connecticut House majority leader who is a paid consultant to Lamont’s campaign.
Pudlin said the primary campaign included very little direct outreach to the Jewish community, which represents about 3 percent of the state’s population and 5 percent of the electorate. CBS/New York Times exit polls showed Lieberman outpolling Lamont 61 percent to 39 percent among Jewish voters.
Lieberman’s pledge to run as an independent in the November general election against Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger may create a dilemma for some Jewish voters, who will have to choose between loyalties to the Democratic Party and to a co-religionist.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Lamont has handled issues of importance to Jews adeptly so far.
“He’s saying the right things on issues that are important for the vast majority of Jewish voters. His statements on Israel have been correct, and he’s been criticized from the left for being too supportive of Israel,” said Forman, whose group generally does not make endorsements during primaries.
During the campaign, Lamont was endorsed by the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, civil rights activists who sometimes have had strained relations with the Jewish community.
Marvin Lender, a Connecticut resident and chairman of the Israel Policy Forum who has been a strong Lieberman financial backer and adviser, said Lamont would have a solid voting record on issues of importance to Jews.
But he predicted Lamont would be less effective as a policy-maker because of Lieberman’s long involvement in the Middle East.
“The Lieberman-Lamont primary wasn’t about Jewish issues. Lamont would do all the right things with respect to Israel, and no one has led me to believe he doesn’t care about these issues,” said Lender, who is backing Lieberman’s independent candidacy.
But he added that Lamont “doesn’t have Joe’s experience in the region and the firsthand knowledge you need to make a contribution to trying to find a solution.”
Pudlin countered that the policies Lieberman and President Bush have supported have made things worse in the Middle East, which is why Lamont appealed to many who are frustrated by the situation there.
“Everything we are doing is exacerbating the problems there,” Pudlin said.
One issue where Lamont is closer than Lieberman to the views of many Jewish voters is Lamont’s opposition to expanding the use of federal funds to help religious groups deliver social services.
“For me, I’d stand up and say I think we need a bright and shining line there separating church and state. I think that’s been one of the hallmarks of our country for 200 years,” Lamont told The Associated Press during the primary campaign.
That position will resonate among voters “who share that concern about the possible excesses” of these programs, Forman said.
Lieberman is one of the strongest congressional backers of faith-based initiatives, a cornerstone of Bush’s domestic policy agenda. To help pass the program, Lieberman worked closely with several lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, including Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Those efforts led to charges by some Democratic activists that Lieberman, a three-term lawmaker, was too close to Republicans.
Several prominent Jewish groups, including Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, said the faith-based programs blur the lines between secular and sectarian organizations. Orthodox organizations have been more receptive to the idea.
Like Lieberman, Lamont strongly supports abortion rights and expanding stem-cell research.
But Lamont won kudos among feminists who objected to Lieberman’s backing of a bill that would have allowed courts to consider replacing a feeding tube used to sustain Terri Schiavo, a 39-year-old Florida woman who had been in a vegetative state. In the end, the tube was removed last year and Schiavo was allowed to die.
Lamont said those decisions should be made by the family in consultation with their doctor and clergyman.
But Lamont gained most traction on the Iraq war, which Lieberman strongly backed. Pudlin said differences on the war and related issues had resonated most strongly with primary voters.
“We’ve moved beyond a point in American politics where Jews will automatically always vote for another Jew. Lieberman’s support for the war and for programs that allowed for domestic spying, and his tacit and sometimes direct support for torturing prisoners, is opposed by the vast majority of Connecticut residents and an even higher percentage of Jews,” Pudlin said. “Lamont will do well among Jews because he is right on the issues that matter to them.”
Lieberman’s camp denied a particularly ethnic outreach.
“In all of his races, Sen. Lieberman has said he never expects people to vote for him strictly because of his faith,” spokesman Dan Gerstein said. “That said, his views are within the mainstream of the community. So it’s preposterous for Ned Lamont’s campaign to say he has as strong a record on issues of importance to the Jewish community.”
Claude R. Marx writes a political column for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass.