U.S. Elections 2006 in Heavily Jewish Florida District, Perception of Israel Support is Key

A recent candidates’ forum in the heart of Florida’s heavily Jewish 22nd Congressional District was supposed to pit longtime U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Republican, against Florida Sen. Ron Klein, a 49-year-old Democrat who wants Shaw’s job badly. But the confrontation at Boca Raton’s Temple Beth El never took place: Shaw was a no-show.

Earlier in the day, Shaw didn’t even come out to greet President Bush, who had flown to Florida on Air Force One to raise $1 million for local GOP candidates.

In both cases, Shaw’s office attributed the congressman’s absence to “scheduling conflicts” — but Klein says it’s clear his opponent is trying to distance himself from the increasingly unpopular president. Shaw couldn’t be reached for comment.

“Over 90 percent of the time, Shaw votes with George W. Bush. I think that shows a lack of independence on many key issues, and this administration has made a lot of mistakes,” Klein told JTA. “And now, a lot of people are not happy with Bush.”

Florida’s 22nd Congressional District covers 500 square miles of Palm Beach and Broward counties. It has the largest percentage of senior citizens of any district in the nation, not to mention many thousands of Jews.

The district came under intense scrutiny in the disputed 2000 presidential election, when “butterfly ballots” and “dimpled chads” made international news. The district narrowly voted for Al Gore in 2000, and 52 percent of the votes cast in 2004 went for John Kerry.

This time around, the district features one of America’s most fiercely fought congressional races.

It’s also one of the most expensive, with $7.8 million raised between the two men, reports the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

According to a Sun-Sentinel poll published Oct. 21, Shaw has 48 percent compared to Klein’s 43 percent.

“The good news for us is that independent and undecided voters are breaking our way, particularly this year because they’re really put out with what’s been going on in Washington,” Klein told JTA in a half-hour interview at Beth El. “Clay Shaw has been in office for 26 years. It’s time for a change.”

A Cleveland native and corporate lawyer, Klein is minority leader of the Florida Senate. He long has been active in Jewish circles — especially the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County — where he headed the Young Leadership Division and until recently was on the federation’s board of directors.

Klein’s wife, Dori, and their two children are involved in the campaign. In recent weeks the race has turned bitter, with Shaw and his backers accusing Klein of a conflict of interest and dishonesty in his law practice.

Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party and a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Klein “got huge amounts of money” from trial lawyers across the country for his House campaign.

“Ron Klein is a public official who has been very successful at making himself wealthy,” Dinerstein charged. “His firm is a lobbying organization. Ron Klein, his employees and his partners lobby other senators on behalf of their clients, and Klein makes $1 million every two years from that.”

Klein denies such accusations, insisting his campaign has been “100 percent focused” on the issues and that he takes his ethics very seriously.

Among Klein’s biggest supporters are Robert Wexler and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Jewish Democrats from Florida whose own U.S. House districts also contain large numbers of Jews.

“Shaw has been totally distorting and lying about Sen. Klein’s record,” said Wasserman Schultz, who represents Florida’s 20th Congressional District.

“From the Jewish community’s perspective, Sen. Klein has been a champion in his personal life for Israel and has stood on the floor of the Florida House and Senate and fought for the concerns the Jewish community cares about,” she continued. “Shaw supports Israel too, but has not supported other issues that Jews care about, particularly affordable prescription drugs, Social Security and a woman’s right to choose.”

Republican ads in the Jewish press emphasize Shaw’s support for Israel. One RJC ad, dominated by a large photograph of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, thanks Shaw for “standing up for Israel.”

Both Klein and Shaw are on record urging the Bush administration to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Congressional support for Israel will remain steadfast whoever controls the House, said Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House’s Middle East subcommittee who represents Florida’s 18th District.

“I am confident that the GOP will maintain control of both the House and the Senate,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement e-mailed to JTA. “However, regardless of the election’s outcome, we will all fight in a bipartisan manner for Israel’s security and to defeat the Islamist Jihadists who wish do away with our way of life.”

Ros Lehtinen, a Cuban American, last year revealed her own Jewish roots — her mother was born Jewish and converted to Roman Catholicism.

Klein, who estimated that up to 25 percent of the voters in his district are Jewish, recently returned from his sixth trip to Israel, where he met with leaders including Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

“Iran is the biggest threat to Israel right now,” he said. “I think we should be refocusing our attention on the real threats. The longer we’re mired in this civil war in Iraq, the less it allows us to lead other countries in restricting Iran’s ability to export terrorism.”

He added, “I’m not suggesting an immediate withdrawal, but I think we should take our men and women out of harm’s way. It’s a sectarian war. As long as the U.S. continues its same strategy in Iraq, nobody will listen to us.”

Klein claims that “Republicans have created this environment of arrogance” that will backfire on the GOP come Nov. 7.

“There’s a very strong feeling in this country that people in Washington are not getting the job done,” he said. “They haven’t passed major legislation on everything from immigration to fixing Social Security, to energy policy, to the war in Iraq. They’re more interested in getting re-elected.”

Klein also attacked a recent series of full-page ads in Jewish newspapers, paid for by the Republican Jewish Coalition, suggesting that the Democratic Party has become anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

“They try to distort the information. They use the example of one or two Democrats who don’t support Israel,” he said. “Robert Wexler, a Democrat, knows more about the U.S.-Israel relationship than anyone, and he’s been there more times than any member of Congress. In fact, he wrote the Democratic Party’s position on Israel. We are very strong supporters of Israel.”

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