U.S. Elections 2006 in South Florida, Political Parties Compete for Substantial Jewish Vote

There are two rabbis at Temple Beth El, the conservative shul in West Palm Beach where Lois Frankel prays: Democrat David Westman and Republican Leonid Feldman. As a Jew, she likes them both. But politically, she agrees with only Westman.

Frankel, the mayor of West Palm Beach, is confident that fellow Floridian Jews will vote overwhelmingly for her party in the Nov. 7 midterm elections.

She cited unhappiness with the Iraq war, property taxes, prescription drugs, education and the rising cost of homeowners insurance as election season issues favoring Democrats.

“The trend here is just like the rest of the country,” Frankel said “Here in South Florida, most of our Jewish population is older retirees from the Northeast, and they traditionally vote Democratic.”

Sid Dinerstein believes that will change.

“Pretty soon, virtually every Jewish person will vote Republican,” claimed the chairman of the Republican Party of Palm Beach and a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “The anti-Semitism that has been allowed to gain a foothold in the Democratic Party will eventually scare the Jews to vote Republican.”

The RJC is currently running two full-page advertisements in the Broward Jewish Journal.

One ad, dominated by a large photograph of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, thanks Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. for “standing up for Israel.” It urges voters to support the veteran Republican in his campaign against Democratic Jewish challenger Ron Klein for control of Florida’s 22nd Congressional District, which includes parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The second ad, showing a bombed-out Israeli apartment building, warns in large type: “Two senior Democratic congressmen voted against supporting Israel in its war against Hezbollah.”

The two Michigan lawmakers, John Conyers and John Dingell, objected to a nonbinding resolution that did not include appeals to all sides to safeguard civilian life. Democrats otherwise overwhelmingly backed the resolution.

The ad notes that Dingell and Conyers are poised to become powerful committee chairmen if the Democrats control Congress. “The Democratic Party is changing. And the far left, anti-Israel segment is gaining control. It’s time to ask yourself: Does the Democratic Party still represent you?”

For most South Florida Jews, says demographer Ira Sheskin, the answer remains a resounding yes.

“I have no doubt that the percentage of Jews identifying themselves as Republicans has increased, but the reality is that we still don’t have a very large percentage of Jews identifying themselves as such,” said Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies.

Nationally, 14 percent of American Jewish voters say they’re Republicans, compared to 61 percent who claim to be Democrats and 20 percent who identify as independents.

Voting breakdowns are not available for South Florida Jews, but Sheskin says that the demography would suggest even greater support for Democrats.

“Half of the Jews in South Florida are 65 years or older, and they tend to be liberal Democrats,” he told JTA.

According to studies supervised by Sheskin, just more than 600,000 Jews live in the three counties that make up Florida’s southeastern corridor.

Florida boasts two Jews, both Democrats, in the U.S. House of Representatives, and another two Jewish Democrats are campaigning for House seats for the first time.

One is Klein, a lawyer who rose to Florida Senate minority leader during his 14 years in that body. The other is Hillsborough County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, who will face off against Gus Bilirakis, the son of retiring incumbent Mike Bilirakis, for control of the 9th Congressional District in the Tampa Bay area.

Polls show Klein within striking distance of Shaw, while Busansky has only an outside chance.

Klein predicts that Jewish and non-Jewish voters alike will punish the Republican Party on Election Day if it turns out that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other GOP leaders covered up complaints about the sexually explicit e-mails Florida lawmaker Mark Foley sent to teenage congressional pages.

“This is one more example of a series of corruption issues that have occurred in Washington,” he told JTA. If Hastert “knew what went on with Mark Foley and could have prevented more pages from being exposed, then shame on him. He should be required to resign.”

The only Jews in South Florida who are likely to vote Republican this year as a bloc are Orthodox Jews and those of Cuban origin, Sheskin said.

The problem for local Republicans is that there just aren’t that many Orthodox or Cuban Jews down here.

In Miami-Dade County, 9 percent of Jews consider themselves Orthodox; in Broward, that drops to 4 percent, and in Palm Beach, 3 percent. And although Miami-Dade County is home to 9,500 Hispanic Jewish adults, only 29 percent of them are of Cuban origin, Sheskin said.

Joe García, executive director of the centrist NDN (formerly the New Democrat Network), agrees that Cuban Jews — like most Cuban exiles in general — will mainly vote Republican this time around.

Garcia said Cuban Jews leaned Democrat because of that party’s closer ties to Israel “until the late 1970s, when Ronald Reagan began to reach out to more centrist and right-leaning Jewish Americans.”

The GOP’s Dinerstein is frustrated that the rest of the community has not caught up.

He’s particularly angry with Rep. Robert Wexler, a popular Jewish Democrat who represents Florida’s 19th Congressional District.

“Wexler is awful on Israel, and he hides behind his religion,” Dinerstein charged. “He’s against everything Israel wants and needs from America: domestic drilling for oil, harsh interrogation of terrorist prisoners and eavesdropping against terrorists who call this country.”

It was not clear what Dinerstein was referring to: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, addressing Congress earlier this year, embraced key aspects of the Democrats’ platform on alternative energy resources.

Israeli officials abstain from commenting on domestic U.S. controversies, but it is true that Israel’s protections against domestic spying are weaker than those in the United States. However, in 1999, Israel’s Supreme Court banned the interrogation practices currently at the center of the U.S. torture debate, citing ethical as well practical reasons — torture, often, simply does not work.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the other House Jewish Democrat, representing Florida’s 20th District, said the numbers speak for themselves.

“There are 28 Jewish members of the House of Representatives, and 27 of them are Democrats,” she said. “That should tell you where the natural home of the Jewish people is.”

NEXT STORY