WASHINGTON, Jan. 18 (JTA) In November it was Suha Arafat. This week it was the Rev. Charles Norris.
As first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton gets closer to officially announcing her candidacy for the Senate in New York, her efforts to navigate the intense ethnic politics of the state have gotten her into situations that might not endear her to Jewish voters.
On Monday, Clinton, a Democrat, spoke at a program marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday at the headquarters of the Rev. Al Sharpton, a controversial figure in New York politics who is seen by many in the Jewish community as being racially divisive and someone who has fomented anti-Semitism.
Shortly before Clinton entered the room, Norris, a minister from Queens and a board member of Sharpton’s National Action Network, reportedly told a story about how he was fired from a company owned by Jews.
“Miller No. 1 was a Jew,” Norris was reported as saying. “Miller No. 2 was a Jew. I was then employed by yet another Jew by the name of Jesus,” he said, adding that he would “not be fired until” Jesus “thinks it’s necessary.”
Clinton’s aides, who were quickly told of Norris’ comments by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), passed a note to Clinton, who then criticized anti-Semitism in her speech, The New York Times reported.
“We know that anti-Semitism still stalks our land as well,” she said. Clinton later told reporters that before she arrived, “I heard that one of the speakers made some divisive comments, which I soundly reject.”
The quick condemnation of the remarks stood in contrast to what happened in Ramallah in November when Suha Arafat, the wife of the Palestinian Authority president, accused Israel of poisoning Palestinians. Clinton came under intense criticism for waiting a day to condemn the remarks.
Despite the immediate condemnation, Clinton was criticized for meeting with Sharpton’s group.
Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, which held a meeting with Clinton in December on a wide range of topics, questioned why Clinton would celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day by meeting with Sharpton, whom he described as “divisive.”
“It sends a wrong message,” said Ganchrow, who suggested that there are many other African American leaders in New York who Clinton could have met with.
Jewish Republicans were quick to react.
Despite Sharpton’s effort in recent years to become more of a mainstream player within the Democratic Party, Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Sharpton has not backed away from his previous anti-Semitic remarks and “continues to surround himself” with people who hold such views.
Brooks, whose group launched an ad campaign attacking Clinton for not immediately denouncing Arafat’s remarks, would not say if he would do the same concerning the speech to Sharpton’s group.
Bruce Teitelbaum, director of the exploratory committee for Clinton’s probable opponent, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, said, “People shouldn’t be surprised at the kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric that was made”
at the Sharpton event. “It’s an anticipated consequence in participating in an event like that.”
Teitelbaum said he did not believe Giuliani, a Republican, was invited to the event. He questioned whether Clinton would continue to seek the support of Sharpton and whether she would call on Sharpton to denounce Norris’ statements.
A spokeswoman for Clinton’s exploratory campaign declined to comment on criticisms that she had met with Sharpton, referring instead to Clinton’s own remarks.
But David Harris, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, defended Clinton’s appearance, saying, “If Ed Koch felt comfortable on that stage, then Mrs. Clinton should, too.”
“Those who are attacking Mrs. Clinton’s outreach effort are really grasping at straws, and they are avoiding addressing the real issues of this campaign,” Harris added.
Recent poll numbers show that Clinton, is having a tough time for a Democrat of winning support from Jewish voters, who normally represent 12 percent of the state’s general election vote and 25 percent of Democratic voters.
A December poll by the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute, which is closely tracking the still-unofficial race, gives Clinton 49 percent of the Jewish vote to 41 percent for Giuliani.
Experts have said those numbers could mean a loss for Clinton.
“At this stage of the game, for a Democratic candidate she is weak in the Jewish community,” said Maurice Carroll, the director of the institute. “She is going to have to crank it up a bit.”
Carroll said the meeting with Sharpton’s group could hurt Clinton “a little bit,” but not as much as it could have in the past.
Sharpton “has rehabilitated himself to the point where he is a political factor now,” Carroll said. “He is not just a street preacher.”
Clinton’s favorability rating among Jews has slipped recently, according to Quinnipiac polls.
In a Dec. 12 poll, the latest available, 37 percent of voters held a favorable view of Clinton while 29 percent hold an unfavorable view, compared to 44 percent to 31 percent in a Nov.10 poll.
In the more recent poll, only 1 percent of the Jews surveyed cited “Israel” or “Palestinian relations” as a reason for having negative feelings toward the first lady.
Giuliani’s favorability among Jews also dropped to 38 percent, with 39 percent holding an unfavorable feeling, down from 45 percent favorable to 30 percent unfavorable in November.
Among the general electorate, Giuliani holds a slight lead in the race, with 46 percent of the vote to 42 percent for Clinton.
Meanwhile, Sharpton’s name also surfaced Monday at a Democratic presidential candidates forum in Iowa, hosted by black and Hispanic groups.
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley defended a recent public meeting with Sharpton.
“I don’t agree with Al Sharpton on everything,” Bradley said. “But I think that he’s got to be given respect, and people have to be allowed to grow. And so I look at this and I say it’s a sad time when we don’t look at somebody as they move through life, and we get them stuck in a particular position in life.”
Gore, who privately met with Sharpton and other ministers last year, said he “was not hesitant” to meet with him.