As Gov. George Pataki intensifies his efforts to be seen as a moderate Republican on the national stage, Jewish activists seeking passage of bias crime legislation are hopeful he will make an unprecedented push for such a bill.
Although the bill has been stalled in the Republican-controlled state Senate for years (while the Assembly has repeatedly passed its version) Senate Democrats are preparing to push for a vote on the measure in early April.
Pataki, who was praised by Jewish groups for introducing strict gun control initiatives last week, has also proposed legislation that would establish stiffer penalties for crimes motivated by religious, racial or sexual hatred.
But he has been faulted by activists who say he has merely paid lip service to the issue.
"The governor has spoken through press releases, but not through action on this issue," says Michael Nussbaum, president of the American Jewish Congress Metropolitan Region. "He has not used his political capital until now."
Nussbaum joined other Jewish leaders in praising Pataki’s announcement last week that he would seek to make New York one of the toughest gun control states in the nation by requiring trigger locks on all guns sold; creating a data base that could scientifically link guns to crimes; raising the legal age for gun ownership; banning assault weapons and closing a loophole allowing sales without background checks at gun shows.
Pataki’s initiatives have support among both Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans in a climate fueled by growing incidents of handgun carnage. But the governor may still have to call in favors and lobby hard for the reforms at a time when he is feuding with the Republican majority leader of the Senate, Joseph Bruno of Renssalaer County.
The gun measures are important to Pataki’s image of a moderate (though tough-on-crime) Republican. Observers speculate that he is either trying to increase his chances of being tapped as "ticket-balancing" running mate by GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush, or getting an early start fending off a serious challenge from Democrat H. Carl McCall or HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo in 2002.
In either case, bias crime bill activists expect a new push for the bill to be part of that effort, and are hopeful he will pursue both the guns and bias reforms with equal vigor.
"Maybe now that that it’s a presidential election year and the governor is looking to aspire to higher office … he will not want New York to be one of the 10 states without bias crime legislation," says Nussbaum.
Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon said both the bias bill and the gun control initiatives were part of a series of criminal justice measures, which also includes expanding DNA testing, ending parole for repeat violent felons, and ending the statute of limitations on rape and other felonies.
"He has a very systematic approach to cracking down on violent crime," said McKeon. As for the bias bill, McKeon said "there are encouraging signs that this may be the year it gets passed."
Howie Katz, New York director of the Anti-Defamation League and chair of the statewide Hate Crimes Bill Coalition, said the governor had assured ADL that "this session is an opportunity to pass both the gun control and hate crimes legislation." But Katz said an expected April 3 motion to discharge the bill in the Senate, which would force the first vote on the bill in that house, will be a test of how strenuously state Republican leaders (who object to clauses on sexual orientation in the bill) will oppose the measure.
"We are urging that Sen. Bruno allow them to vote their conscience this time," says Katz. "This would be a win for the governor and a win for the Democrats, but not necessarily a win for the Senate Republicans. They will need something to sweeten the pot, and there are a couple of ideas being floated around."
The state Conservative Party, whose ballot line gave Pataki his margin of victory in 1994 and provides insurance votes for many Republican legislators in tight elections, actively opposes the bias crimes bill.
There are still more than 20 months remaining until the 2001 City Council elections. But with term limits excluding most incumbents, it’s never too early for candidates to begin jockeying for position in what is likely to be an extremely crowded field.
In Borough Park, Ezra Friedlander is working the phones trying to raise money to seek Noach Dear’s seat. A former aide to Public Advocate Mark Green, Friedlander is likely to face Simcha Felder, Assemblyman Dov Hikindís chief of staff.
In the Riverdale section of the Bronx, Mark Vogel wants to succeed June Eisland. An aide to Manhattan Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and a past manger of Oliver Koppel’s unsuccessful 1998 attorney general campaign, Vogel has said he’ll bow out of the race if Koppell’s wife, Lorraine Koppell, decides to seek the seat.
Alan Jay Gerson, vice president of the American Jewish Congress Metropolitan Region, is gearing up for a run to succeed Kathryn Freed, whose district includes Soho, Tribeca, and parts of the Lower East Side.
In the Canarsie/Mill Basin area of Brooklyn, Abraham Levy wants to be the first Israeli elected to the City Council. The Ramat Gan native, who is president of the Flatbush Park Jewish Center, recently sold his plumbing supply business to concentrate on his race to succeed Herbert Berman.
In Queens, Jeff Gottlieb, chief of staff to Forest Hills Councilman Morton Povman, is gathering broad support in his effort to succeed his boss.
Most Council candidates are political rookies, but the race to succeed Karen Koslowitz of Forest Hills may include one seasoned veteran: Queens Borough President Claire Shulman. Some say her seniority and political clout would give her the inside track to be elected Council speaker by her colleagues.