Lenora Fulani isn’t running for anything this year, but the Marxist activist and frequent candidate (who has made controversial statements about Jews, Israel and the Sept. 11 attacks) is fast becoming one of the most talked-about personalities on the political scene.
That’s got Jewish leaders worried about elected officials turning a blind eye for quick political gain.
"I would hope that political leaders would be asking her the tough questions before they sit down with her and ask for her endorsement," said Michael Nussbaum, co-president of the American Jewish Congress Metropolitan Region.
Fulani has emerged as a major force in the state’s Independence Party, an ideologically amorphous group that can provide crucial third-party votes to major Democrat and Republican candidates in tight elections.
She has been closely supporting initiatives backed by Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg: measures that would create nonpartisan elections and allow citizens to bypass the state Legislature and propose laws through referenda.
Pataki and Bloomberg, both Republicans, have shown deference to Fulani’s movement. The governor, who is seeking the Independence nomination to provide extra votes in his re-election bid, asked the city’s Industrial Development Agency last year to approve a $5 million tax-exempt bond for Fulani’s inner-city youth program, according to the New York Post.
Bloomberg, whose margin of victory was smaller than the share of votes he won on the Independence ballot, recently appointed Fulani ally Harry Kresky to his Charter Review Commission. (A source said administration officials wanted to fill a vacancy with someone tied to the Independence Party, and they found Kresky the "least objectionable" in Fulani’s circle.)
While several candidates, Democrats and Republicans, are seeking a place on the Independence ballot in this fall’s primary, Pataki has come under the most fire from opponents for forging ties with Fulani.
The campaign of Tom Golisano, who is vying with Pataki for the Independence and Conservative nominations, has called on the governor to publicly renounce Fulani’s support, as Golisano has done. The Rochester billionaire recently sent an operative to distribute leaflets at a Pataki benefit in Brooklyn’s opulent Syrian-Jewish community, calling on the governor to "refuse to tolerate hate."
Pataki’s Democratic rivals, Andrew Cuomo and H. Carl McCall, have also denounced Fulani. Cuomo sent Pataki a letter urging him to distance himself from her.
Even Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a strong Pataki ally, is calling on the governor to renounce Fulani.
"Anyone who accepts support from that party creates a sense of legitimacy, and thatís unfortunate," said Hikind, who also mentioned Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, and Bloomberg. "I wish none of these people had anything to do with [Fulani]. It sends a terrible message."
Spitzer has already clinched the attorney general nomination on the Independence line. But perhaps in an effort to cover his back, Spitzer announced that he would probe a system of charities linked to Fulani to see if funds collected for nonprofits are being used for political activism in violation of state law. An investigation by the Post found that many of the charity groups’ directors are also contributors to the Independence Party.
Spitzer is perhaps the candidate least in need of an Independence boost this year. He faces no Democratic challenger, which means he’ll have some $2.7 million on hand for the general election against unknown Republican opponent Dora Irizarry. But his campaign manager, Cynthia Darrison, defended his Independence bid.
"There are many good people in the Independence Party and Lenora Fulani is just one member," she said.
Asked if it’s a conflict for Spitzer’s charities bureau to probe Fulani’s groups while the attorney general runs with her endorsement, press secretary Juanita Scarlett said that if the office conducted no investigation, that would suggest a conflict.
"The staff of the charity bureau will conduct a thorough review of allegations of impropriety and make public their findings," she said.
In an interview, Fulani insisted her anti-Semite label is tired and unjustified. "I don’t know what they’re talking about," she said.
Fulani has ascribed a critical Anti-Defamation League report on her and the New Alliance Party now merged with Independence to a political agenda, although she has yet to explain her view of that agenda.
In perhaps her most offensive comment, in a 1989 article in a New Alliance publication, Fulani called Jews "mass murderers of people of color" who have "sold their souls" to establish Israel. She has also refused to criticize Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and accused Jews of profiting from the slave trade and abandoning the civil rights movement.
Fulani has steered clear of commentary on sensitive issues of late. However, when asked how she viewed the current crisis in the Middle East, Fulani said she supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but faults Israel for "insufficient energy in pursuing it." She criticized Cuomo for attacking her as anti-Israel.
"He’s playing politics with an issue people feel very deeply about," said Fulani.
During his campaign last year, Bloomberg said he disagreed with Fulani, but added, "If I dropped off every party’s line when someone said something I don’t agree with, the voters wouldn’t have a choice [between candidates]."
Both publicly and privately, Jewish leaders have said Pataki’s relationship with Fulani is inconsistent with his strong record speaking out against anti-Semitism. "The governor has been an exceptional political leader when it comes to standing up for Jews," said Nussbaum of AJCongress. "I would like to think the people close to him would advise him accordingly [about Fulani.]"
Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon said the governor repudiated Fulani following an Independence event in Albany last year. He said Fulani and the governor never had "any conversation one way or the other" about her views.
Fulani said she had never had a substantive discussion with the governor, although she said she reached out to "all kinds of politicians" to obtain the bond for her All-Stars youth group.
After contacting the governor’s office, she said, the city agency involved "stopped doing politics" and the funds came through. She said Pataki had "done fine" as governor and hailed his interest in political reform.
Fulani is aiming to be a key player as the city’s charter commission contemplates changes in city governance. Last week, she announced formation of the People’s Coalition for Non-Partisan Municipal Elections.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said Fulani remained "a radical extremist" despite her recent, more reserved public persona.
"She’s seen the light that her old ways aren’t going to get her anything, but before she reforms she needs to confront the past," said Foxman. "I’m flabbergasted that so many smart people have a blind spot when it comes to Fulani … She’s a radical extremist who plays with anti-Semites."
After nearly two years handling Jewish affairs for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wendy Katz has left Washington for a job closer to home with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Clinton spokeswoman Karen Dunn said the senator is interviewing candidates for the job, which also entails work as a legislative aide.