Nowhere more than in New Jersey were Jewish Democrats reveling in this week’s political comeback of Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
At Lautenberg headquarters at the New Brunswick Hyatt on election night Tuesday, the promise of that victory floated in the air as high as the red, white and blue balloons hugging the ballroom ceiling.
Just minutes after the polls closed at 8 p.m., the hubbub of the hundreds of supporters milling around the ballroom coalesced into whoops and cheers as two large television monitors broadcast CNN’s declaration that Lautenberg was the winner.
In the final tally, Lautenberg trounced Doug Forrester, his Republican opponent, by a 10 percent margin, 54 to 44 percent, winning 13 of New Jersey’s 21 counties and a plurality of 200,000 votes.
According to a New Jersey Jewish News exit poll conducted by Zogby International, the Jewish community contributed significantly to that decisive victory.
Results showed that 79.7 percent of the Jews who voted — and a stunning 83.8 percent of Jewish women voters — pulled the lever for Lautenberg.
The 78-year-old Lautenberg, who retired from his Senate seat at the end of 2000 after serving for three terms, rode back to the Senate on the wings of a strong legislative record.
A staunch supporter of Israel and a former general chair of the United Jewish Appeal, he was the first Jew ever elected to statewide office in New Jersey and was one of the first Jews elected to the U.S. Senate.
During his three Senate terms, he stood out as an outspoken critic of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, and he spoke out against the anti-Israel rhetoric of the Arabic-language media.
Lautenberg backed the legislation that made it possible for American victims of terror to collect damages from the frozen assets of countries that sponsor terrorism.
He also made a name for himself as a champion of Soviet Jewry.
In 1990, he sponsored a bill making it mandatory for immigration officials to take into account historic persecution, not just individual persecution, when deciding who qualifies for refugee status.
The Lautenberg Amendment opened the door to liberation for close to 400,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union who found a new and better life in the United States.
Now, his election victory will be all about making a better life for all New Jerseyans, Lautenberg told the cheering crowd in the Hyatt ballroom as he savored his win surrounded by his family, including his four children and five of his eight grandchildren.
“Tonight, we stand here with a mandate to stand up for all the people of New Jersey,” he shouted above the cheers.
“My commitment is to do for your children and your families what I want to do for these children, my kids’ families. That’s what government is about — to make life better for our citizens.
“I must tell you,” he added. “I can’t wait to go back to work!”
That’s the interesting part, said political observer Jon Shure — Lautenberg gets to “un-retire,” something he strongly wanted to do.
“He made a decision he regretted when he decided to retire, and now he gets to go back, which most people don’t get to do,” said Shure, executive director of the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a Trenton-based liberal think tank.
“The only down side is that he goes back to being part of a minority,” now that the balance has shifted in favor of the Republicans in the Senate. But even that may offer an advantage, Shure added.
“He’s got the potential for being a strong, progressive voice for New Jersey. He can now speak out very strongly,” Shure said.
“I think he’s got a great opportunity. He’s got a lot to say, and he’s got a forum in which to say it.”
Roger Jacobs said he believes that Lautenberg will be listened to as a spokesman for the Jewish community.
“I’m confident that he’ll work for the issues that are of concern to the Jewish community,” said Jacobs, vice president of the State Association of Jewish Federations of New Jersey and chair of the association’s State Government Relations Committee.
Lautenberg’s presence in the Senate will be especially important in light of the tremendous turmoil in Israel, Jacobs added.
“I think his views will be moderate and in favor of peace and stability,” he said. “I think he will be a voice of moderation and strength.”
Trenton attorney Lonny Kaplan also stressed the importance of the Lautenberg victory when it comes to congressional support for Israel.
“He’s someone who will be there to stand up for Israel when it needs standing up for,” said Kaplan, a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.
Jerry Waldor of Union, N.J., a registered Republican who supported Lautenberg, said that the election left him holding a mixed bag — satisfaction over Lautenberg’s victory, concern over the judicial appointments that may be confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.
“It’s a wonderful tribute to the intelligence of the electorate that Frank Lautenberg was returned to the Senate,” said Waldor, a past president of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey.
“Frank’s unbelievable experience will certainly be a guiding light in the Senate and serve us all in the very best way possible.”
The only thing surprising about the Lautenberg victory is that it was so decisive, noted Democratic political consultant Zev Furst, an Orthodox Jew from Englewood.
“The fact that he was able to do it in 35 days, as well as in light of the tremendous Republican victory nationally, is a testament to the peculiarities of New Jersey,” Furst said.
But not all New Jersey Jews were celebrating.
Just a few miles from the Democratic festivities in downtown New Brunswick, the mood quicky turned somber at Forrester headquarters as CBS forecast a Lautenberg victory, within two minutes of closing time at the polls.
Jared Silverman of West Orange viewed the moment philosophically.
Silverman had fought and lost to 8th District incumbent Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat from Paterson.
“It was always an uphill race,” Silverman lamented wistfully, “and I knew that from the beginning. Nothing’s charged.”
Being Jewish didn’t help vote-getting in an area where so many of his coreligionists are liberal Democrats, Silverman observed.
“I would like to see the New Jersey Jewish population more open-minded about the Republican message, because I think it’s a good one. I know in my family we all grew up Democratic and it was a shanda to be a Republican. But I had a change of philosophy, and I think there’s a better way.”
Alan David Stein of South Brunswick, an all-night radio talk-show host who described himself as “formerly a lifelong liberal Democrat,” called the Forrester defeat a “damn shame,” blaming the loss on “the out-and-out lies” of the Lautenberg campaign.
“I’m sure a lot of people voted for Lautenberg because he is Jewish, and I think there is a tendency to do that. But if you look beyond that, there is a lot more” that Republicans have to offer, he said.
Marty Abelkop of Moorestown said he, too, is disappointed in the election outcome.
“From a Jewish perspective, Doug had a much better view for Israel,” he said, and supported Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
“When I saw Lautenberg say in the debate that he was pro-Oslo and pro-a terrorist state, I found it hard to believe Jews would support him.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.