In an election dominated by the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, New Yorkers facing economic insecurity voted their purses and elected a Jewish business whiz over a Jew with political know-how.
It didn’t hurt that recently minted Republican Michael Bloomberg spent at least $50 million of his own fortune on a blizzard of self-promotional ads and was endorsed by the hugely popular outgoing mayor, Rudy Giuliani.
Tuesday’s contest capped the first foray into politics for Bloomberg, who built a fortune estimated at $4.5 billion dollars on his financial news business.
His stunning victory over Democrat Mark Green — Bloomberg overcame a double-digit deficit in the final week, in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 5-1 ratio — marked the first time in recent history that New York will have two Republican mayors in succession.
Until Sept. 11, there had been no overarching issue in the campaign, but the terror strikes changed all that.
They not only sparked widespread fear for New Yorkers’ personal safety, but they cost the city an estimated $100 billion in damages and roughly 100,000 jobs.
Everything else — schools, crime, public transportation — became secondary to public security and economic recovery.
That seemed to sway hordes of “Giuliani Democrats” — including many Jews, who voted for Bloomberg by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent — who consider themselves socially liberal but fiscally conservative.
A lifelong Democrat until last year, Bloomberg defines himself the same way.
While race was a prominent theme in the Democratic primary — Green’s critics accused him of stirring fears that a “black-brown” coalition of blacks and Hispanics would once again drive up crime rates that a robust economy and Giuliani’s police force had driven down — the Jewishness of both Green and Bloomberg was barely noticed.
Many Jewish observers say it shows that Jews have become a common feature of the political landscape in New York, which boasts the largest Jewish population in the world outside Israel.
Bloomberg is the city’s third Jewish mayor — Abe Beame and Ed Koch were the others.
“This is not groundbreaking territory like Joe Lieberman was” as the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president, said Bob Kaplan, director of intergroup relations and community concerns for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
“This is New York. Jews are certainly not an unfamiliar part of what our city is,” he said. “We’re an experiment in diversity that sometimes has problems, but overall works well.”
That doesn’t mean that faith or ethnicity was completely irrelevant.
This summer, the Anti-Defamation League assailed Bloomberg for saying he wouldn’t “have a problem” with elementary schoolchildren reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Bloomberg also criticized Giuliani for blocking Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from joining other world leaders at a 1995 concert at Lincoln Center.
Bloomberg also caught flak for waiting until just before launching his campaign to quit several elite country clubs that are said to be Jewish-only.
In the week before the elections, the black-owned Amsterdam News — a local paper often accused of anti-Semitism — endorsed Bloomberg over Green because the latter purportedly was backed by a Jewish cabal controlling New York.
Bloomberg criticized the newspaper’s word choice — but accepted its endorsement.
At the election-night gathering of Green supporters, at least two Jewish observers also suggested that repeated references to Green as “arrogant” was a code word for a certain kind of “smarty-pants” Jew.
Both Green and Bloomberg live on New York’s affluent Upper East Side and attended Harvard. But Green, a lawyer and the city’s public advocate, has a far more intellectual mien.
In an August profile, the Forward described Bloomberg as “ambivalent” about his Jewish identity, despite the fact that he does identify himself as “an American Jew” who belongs to Manhattan’s Reform Temple Emanu-El and is vice chairman of the board of New York’s Jewish Museum.
Bloomberg is a heavy donor to nonprofit groups, but many are non-Jewish.
“Am I glad to be born a Jew? I never even thought about it in that context,” Bloomberg told the Forward. “You are what you are. Would I like to be 6 foot tall and able to throw a football like John Elway? Sure, I would like that.”
With two candidates, both Bloomberg and Green were presumed to support Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was never an issue in the campaign.
Bloomberg had never visited Israel until earlier this year, once remarking to the Jerusalem Report that there was “no good skiing there.”
However, he went on to tell the Forward, “I’m a big believer that Israel is a big symbol of freedom.”
If he has strong opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bloomberg has kept them to himself.
“I read about it a lot,” he told the Forward. “It’s a very difficult situation that’s gone on for a long time. I don’t know about second-guessing negotiations. I just pray that they do what’s right.”
Some New Yorkers, though, reckon that foreign affairs will be a more prominent aspect of the mayor’s job after Sept. 11.
Prior to the attacks, Giuliani occasionally forayed into the Middle East conflict, consistently coming down on the side of Israel.
But on Sept. 11, “the international stage directly affected New York,” said Pam Wolfe, a 34-year-old television producer interviewed while voting Tuesday.
It’s unclear to some whether a Jewish mayor — who might be accused of bias vis-a-vis the Middle East — will feel more constrained about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Wolfe, though, suggested that a Jewish mayor would “have a little more leeway” on Israel, as voters probably expect him to support for the Jewish state, and endorse that support as part of his entire package.
“If people look at it as a conflict of interest, then he should stand up against it,” Wolfe said. “If a Jewish mayor is voted in, he’s also being voted in for who he is.”
A non-Jewish voter, though, said that while he expects the next mayor to take an enhanced role in foreign affairs, the mayor must keep in mind that he represents all New Yorkers.
“The stakes are now so much higher,” said Alex Manette, a 32-year-old actor who voted for Bloomberg because of his business expertise.
“It’s important for the mayor to have a voice, but his personal biases needs to be put aside,” Manette said. “Whoever gets into office will have to find that fine line of what to say, what not to say.”
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.