Republican strategists are taking direct aim at a traditional Democratic Jewish stronghold – Northern New Jersey ““ with Israel and a sagging economy acting as their weapons of choice to woo voters into the GOP camp in 2012. Bergen County is home to approximately 100,000 Jews.
The full-court press kicks off on Tuesday, Sept. 20, as the recently formed Northern New Jersey chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) hosts a candidates’ forum at the Jewish Center of Teaneck. The program is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.
Anecdotal evidence shows that the Jewish vote in some Northern New Jersey communities, such as Teaneck, Englewood and Fair Lawn, has been trending to the right in recent years. Local GOP party activists see that expanding in 2012. They say that growing disappointment in President Obama by Jewish voters is the catalyst that will generate more Republicans votes in local contests as well in the national election.
The new Republican Jewish Coalition chapter is aggressively courting Jewish voters. Leaders of the RJC say they perceive widespread disenchantment with what they say is the president’s lack of support for Israel and his weak performance on the economy. They hope to use the forum to demonstrate how their local candidates offer a better alternative.
Local reaction was mixed.
Dr. Deane Penn of Englewood, who labels himself an independent, welcomes the advent of the local RJC chapter because, he said, “it would bring more open discussion of the issues confronting Israel, thus leading to a better understanding of this complex problem of defining borders for a peace treaty.”
He does not necessarily agree that a national standard-bearer’s views on Israel would translate into votes on a local level, however. “I have supported and hosted Democrats and Republicans,” Penn said, “and I would support the best local, state or national candidate, without reference to their party affiliation.”
Not so, said Rabbi Mark Karasick of Teaneck. He believes that “coattails work both ways.” Jewish voters, he said, need to “react with their brains” in the 2012 election and focus on how the president “embarrassed Israel”: repeatedly over the last three years. “You can’t just vote Democratic,” he said.
“I think there is a perfect opportunity for the Republican Party to make strides in this area,” agreed Gary Glaser of Oradell. “The disenchantment with the Democrats I think is overwhelming. People were sold a bill of goods by a real smooth-talking Democrat who really knows nothing about real life and just thinks the government should control everyone by spending money that is not there.”
Glaser also agreed that there will be local fallout. “The local Democratic party just follows what the national party wants them to do,” he said. “There are too many ‘old-time politicians.’ There needs to be new people in politics, the kind of people who listen to their voter base and just have common sense.”
On the other hand, Jay Nadel of Demarest did not believe an expanded RJC presence would make much of a difference in the area. “My prediction is that Obama will receive a majority of the Jewish vote,” he said. As for what the impact of the national Jewish vote would be on local races, Nadel quoted former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., who quipped, “all politics is local.”
“As we saw in what just took place in Brooklyn, anything can happen on a local basis,” Nadel added. He was referring to the loss of a Democratic House seat in a special election held in New York on Tuesday.
The discussion at the Jewish Center of Teaneck will feature candidates for State Senate and Assembly, including Robert Lebovics and Keith Jensen, District 37 candidates for State Senate and Assembly respectively, and Sara Rosengarten, who is running for State Assembly in District 36. All three are facing incumbent Democrats. (See the box on this page for a rundown of the two districts and who currently represents them.)
The evening will be moderated by Heather Robinson, assistant editor of The Jewish Standard, who is currently on leave. It will focus on education, property taxes, and the economy.
The time has come for the Jewish community to support Republican candidates, said Greg Menken, regional director of the RJC. “More and more people are feeling that President Obama has failed Israel,” Menken told The Jewish Standard. “As a result, the 2012 election will be the most important election that we’ve had in a long time. We’re trying to attack Northern New Jersey so that we can make sure people are paying attention and are informed of the issues.”
Jensen, running in District 37, said the time is ripe for North Jersey residents to begin voting Republican. “People are fed up with high property taxes and inequities in school funding,” he said. “People want less regulation, more jobs and above all lower taxes.”
Jensen said the state school funding formula now in place is not working. It punishes students and taxpayers in Bergen County, he said, “and throws billions of dollars on poor-performing school districts that have shown little sign of progress.”
Lebovics, a physician who is challenging State Senator Loretta Weinberg, calls himself a “radical centrist who believes in fiscal responsibility, public safety, education reform, government transparency and is socially moderate.”
District 37, he said, does not receive its fair share of its own tax dollars for its public schools. “Our tax dollars leave Bergen County to pay for bloated inefficient schools statewide,” he said, “while our property taxes have to be raised year after year to make up for the shortfall.”
Lebovics believes that all school alternatives should be explored including charter schools and vouchers.
District 36 State Assembly candidate Rosengarten said New Jersey residents are at a breaking point. “They know that the status quo is financially unsustainable, taxes are too high, and they are tired of government waste,” she said in an interview. “Democrats are content with the same old policies of no growth economics, and voters know that the current policies must be changed.”
As she sees it, the hot issues for North Jersey Jews are the ever increasing taxes and the high costs of education, said Rosengarten. “Many Jewish families send their children to private school, yet they pay property taxes for public education which affords them little to no benefit,” she said. “The state needs real solutions, such as lowering the cap on property tax increases, and instituting a school voucher program. With these measures, we will make New Jersey more affordable and ensure the quality education that our children deserve.”
While the Republicans claimed to have the answers, Larry Stempler, a New Jersey Democratic activist and a board member of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said he did not believe voters would be swayed by the GOP rhetoric.
“As long as Republicans keep on supporting candidates like [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry and [Rep. Michelle] Bachman, Obama will still have the support of the majority of the Jewish community,” said Stempler.
“Jews will still vote overwhelmingly with Obama and with the Democrats in general as they recognize [that] the social policies advanced comport with their issues and that Israel has a very strong supporter in this administration.”
Regarding support for Israel, he cited such things as joint military operations; the Obama administration’s announced veto in the U.N. Security Council of the expected Palestinian statehood resolution; numerous statements made by Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren; and last weekend’s remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly thanking President Obama for U.S. help in evacuating Israeli diplomats from Cairo.
No matter a voter’s plans, however, it is essential to hear out both sides, said moderator Robinson. “It’s good to hear ideas across the political spectrum. People have been down on their elected officials lately, but I think that in a lot of ways people get the leaders they deserve. You can’t complain if you didn’t educate yourself about the issues.”
The event is free of charge. Refreshments will be served.