Election conference speakers say dont ignore Jewish voting power

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Jews account for 2.4 percent of the American population. They are 5 percent of the voters. And when congregated in concentrated areas like California and New York, the Jewish bloc equals between 8 or 9 percent of the vote.

Perhaps this is why "it's no secret that, at least anecdotally, Jews are sought out by [political] candidates," says Larry Gerston, professor of political science at San Jose State University.

"The Jewish vote is weighted. And our numbers have the potential to impact elections," he added.

In light of that data, and in hopes of getting the South Bay Jewish community involved in the election not only as voters but also as political activists, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater San Jose is convening its first political conference.

"Election '96: The Nuts and Bolts of Politics" will be held 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos.

"The 1994 elections brought a lot of changes which impact the Jewish community: immigration law, welfare reform, the religious right," said Karen Watts, conference coordinator. "People are feeling the result of these legislative changes and [the South Bay] area decided to mobilize."

More than a dozen speakers are scheduled, including Gerston; Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward); Jessica Braverman, political field director of the Northern California chapter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer; John Vidovich, chair of the Republican Party of Santa Clara County; and Rabbi Melanie Aron of Los Gatos Congregation Shir Hadash.

Morning and afternoon workshops address topics such as "Party Politics in California," "Grassroots Activism" and "Effective Advocacy."

Helyn Meshar, lobbyist with the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, concludes the conference with an overview of candidates and initiatives on the November ballot.

Topping her list are health care and campaign reform ballots and the California Civil Rights Initiative. Other political issues include welfare reform and slashed federal funding for nonprofit agencies.

In addition, Meshar plans to preach the gospel of education and political participation.

"People really need to be educated on the issues. They need to be educated about the candidates and their platforms. They should be interested as individuals and as a community," Meshar said.

Despite the fact that Jews vote in higher numbers proportionally than the general population, Meshar said, statistics show that "voting among Jews nationwide is slipping. Less are registered.

"We used to talk about our community being only as strong as the weakest link. We have to make sure there are no weak links. The Jewish community needs to be active and participate in community activities and the business of government on state and local levels."

Gerston acknowledged that Jewish voting patterns are changing "somewhat," but not as much as people think.

"The only `automatic' vote anymore is the black vote. Ninety-two percent of black voters vote Democratic," he said. "Other than that, the Hispanic vote has crumbled. The Asian vote is divided. If you look over the last 20 years, Jews aren't as cohesive as they were in the past. But we're still more cohesive than others."

Meanwhile, it's Meshar's job to encourage activity among Jews by working with JCRCs across the state. In addition, she represents the organized community in Sacramento.

"We maintain a relationship with the governor's office. We sponsored a resolution calling Congress to promote the peace process and do whatever was necessary to stop the bus bombings," Meshar said. "We work with Jewish members of the legislature to mark Holocaust remembrances."

The Jewish community's concerns "run the whole gamut, from hate crimes to religious discrimination" in schools and in the workplace, she said.

"We need to be vigilant in terms of making sure Jews" are represented.