Choice, gun issues tip Jewish vote in N.J. gubernatorial

WHIPPANY, N.J. — Many attribute the overwhelming percentage of Jewish votes for gubernatorial victor Democrat Jim McGreevey to his support for issues such abortion rights, gun control and public school education. But they also ascribe to him positive Yiddish terms, believing that his genuineness also played a role in his election.

McGreevey, the 44-year-old mayor of Woodbridge, "is a mensch of all seasons," said Golan Cipel, the director of Jewish outreach for the McGreevey campaign. "I think the fact that Jews voted for Jim in such large numbers shows they feel he is close to the Jewish community and shares its values. It's not just the result of recent days. He has a long relationship with the community."

In Virginia, another Democrat, Mark Warner, also won the gubernatorial race. A New Jersey Jewish News exit poll for governor conducted by Zogby International found that 70.8 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for McGreevey and 27.2 percent voted for GOP opponent Bret Schundler. Among Jewish women, 74.2 percent voted for McGreevey, who had the votes of 67.5 percent of Jewish men.

Seen in the context of prior statewide elections, the Democratic win is significant. Four years ago, when McGreevey lost by 1 percent to incumbent Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the GOP candidate garnered approximately 40 percent of the Jewish vote. And last year in the race for U.S. Senate between successful Democratic candidate Jon Corzine and GOP hopeful Bob Franks, the Jewish community gave the Democrat only a modest majority.

The difference between this year's elections and the prior ones was that while Whitman and Franks are moderate Republicans who consider themselves "socially progressive and fiscally conservative," Schundler, the 42-year-old former mayor of Jersey City, represented the conservative wing of the Republican Party. He is against abortion except when the life of the mother is endangered, he said he would sign a "conceal carry" weapons bill and he is a strong proponent of school vouchers.

Larry Lerner, chair of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey's Jewish Community Relations Council, said the election results in the Jewish community did not surprise him. "McGreevey took over the center," he said.

Robert Bildner, a trustee for the United Jewish Federation of MetroWest, said, "Schundler's social views are out of line with most Jews in the community on issues like choice and gun control, which came across as extreme."

State Sen. John Adler said, "The Jewish vote probably mirrors the overall New Jersey vote regarding the repudiation of Mayor Schundler's more extreme positions and the embracing of Mayor McGreevey's more inclusive positions on guns, abortion, and the emphasis on property taxes. I think McGreevey swayed most Jewish and gentile voters."

While many people in the Orthodox community support vouchers and do not consider themselves pro-choice, the majority of Orthodox voters nonetheless did not pull the voting booth handle for Schundler. Former New Jersey U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg said that in his opinion, "Fundamentally the Jewish community does not like to lose the right to choose even if there is a strong Orthodox belief against it."

In Lerner's opinion, Schundler hoped — and needed — to get the Orthodox Jewish vote on the voucher issue, but "he lost it on the gun issue."

Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, a Chabad rabbi who runs the Chabad program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, acknowledged that "there are some issues" of dissent between McGreevey and the Orthodox community, "but if you take the package, there is no question. I know Mr. McGreevey for 15 years. He has been a friend of the Jews, a supporter of Israel — his record is sterling. Every event we ever asked him to attend he did."

Other issues of importance to Jewish community voters were McGreevey's support for senior citizens, public schools and Holocaust education.

McGreevey's support for Holocaust education "created a comfort level and a relationship with Jewish leadership throughout the state," said David Mallach, director of the Community Relations Committee of the United Jewish Federation of MetroWest. He added that the "McGreevey campaign took the Jewish community very seriously."

Republican activist Alan Steinberg of West Orange said, "Obviously, I'm not happy with the results." While he called Schundler an ohev Yisrael, a friend of the Jewish community, he believes that Schundler's record of friendship and of going the extra mile for the Jewish community was counterbalanced by his strong stand against abortion.

"I think in certain segments of the Jewish community which tend to be very ardently pro-choice, that was a factor going against Bret."