Naturally, all the Democrat candidates for mayor tried to score points with the mostly Orthodox audience at a debate sponsored by the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition earlier this week.
But Anthony Weiner and Jon Liu seemed to be the most over the top in trying to connect.
The Jewish ex-congressman turned comeback hopeful greeted people with “Shalom aleichems,” on two occasions referred to “shekels” instead of dollars, threw in an Eretz Yisrael or two and used his standard remark about understanding the Orthodox community “in his kishkes.”
For good measure, he ticked off his fight as a councilman to remove parking meters from outside a mikvah and his support of Israel spy Jonathan Pollard and kosher meat king turned federal felon Shalom Rubashkin.
Notable, considering the question he was answering at the time was about making sure the outer boroughs get their share of city funding.
Not to be outdone, Liu, the city comptroller, noted how much he enjoyed knadels, an ethnic staple of note lately thanks to a spelling bee controversy, and quipped that he’d soon weigh in on the matter, following a careful study.
Liu also promised to visit Brooklyn matzo bakeries before Passover, cited his family’s immigrant success story and his mother's Jewish-like disappointment that he didn’t go to medical school. Toward the end, the Taiwan-born Liu even addressed the audience in Hebrew, wishing them “chazak v’emet,” strength and truth.
On a more serious note, Liu took perhaps the most harshest stance on the metzeitza b’peh (MBP) circumcision consent decree controversy, blasting Mayor Michael Bloomberg as an arrogant billionaire who deigns to tell religious people who to live their lives. “This has been working for thousands of years,” he said. “I say, let’s leave it to the rabbis.” (Huge applause line.) He warned that successfully regulating MBP would embolden those trying to ban circumcision altogether.
Weiner also blasted the city’s action but took it one step further, evoking a municipal war on religion: “I’m a liberal, but I believe there is a liberal elitist condescension when it comes to religion in our city. We don’t just see it in the frum community. When churches wanted to use public school buildings, the city fought them tooth and nail …”
Weiner misjudged the audience only once, when the candidates were asked to cite their political hero. He cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt, garnering some boos from the audience, evidently forgetting that FDR is remembered as having little interest in saving Jews from the Nazi death machine.
He recovered his footing in a subsequent question, saying his role model as mayor would be the far more popular Ed Koch. Liu got silence when he said “David Dinkins.”
On most issues Liu, Weiner and the other candidates were in general agreement; increasing public aid to parochial schools, (mostly drawing the line at funding the instruction of math and reading), restoring vouchers for child care that largely benefit the Orthodox, cutting down on fees and fines that infringe on small busines. allowing federal relief funds to reach damaged synagogues. Council Speaker Christine Quinn was the only one to say the MBP consent decree properly balanced health and religious concerns, though she joined in blaming the mayor’s tactics.
Former Comptroller William Thompson, who grew up in a home frequented by so many Jewish politicians that his family dabbled in Yiddish, laid off the mamaloshen and instead touted his long working relationship with prominent people in the room. Thompson scored some applause and perhaps some votes when he answered the hero question by citing his dad, William Sr.
Rev. Eric Selgado also chose wisely with Moses.
Former Councilman Sal Albanese dropped no names or Yiddishisms, but showed up with a yarmulke emblazoned with his full name in Hebrew; overkill, since the forum was in a public school.
When you think about it, Weiner, 48 and Liu, 46, have more in common than just a fervent desire to court The Tribe.
Both are trying to work past scandals: In Liu’s case, the federal investigation into unreported bundling and the use of straw donors by his fundraisers; In Weiner’s case, the TMI Tweet Seen Around The World.
Both have first names that defy their ethnicity, as well as ties to Queens, where Liu grew up and Weiner, until recently, lived and worked.
And, like the other candidates they need to come up with fresh ideas to cultivate the diverse ethnic coalition needed to capture City Hall.
In an interview with The Jewish Week prior to the debate Weiner said he’d appoint a “non-profit czar” as a liaison between yeshivas and other community organizations, including those “that are feeding our children and trying to get us out of the silos of responsibility that sometimes make it difficult to help some of the good programs that are going on.”
Whatever that means.
He added “I would not have sat idly by and let 63 parish [Catholic] schools around the city close in the last several years. I would have done everything I could to make sure those important institutions stay open.”
Asked about his relationship with his mentor, Sen. Charles Schumer, which is said to be strained since Weiner’s fall from grace, Weiner said “I’d be nowhere without him. He’s my inspiration.” When pressed, he said “I’m in the same process with every elected official. I’ve gotta earn their faith and confidence, too.”
Should Weiner become the Democrat nominee, he may eventually face attack ads featuring footage of the many interviews in 2011 in which he lied about his Twitter account being hacked. Asked how he felt he could withstand that, he said it was fair game.
“Honestly, people are aware of my personal failings, I’ve talked about it and if people want to talk about it some more I’ll answer the questions,” Weiner said. “But I’m going to try to keep looking forward and try to talk about issues important to the middle class.”
Perhaps the best weapon Weiner has at his disposal is his sense of humor about himself. While he can become testy when pressed too much on his failings, he also tries to disarm critics. At a forum sponsored by The Jewish Press, when someone cited positive tweets trending about Weiner, he quipped “You know how much I trust Twitter.”
At the Flatbush forum, when each candidate was asked to provide a single word description, Bill de Blasio said he hoped he was a mensch. Quinn said she was tough. Bill Thompson cited his integrity, while Selgado dubbed himself a warrior.
“Shy,” said Weiner.
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