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With 46 days to go before special mayoral elections decide who will hold Givatayim's top job, the first candidate in the race, Kadima's Reuven Ben-Shachar, was formally announced at a Tuesday morning press conference.
"These elections will decide what Givatayim will look like for the next seven years," announced Ben-Shachar, who has served as deputy mayor since 2004, "and I hope the residents of Givatayim will give me this opportunity."
The election, which marks Kadima's first municipal race, is being watched by many to see whether the Kadima brand still wins over voters following the party's loss of former prime minister Ariel Sharon to illness, and the events of the past summer. Though the party cannot support Ben-Shachar financially for legal reasons, it is lending its wholehearted political support, including the campaign slogan: "Reuven Ben-Shachar will lead Givatayim forward." ("Kadima" means "forward.")
To see to it that the race is run vigorously and well, prime ministerial advisor and public relations icon Eyal Arad, one of the architects of the party, will be personally overseeing the campaign.
In laying out the assumptions underlying the campaign, Arad noted that Givatayim residents overwhelmingly were satisfied with outgoing Mayor Effi Stenzler's term in office. However, he added, "the public feels that Givatayim hasn't moved forward" in comparison with the cities around it, including neighboring Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan.
Givatayim poses a significant challenge for any new party as it has elected a Labor candidate and supported Labor in national elections for decades. However, the Labor Party in the city finds itself divided in a bitter contest for the candidacy between Acting Mayor Iris Avraham and Pinny Edri. While Edri is said to control the activists in the field, Avraham is popular in the party machine and has managed to prevent a Labor primary, increasing significantly her chances of winning the candidacy within the party institution.
or Kadima strategists, the bitter feuding within Labor, along with the perception in the city that Kadima represents the centrist position - Givatayim followed Shimon Peres to Kadima in the last national election - means their candidate stands a good chance of breaking the Labor legacy.
"The public is mainly looking for an experienced manager," Arad continued, "since they see the job of mayor as that of a municipal CEO, and they want him to be involved in the smallest details of running the city." This was Ben-Shachar's advantage, the candidate said at the press conference. He is a reserve major in the IDF, has served as a department head at the Jewish Agency, a shaliah in charge of student activities for the Jewish Agency in North America, and the manager of a sales company for ten years. And it is this managerial experience, he explained, that he hopes to turn into Kadima's first municipal victory.
The heart of the campaign is Ben-Shachar's four-point plan: "renewal" of some 30 streets in the small town; improving the educational system in the city which has lagged behind those of nearby municipalities; establishing a citizens' security patrol that will work to keep the public areas safe from "gangs that come from outside the city," and upgrading residents' access to municipal services.
The campaign's war chest is severely limited by draconian legal restrictions that govern special local elections. By law, the candidates can only run as individuals, not party candidates, and the national parties are forbidden from assisting a candidate financially. The candidates' fundraising is further constrained by a donation cap of NIS 5,000 per household.
"This will be an efficient and minimalist campaign," predicted Arad. "The practical limitations of the law mean that no candidate will be able to raise more than a few hundred thousand shekels." To overcome the financial limitations, Ben-Shachar's campaign will focus on mobilizing volunteers, according to campaign chief of staff Uri Ohad, who boasted that even before getting into full swing, the campaign already had "hundreds of volunteers" forming groups and spreading the campaign message.
For Ohad, a veteran campaign manager of Ra'anana Mayor Nahum Hofri and himself a city councilman in Petah Tikvah, "I measure the chances of success not by the number of political activists who show up regularly, but by how many new faces I see [during the campaign]."
To boost his "general manager" image, Ben-Shachar has also brought to the campaign self-described "technocrat" Yoel Ifergen, who has served as a regional supervisor in the Ministry for Environmental Quality, a principal of a high school and runs several programs for disadvantaged schoolchildren in some of the country's most difficult areas, including south Tel Aviv, Or Akiva and elsewhere.
"Some 30 percent of Givatayim's high schoolers don't finish their bagrut (matriculation exams)," Ifergen told The Jerusalem Post.
As a senior advisor to the mayoral hopeful on issues of education and environmental protection, he said, "One of our central missions will be dealing with these problematic kids. We will focus on core curriculum subjects [needed for the bagrut]."
According to Ifergen: "When the mayor wants it, you can close the gaps. You can take some 300 high schoolers and give them a program that will offer them the entry ticket into Israeli society, the bagrut."
The election follows the retirement of Effi Stenzler after he was appointed as the new chairman of the Jewish National Fund.
On Thursday Labor will announce their candidate
The victor in the race will be mayor for only two years before facing a new election for the next five-year term. But, as one Ben-Shachar advisor told the Post, the expectation is that "whoever wins now will win in 2008 as well."
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