Clinton campaign marches to haredi Brooklyn beat

Both Democratic candidates seen as 'foreign' to the ultra-Orthodox.

Hillary Clinton 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hillary Clinton 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign descended on Brooklyn Sunday, ahead of Tuesday's crucial primary, to turn out the Jewish vote. But before they could take to the streets, accompanied by some of the leading figures in the haredi community, they had to modify their approach to appeal to the ultra-Orthodox constituency. First, female campaign staffers had to be sent to the back of the line of marchers so that there would not be any untoward mixing of the sexes. And then volunteers wearing Hebrew Hillary pins worked fast to remove the blue Stars of David stuck on their signs, lest they be confused with Israeli flags, a definite no-no in the anti-Zionist Satmar enclave. New York politicians and Satmar rabbis then walked through the streets of the Williamsburg neighborhood urging residents to back Clinton. With the senator's support slipping nationally and competitor Barack Obama popular in Brooklyn, the Clinton campaign wants to make sure Orthodox voters head to the polls. "Tuesday's primary day. Vote for Hillary Clinton," US Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-New York) shouted through a bullhorn. The Satmar leaders who participated in Sunday's march needed little convincing to go with Clinton, who represents New York in the US Senate. "Her track record shows that she has been very good to the Jewish community and that's why we support her," said the Yiddish-accented Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg. He listed her work providing help to large families with special needs and funding to protect Jewish institutions following September 11 among other issues that gained her the community's favor. And a recent endorsement in Der Blatt, a newspaper representing about half of the split Satmar community, also mentioned her support in preserving Jewish cemeteries in Europe and securing aid for the community. But Niederman acknowledged that there would be challenges in getting out the vote for Clinton, including the large number of registered Republicans in the community and, because this is the first time the New York primary vote has been so early and crucial in the process, a lack of preparation. Backers also expressed concern that New Yorkers would assume that Clinton would win and wouldn't bother to show up to vote. "I know what Williamsburg can do when we set our minds to it. This is one vote where we need to set out minds to it, because it is so close," City Councilman David Yassky, who represents the neighborhood, told the Satmar officials at a meeting before the march. Sitting amid sacred books and Hebrew writing, the group paused to note a simcha - the engagement of Niederman's son - before heading out to the streets. The march was an attempt to raise awareness and rally support, but many Williamsburg residents indicated Sunday that they were unaware of the Satmar leaders' endorsement of Clinton. Several also evinced skepticism about the candidate. One haredi woman did tell The Jerusalem Post that she would vote for "whomever I'm told to vote for," but another woman said she wouldn't support Clinton under any condition, citing her displeasure with the Clinton White House of the 1990s. And some observers said the candidate shouldn't count on heavy haredi support for her presidential candidacy, though Clinton is widely seen as more popular among Jews than other candidates. While Orthodox Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a longtime friend of Clinton's, said that he supported her work in the Senate, he added he would not be taking time to return from Albany to cast a vote in the primary on her behalf. "I'm not that enthusiastic to rush back to vote for one or the other," said Hikind. "With Clinton, it's the old story. What does she really believe in? She is measuring how the wind is blowing. He also said that many in the Orthodox community had not forgotten Clinton's kissing Suha Arafat while she was first lady. "They can't get over the kiss, which is ridiculous in my view." And one Orthodox Brooklyn councilman, Simcha Felder, has said that he would be voting for Obama in "protest" of the racially-tinged tactics employed by the Clinton campaign in South Carolina last month. But Felder's backing of Obama is unusual, and in no way a sign that the Orthodox are flocking to the Illinois senator. In fact, the Clinton campaign is trying to reach Orthodox voters in part to offset votes in predominantly African American congressional districts on primary day. Obama, a freshman senator, is relatively unknown in Orthodox New York circles, particularly among the haredim. He has largely depended on the mainstream media to introduce him to voters - a disadvantage in a constituency cut off from television and other secular media sources. "What America gets excitement from, they are disconnected from. They don't get impressed by Obama's [oratory], because they don't read English, don't consume it," said one haredi voter who asked not to be identified. As a result, he predicted low voter turnout in a community that is organized and can turn out in large numbers if directed to. "When Hilary ran again [for Senate], she came in very strong, everybody likes her," he said. "There is no issue with her being [in the] Senate, but people are not enthusiastic about her presidential campaign." He attributed the lack of enthusiasm in part to a lack of comfort with either Democratic candidate, adding that culturally it did not sit well with the haredim that Clinton was a woman. "There is no excitement, maybe, because both candidates are culturally foreign to the people... She's a woman, and he's black," he said. A Clinton supporter at Sunday's march wondered, with women at the back, where the candidate would stand if she herself were there. Still, Niederman didn't think that was an issue, nor was the candidate's support for the State of Israel - though social issues such as gay rights, he said, could cause some fall-off. "I didn't hear a big movement [away from her] because she's a woman," Niederman said. Weiner said, "I don't think there is any gap between the community and Clinton on these issues." Referring to Sunday's march, he added, "She would have walked at the head."