Metro Views: A case of Jewish anxiety

It seems Jewish voters are more at ease with candidates who like Jews than with Jewish candidates.

spitzer gapes like fish  (photo credit: )
spitzer gapes like fish
(photo credit: )
Eliot Spitzer, the New York governor once widely thought to have the best shot to be the first Jewish president of the US, had not even resigned before New York Jewish political and communal officials began praising his successor. The lieutenant-governor, David Paterson, a black legislator from Harlem, is due to take office tomorrow, filling the three years remaining on Spitzer's term. The governor resigned in disgrace last Wednesday, two days after it was revealed that he was "Client 9" in a tony prostitution ring that, authorities allege, was run by a man named Mark Brener, a long-time US resident with an Israeli passport. Before he was elected governor in November 2006, Spitzer made his reputation as an extremely aggressive attorney-general who relished corruption cases. He referred to himself, in expletive-laced language, as a steamroller; he was called the "sheriff of Wall Street." Time magazine once labeled him "crusader of the year." He seemed to enjoy embarrassing those his office prosecuted. Those who thought Mayor Rudy Giuliani was combative should have seen Spitzer in action. Giuliani made the transition from prosecutor to politician; Spitzer did not. So when he was, so to speak, caught with his pants down, Spitzer had a long list of enemies who were absolutely gleeful that the so-called ethical crusader had gotten his comeuppance. He has been shamed, big time. His political career is over, and there is a chance that this wealthy, Harvard-educated lawyer will be disbarred: not for using about $80,000 worth of call girl services, but for manipulating the financial transactions to hide the payments from his family. There have been no allegations of corruption. I ABSOLUTELY do not condone or defend his personal behavior. Politically, I think Spitzer lacked the temperament to be a good governor. But before we disavow him entirely, it is worth recalling that he did what an attorney-general was supposed to do: zealously enforce the law. Arguably, he did it better than most of his predecessors. In 2004, The New York Observer, the weekly newspaper of the high and mighty, said in an editorial: "Mr. Spitzer probably has done more to stabilize the state's finances in the last few years than any other elected official. By refusing to look the other way as CEOs and financial institutions ripped off New Yorkers, he helped bail out the state during a difficult budget crisis." Spitzer tackled price-fixing by computer-chip manufacturers. His office uncovered $50 million in royalties owed to musicians by record companies. He forced investment banks and brokerage houses to pay $1.4 billion in compensation and fines, and to institute reforms in the securities industry. And, in a crusade beloved by mere mortals who earn average incomes, Spitzer charged that Dick Grasso had violated his position when, as the chairman of the non-profit New York Stock Exchange, he received excessive compensation: $187.5 million. Spitzer didn't have sacred cows. He scrutinized previously untouchable Jewish institutions. He nearly brought the World Jewish Congress to its knees by exposing financial lapses that ultimately ended the prestige and power of the WJC's long-time professional head, Israel Singer. And he found serious financial irregularities at the National Council of Young Israel that started with, of all things, a mortgage application for a National Council nursing home. IN THE DAYS after every American national election - and this November will be no different - there's a two-part ritual in the Jewish community: a tally of how many Jews won their campaigns and questions about whether this is good for the Jews. There's a certain pride with each Jewish electoral victory, as well as a hint of anxiety that if the candidate flounders, Jews may be blamed for it, or tarnished by it. Jewish anxiety seemed evident in the last few days of Spitzer's political life. State politicians expressed sympathy for Spitzer's family and a desire to return to the business of government. Wall Street had a merry morning on the day of the governor's resignation because the man who held the Street accountable had his own explaining to do. There was virtual silence from the Jewish community about the man who was supposed to be their first serious presidential contender, Senator Joe Lieberman notwithstanding. It seems that Jewish voters often are more at ease with candidates who like Jews than with candidates who are Jewish. (That is why, when one out of every four of its residents was a Jew, no Jew could get elected mayor of New York City. That barrier was only broken with the election of Abe Beame in 1974 - the diminutive accountant who rescued the city from the brink of bankruptcy - when Jews were no longer one out of every four.) As for Paterson, no doubt the Jewish community will have a fine relationship with him. He has addressed a Hadassah convention, visited Israel and met with President Shimon Peres. Paterson is a peacemaker, whereas no one would accuse Spitzer of being warm and fuzzy. Whether Paterson is a good governor remains to be seen. What probably matters most to the Jews is that he is not Jewish. So if the first black governor of New York is caught with his hand in the till or his pants around his ankles, it won't be bad for the Jews.