Posted on April 06, 1992 in Washington Watch

Every presidential campaign views New York as a major hurdle to get over. Nowhere else in America is politics so intense, so nasty, and so complex.

New York state has a population of 18 million. More than 12 million people live in New York City and its immediate New York suburbs. One and one half million are Jews and another two million are African Americans.

It is the tension between these two communities that has added new complexity to New York politics in recent years. The source of this conflict is not simply race or religion, as some suggest. It is a struggle for political power, especially for the power to define the agenda and leadership of the Democratic Party.

In the old days candidates came to New York and, in addition to their other campaigning, made special appeals for the support of the Jewish community. Over time these appeals took the form of unqualified support for Israel. One need only remember the 1984 campaign when two of the Democratic candidates, Gary Hart and Walter Mondale, attempted to ‘out-Israel’ one another by pledging to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and blocking arms sales to Arab countries.

While some in the Jewish community were pleased by this attention as a sign of their clout in the Democratic party, others voiced concern over the Jews being defined as a single-issue constituency.

Some politicians privately viewed this exercise with a sense of distaste and dread. The national press and policy analysts have reacted with a sense of embarrassment and disdain, referring to this political pandering to the New York Jewish community as “doing the New York thing.”

The practice has continued despite these facts. But some changes have been occurring under the surface of New York politics, and they deserve scrutiny.


In 1984, when Jesse Jackson announced for President, he had both a ideological and political agenda for American politics. It is his political agenda that concerns us here, since he was primarily concerned with building black political power in the United States. Jackson was convinced that a strong presidential campaign could inspire African Americans to vote and run for and win elective office. He specifically focused his efforts in the South where a large number of African Americans live, and in major urban centers where African Americans are frequently the majority of the population.

In his two presidential campaigns Jackson achieved his goal. In the wake of those campaigns African Americans won mayoral races in several cities (including New York City), a governorship (in Virginia) and the chairmanship of the Democratic Party.

In fact, a little-known fact is that in New York City where the Jews had always been the single largest voting bloc, they were eclipsed in 1984 and 1988 by African Americans. In 1988 the African American vote was 35% of the Democratic vote in New York City while the Jewish vote had fallen to 29%.

The goal of Jackson and those African American leaders in New York who supported him was to create a political situation where politicians could not ignore the African American vote, and would in fact have to come to New York to court the African American vote.

This struggle for representation and power has exacerbated tension between the African American and Jewish constituencies in New York City, especially since much of the young nationalist leadership in the African American community has developed ties to the Arab American community, some have embraced Islam and many have developed an overall third-world political perspective. So the issues that divide the African American and Jewish communities are not only control or power in the Democratic Party but also the foreign policy agenda of the United States.

Even without running this year, Jesse Jackson loomed large in the New York race and his impact was felt in a number of other ways: in the black vote, the focus of the domestic agenda, and the Middle East as well.


The two remaining Democratic presidential candidates, former California Governor Jerry Brown and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton came to New York this week to do battle before the April 7 primary.

It is interesting to note that before their arrival in the city, nationally syndicated columnist Richard Cohen wrote an article urging the candidates to appear presidential and, in effect, not do the “New York thing.” Specifically addressing the danger that Clinton might “pander” to the Jewish voters, Cohen wrote:

“New York could turn out to be a test for Clinton in more ways than one. [test] of a presidential nature—is how he’s going to handle the pressure to concoct a foreign policy to please certain New York voters. Those who wonder whether Bill Clinton has the mettle to look a constituency in the eye and say no will be watching.”

Clinton, the presumed front-runner, came to New York bleeding from scandals and three consecutive losses to Brown in Connecticut, Vermont and Alaska. While Clinton had done well before with Jewish and African American voters in the South and Midwest, he was losing some of those votes to Brown. Brown had announced Jesse Jackson as his first choice for Vice President and had hit Clinton hard for his stance on capital punishment, playing golf at an all-white country club in Arkansas (a major issue to African Americans who remember the days of racial segregation in the South), and his generally more conservative views on economic policy.

Before New York, Clinton’s Middle East position had been carefully crafted to show balance. While supporting loan guarantees to Israel, he also called for conditions. He called Israeli settlements “obstacles to peace” but criticized George Bush for too much public pressure on Israel, preferring quiet diplomacy.

Even while campaigning in Florida, which also has a large proportion of Jewish votes, Clinton didn’t stop noting that “settlements were obstacle to peace.”

Brown was wary of going to New York and dealing with Israel, “a hot button issue”, as he called it before going to the city. Brown, as noted, has been gaining ground since winning Connecticut on March 24. His “angry at politics-as-usual” message has won him increasing support among well-educated white Democrats. His support for traditional Democratic principles has won him labor union support, and his adoption of Jesse Jackson has won him black support.

Of all the candidates, Brown has been the most critical of Israel. At a presidential candidates’ debate in Colorado he stated: “I’ve supported and I do support the loan guarantees, but…anyone who doesn’t acknowledge the fact that this furious settlement pace is going to undermine the peace process and make any kind of lasting solution impossible is just not facing the facts as they are. ...We need a policy of realism that recognizes that Israel is an ally and a friend and that we stand behind her security and even her military superiority, but at the same time, the people who live in the West Bank and the Gaza, that those are human beings; they have their rights and their interests and their dignity, and we have to respect that. Israel has to respect that, and if we’re going to have a peace process that’s going to go anywhere, it has to have that capacity to allow for both security of all parties and all people and fairness.”

Before the Arab community and the national media in Detroit, Michigan he stated that “Israeli settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace” and that he would do nothing to lend support to the government of Yitzhak Shamir.

Once in New York, both Clinton and Brown tailored their Middle East positions, but Clinton easily scored the highest on the “pander meter”. Clinton, at times, attempted to be presidential and present a balanced position that ruled out a discussion of either settlements or Palestinian statehood, saying “I won’t discuss that until these peace talks are over.”

When the Jewish community found that too vague and demanded assurances, the Clinton campaign gave in to the pressure three hours later and issued a clarification. Clinton was “unable to hear the question” they argued, and added that his fuller view was that, “I am opposed to the creation of an independent Palestinian state. I believe, however, that during the peace talks, the U.S. President should not be taking positions on subjects in the talks such as the settlements and the precise form which Palestinian rights should take.” Further, “The word ‘obstacle to peace’ has become a buzzword. It’s a phrase laden with baggage that I don’t know that I want to carry around in this meeting or through the rest of this campaign or as president of the United States.”

It is interesting to note that it took three hours, indicating the seriousness with which the took their effort to appear presidential and balanced. It is also interesting that they also eventually did accede to the pressure to do “the New York thing.”

The next day Clinton made a major foreign policy address to the Jewish community and vigorously attacked the Bush-Baker approach by saying: “I’m concerned that this administration in its eagerness apparently to impose a peace settlement, instead of the process that it rightfully deserves credit for getting started, has all but destroyed the relationship which has historically existed between the United States and Israel.” Regarding Bush and Baker’s public criticisms of Israel, Clinton charged, “This Administration has ever so subtly broken down the taboo of overt anti-Semitism. ...No matter what happens in this peace process, in the end, Israel will still be the only Democracy in the Middle East. We will still have a relationship that still has to be repaired and that may require a new President.”

Brown, on the other hand, seems to have made different evaluations. While stating that he would grant loan guarantees to Israel unconditionally, he continued to state, “Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge the fact that this furious settlement pace is going to undermine the peace process and make any kind of lasting solution impossible is just not facing the facts.” “Yes, that’s the position of America,” he said in affirmation of the Bush Administration’s stance on Israeli settlements. In response to a question on Palestinian self-determination, Brown said he favored the independence under the procedures outlined in Camp David. “The two parties ought to work it out,” he added.

While this discussion of Israel and Middle East issues was interesting, the real news of the week for Brown was his campaign appearance with Jesse Jackson in lower Manhattan.

At an April 2 meeting before the Jewish Community Relations Council, Brown was attacked by a prominent New York Jewish Defense League leader for his choice of Jackson for Vice President. Brown stood his ground and refused to repudiate his choice of Jackson. This defense of Jackson has enhanced Brown’s support even from mainstream African American elected officials. They, like the rest of their community, do not want to be ignored or taken for granted. Like Jackson, they have demanded respect. By showing it, Brown seems to have won additional support.

This event became the news story in all the New York City papers. Some reporters expressed surprise that Brown could buck the Jewish community, while others reminded Brown that the Jewish vote is 29% of the Democratic vote in the city.

But what Brown knows (and some pundits seem to ignore) is that the African American vote is larger than the Jewish vote. While he is aware that he can’t expect more than a third of the Jewish vote he has been winning, he feels that it is important to increase his share of the African American vote. This is his goal in New York.


New York is not the only primary for the Democrats on April 7. Wisconsin and Kansas are also voting on that date. Current polls show Brown leading in Wisconsin and Clinton in Kansas. Clinton is also currently leading in New York, but his margin is less than 10% with more than 30% of the voters undecided.

Clinton needs to win all three states to achieve a lock on the nomination. Should he win only two, he will still have a secure lead but may arrive at the end of the primary elections without the number of delegates needed (2,145) to win the nomination outright. On the other hand, should Brown win Wisconsin and New York, Clinton’s road to victory will be very difficult, and some even say it will be impossible.


A final note:

There has been relative quiet on the Republican front, as Pat Buchanan suspended active campaigning a short while ago. Buchanan since has returned to the campaign trail, but with a shift in strategy. He will now more vigorously target Congress and the Senate. This reflects Buchanan’s sense that he is in danger of marginalizing his effort by alienating too many mainstream Republicans. They have been warning for several weeks now that if Buchanan wants to be a serious Republican leader in 1996, he must stop his violent attacks on Bush and recognize reality: that Bush is going to easily be renominated and that Buchanan’s attacks only help the Democrats

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