Posted on October 12, 1998 in Washington Watch

New York State will be the scene of this year’s meanest and ugliest Senate race. Republican Senator Al D’Amato, long known for his ruthless campaign tactics, has met his match. This year’s Democratic nominee is Congressman Charles Schumer, an equally fierce political attacker.

Both candidates have already raised staggering amounts of money. D’Amato has almost $25 million to his credit, while Schumer has raised almost $15 million. By election day, November 3rd, they will each raise and spend even more, making this race 1998’s most expensive Senate contest. Most of the money will be used to buy negative attack television ads.

Although the real flood of ads will come in the election’s final weeks, already New York voters are seeing the direction the campaign will take.

The day after winning the Democratic primary, Schumer was subjected to a statewide blitz of D’Amato attack ads. The Republican Senator’s top political strategist is none other than Arthur Finklestein–a strange conservative operative who was one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s top advisors during his 1996 campaign. In line with Finklestein’s usual tactics, the D’Amato ads attack Schumer as a big government, big spending liberal.

Schumer has responded with attacks of his own calling D’Amato a crass politician “who has lied for too long” and criticizing the Senator’s opposition to gun control and environmental protection.

While both candidates are equally tough campaigners and share a propensity to seek the political limelight in an effort to pander to voters (one Democrat even criticized Schumer saying, “the shortest distance between two points is Charles Schumer and a TV camera”), they are politically quite opposite. Schumer is a liberal with a strong record on gun control, banking reform and environmental protection. D’Amato is a fiscal conservative who is proud of his record of constituent services. This has earned him the derisive nickname “Senator pothole”, referring to his commitment to use his office to solve even the smallest of problems facing his constituents. This record has also helped secure D’Amato the endorsement of a number of leading Democratic politicians.

While opponents on most issues, the two candidates largely agree on how they approach Middle East issues. Both D’Amato and Schumer are strident supporters of the anti-peace Likud government of Israel. This fact has led one prominent New York rabbi to note that whoever wins the elections “the Jewish community can’t lose. It’s a win-win situation.”

Because almost 20 percent of New York State’s voters will be Jewish, including the hard-line Orthodox of New York City, New York politicians take the most pro-Israel positions of any in the United States.

Both D’Amato and Schumer were, for example, strong supporters of the congressional resolution to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and both historically have opposed U.S. arms sales to Arab countries. Both candidates strongly criticized President Clinton for what they perceived as Administration pressure on the Netanyahu government and both criticized Mrs. Clinton’s comments favoring a Palestinian State.

In response to the First Lady’s May 1998 comments, D’Amato stated, “It is clear the ultimatum issued by the President to Israel, and Hillary Clinton’s statements, indicate that the Clinton-Gore administration has chosen to align itself with the Palestinians and Yasser Arafat against the people of Israel.”

Not to be outdone, Schumer countered, “When voices in the White House say there ought to be a Palestinian state before there are guarantees of security, they do not set the peace process forward.”

The role of the First Lady became a campaign issue recently when as part of her national tour to support Democratic candidates, she campaigned with Schumer in New York. Her appearance set off a round of protests from some Jewish leaders and from Republicans who sought to exploit the visit to take Jewish support away from Schumer.

Matt Brooks, the director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican organization stated, “This is hypocritical and political prostitution in its basest form. In compromising the ideals he cares about for the sake of political gain, Chuck Schumer is demonstrating why people don’t like politicians.”

D’Amato did not directly enter the fray, but noted that, “No Senator has done more than Al D’Amato to fight Palestinian terrorism or to ensure that Israel alone makes decisions about its security needs.”

Through a spokesperson, Schumer sought to establish his record by stating that he had long opposed a Palestinian state stating, “How can we have a Palestinian state, when the Palestinian charter still calls for Israel’s destruction?”

In fact to make his position clear, Schumer has recently written to President Clinton demanding that the Administration go on record publicly opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Another issue on which both D’Amato and Schumer agree is their opposition to any rapprochement with Iran. D‘Amato has recently adopted the case of the family of Alissa Flatlow, an American Jewish woman who was killed in a bombing attack in Gaza. The family has argued that Iran is the sponsor of Hamas that ordered the attack and is therefore, responsible for damages done as a result of it. They sued Iran in a New York court and won a judgement of $247.5 million. The court has ordered that Iranian assets in the United States be turned over to the family in compensation for the loss of their daughter, but the Clinton Administration has opposed this judgment as a matter of law and policy.

D’Amato has taken the lead in opposing the Administration position on the Flatlow case. Schumer has joined him in this saying, “The U.S. government should stop blocking the sale of Iranian assets and the Flatow family deserves compensation for their loss.”

In past campaigns D’Amato has received as much as 40 percent of the Jewish vote. This is high for any Republican since the majority of American Jews are Democrats who support a liberal social agenda. Current polls show D’Amato winning only 25 to 33 percent of the Jewish vote this year, with Schumer, who is Jewish, winning about 70 percent.

This has caused D’Amato to work even harder and to take even more strident stands to pander for votes. He wears yarmulkes at Jewish events and has made a big campaign issue of his leadership in the fight to secure $1.25 billion for Swiss banks for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

In the face of all of this, it should not be surprising that New York’s Arab American voters have shown little interest in this campaign. While there are almost 200,000 Arab Americans in New York, their numbers are less than 10 percent of the much more substantial and powerful Jewish community. It is interesting to note, however, that with New York out of the picture, in the rest of the United States the numbers of Arab Americans and American Jews are roughly the same.

In any case, in New York, Arab Americans are alienated from both Schumer and D’Amato. Too often in the past they have felt victimized by the rhetoric and behavior of both candidates. Therefore, despite their political leanings or party affiliations, the community has shown little interest in supporting either campaign.

One Arab American observer noted that the only good thing he could see in the race was that “when it is over, one of the two will be finished in politics.”

At this point, the race is quite close. Some polls are showing Schumer ahead by a few points while a few others are showing D’Amato with a slight lead. What this means is that the campaign will remain ugly and expensive and full of crass political pandering.

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