GOP's Ehrlich winning over traditional Jewish Democrats

Trust for congressman, discontent with Townsend is leading some to switch

Election 2002

September 09, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Efforts by Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to win over Jewish voters in Maryland, many of whom have traditionally voted Democratic in the past, may be paying off.

Influential members of the Baltimore region's Jewish community say Ehrlich is gaining uncommonly strong support from Jewish Democrats in his bid to become Maryland's first Republican governor since the 1960s. And in Montgomery County, where he is far less known, Jewish voters are beginning to give him a look, leaders there say.

Ehrlich says the support reflects that he's a Republican who bothers to ask Jews for their vote - something he learned to do in 1986 in Owings Mills, when he first ran for state delegate with the help of a Jewish campaign chairman. His congressional record of pro-Israel votes helps as well, as does Jews' growing national support for President Bush's policy on Israel, Ehrlich believes.

But some Jewish voters say they plan to vote for Ehrlich for another reason - disappointment in Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Even some older Jewish women - the community's most loyal Democrats - say they don't want Townsend to be governor.

"Nobody was more faithful to the Kennedy family than me," said Diane Levin of Pikesville, who works in catering and has never voted for a Republican. "I'm sure she's extremely smart, but she doesn't give me any confidence that she can think on her feet. She just doesn't make me feel that she would know what to do."

Levin and other Democrats say they are not troubled by Ehrlich's record on abortion and gun control, where he has claimed moderate ground despite congressional votes that have angered abortion-rights and gun-control advocates. Ehrlich also has said that he would not seek to alter Maryland's abortion laws.

A good balance

"I would never vote for anyone who is against abortion or gun control, but as long as he keeps sitting on the fence on these issues, I'm fine," Levin said. "And he's going to have a Democratic legislature, so to get anything done, he's got to cooperate."

Like African-Americans, Jews in Maryland overwhelmingly are Democrats and among the state's most liberal voters. In greater Baltimore, the Jewish community is about 100,000 strong and home to the nation's highest percentage of Orthodox, who generally hold more-conservative views than other religious and secular Jews, and so are more likely to vote Republican.

In Maryland's Washington suburbs, the Jewish community numbers about 110,000.

Although few believe that a majority of Jewish voters will choose Ehrlich, even if several thousand Jewish Democrats pick him over Townsend, it could greatly improve his chances in a race that recent polls show is neck and neck.

New year greetings

On Friday, on the eve of the Jewish new year, Ehrlich placed advertisements in the Baltimore Jewish Times and the Washington Jewish Weekly that say L'Shana Tova, Hebrew for "happy new year." He has been visiting Jewish institutions, raising money at house parties in Pikesville and talking about his support for Israel. Ehrlich's campaign staff is consulting with prominent Jews about how best to market his platform.

Last week, Ehrlich boasted that "the most famous Jewish athlete" Bruce Fleisher, a top senior golfer, was going to campaign for him.

Votes and money

It may seem like a lot of trouble for a group that represents only about 4 percent of Maryland's population. But the importance of the community is not its sheer number; it is the high rate at which Jews turn out to vote and their tendency to back their candidates with money and other help.

It is a population that did not take to Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who ran for governor in 1994 and 1998, and made relatively little effort to promote herself to Jewish voters.

"He is certainly doing surprisingly well in the Jewish community, especially among the non-Orthodox," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "With Ellen, there was a fear factor," he added. "With Bobby, there's not. He's considered a friend of the Jewish community."

And while suburban Washington Jews aren't necessarily lining up to vote for him, they just might, say Jewish leaders there.

Rumbles of discord

"What I hear is a disappointment with the lack of initial impetus from the Townsend campaign," said Jack Luxemburg, former president of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington and rabbi at a Reform synagogue in Rockville.

"I think a consequence of that is that people who wanted to be early and completely engaged in the lieutenant governor's campaign have been given an opportunity to find out who the other candidate is," said Luxemburg. "Congressman Ehrlich is a formidable candidate."

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Rockville's B'Nai Tzedek synagogue has noticed the same thing. "My impression was that Sauerbrey was a nonstarter in the Jewish community, but Ehrlich has potential," he said. "It seems Kathleen is the solid favorite right now, but Ehrlich is making inroads."

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