June 17, 2010

O’Malley vs. Ehrlich: Jewish voters might play important role

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By Barbara Pash
For MarylandReporter.com

With two published polls showing the race for governor neck-and-neck, the contest to win “subsets” of voters becomes more crucial and this certainly applies to Maryland’s large Jewish community.

Where its vote will go depends on whom you talk to.

“My sense is that Jewish voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic and overwhelmingly pro-O’Malley,” said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat. “In every congregation in my district, O’Malley is very popular.”

Lee Cowan, active in the Maryland Jewish Republican coalition, sees it differently. “Erhlich had a lot of success working with and being embraced by the Jewish community of Maryland,” he said.

One estimate puts the number Jews at around 300,000 in a statewide population of some 5.6 million. The Jewish community is concentrated in Montgomery County (about 100,000) and Baltimore City-County (about 95,000 ). They appear to be overwhelmingly Democratic. Of the approximately 180,000 registered Jewish voters, they are said to break 70 percent Democratic, 20 percent Republican and 10 percent independent or in other parties.

Raskin points out that this voting cycle, the state Democratic Party is even stronger than it was in the previous O’Malley-Ehrlich contest. For the 2008 presidential campaign, the party registered an extra 175,000 voters, a reflection of the enthusiasm for the Barack Obama.

The Democratic Party’s registration advantage has widened considerably since 2006 and Raskin, for one, does not expect Jewish voters to switch party allegiance for Ehrlich. “He hasn’t provided a strong rationale for ousting O’Malley and returning him to office,” said Raskin.

“If Ehrlich is counting on Jewish votes to win,” said Raskin, “it’s not going to happen.”

“Only praise” for O’Malley

Craig Zucker is on leave from the state comptroller’s Office, where he was deputy chief of staff, to run as a Democratic candidate for a Montgomery County delegate’s seat. Like Raskin, Zucker expects O’Malley to capture the majority of the Jewish vote.

In the Jewish community, Zucker said, he hears “only praise” for O’Malley, who has visited Israel twice and promotes Maryland-Israel business ties. “That sits well with the Jewish community,” said Zucker.

Republican Cowen said it’s a bit early to be making predictions about gubernatorial winners and losers since political activists and voters are focused on the local council and legislative races.

Still, Cowen feels that, given Ehrlich’s popularity in the Jewish community, if there is enough of a backlash among Jewish voters to what they see as Obama’s harsh treatment of Israel, they could well vote for Ehrlich.

Whatever the case, Cowen believes the election is going to be close and, needless to say, he expects Ehrlich to win.

State Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, dismisses the Israel argument. “This is state politics, not the U.S. Congress, where they get into Israeli foreign policy,” he said.

Pinsky does not think that Erhlich has offered anything new to make Jews vote for him, but he does not believe that the community’s vote will play a major role in the election. The reason? Because they have consistent turnout and they consistently vote Democratic.

Pinsky said the much larger African-American community, perhaps a quarter of the state population, is a more influential subset. “They’re mainly Democratic but the turnout is not as consistent,” he said.

Montgomery County role

Ronald Halber of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington begs to differ. The executive director of the political arm of the greater D.C. Jewish community believes Jews will play a major role, particularly how they vote in Montgomery County.

“Ehrlich has to get 35 to 40 percent of Montgomery County to win the election,” Halber said, and the Jewish community there, he has heard, “represents one-third of the Democratic voters.”

As it has in the past, Halber expects the Montgomery County Jewish community to vote largely Democratic, although he hedges his bets by noting that the poor economy and dissatisfaction with President Obama might move some Jewish voters to Ehrlich.

Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, the political arm of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, sees a different scenario. He calls both candidates “good friends” of the Jewish community and believes that they will split the Jewish vote throughout the state.

“Ehrlich will do well in the traditional [Jewish] areas like the Orthodox community in Baltimore City and in Baltimore County, where he did well in 2006,” said Abramson. “O’Malley will do well in Montgomery County, Howard County, Prince George’s County and parts of Baltimore City and County.”

But Abramson does agree with Pinsky on one point. The Jewish vote will only make a difference if “something significant” happens – a slip of the tongue, an open mike catching a stray comment. However, given that both candidates are political pros, Abramson doesn’t expect that to happen.

Whoever’s the next governor, though, said Abramson, “the Jewish community cannot lose.”