Democrats are worried about people like Bill Cohen.
Cohen, 93, said he voted for Obama in 2008 but is wavering about 2012. “He’s too wishy-washy when it comes to Israel,” Cohen said. “I don’t think he’s pro-Israel at all.”
The votes of Jewish retirees in the vast condominium communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties are hugely important — and could affect the outcome of next year’s presidential election. To staunch the potential losses of people like Cohen — and to prevent their ranks from swelling — Democrats are mobilizing.
Last week, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, held three South Florida town hall meetings aimed at countering the notion that President Barack Obama is hostile to Israel and doesn’t deserve the support of Jewish voters in next year’s election. More are planned.
Wasserman Schultz emphasized her own background as a Jewish woman with a passionate concern for Israel. She said the goals of the Democratic Party and Obama, on issues such as health care, education and civil liberties, fit in the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, or repairing the world to make it a better place. Then she returned to the subject of Israel.
She ticked off what she said were false allegations about the president’s policies, emphasizing pro-Israel positions and vouching for him as a true friend of the Jewish state. She asked people to offer counter arguments when they hear Obama isn’t good on Israel. She urged attendees to pour through a two-page paper on Obama’s “unwavering commitment” to Israel, complete with 26 footnotes, and a six-page “myths vs. facts” document, with 45 footnotes.
And Wasserman Schultz offered a personal testimonial, using Yiddish to explain that she’s seen Obama’s guts. “As Jews, we really care about what’s in your kishkas. We want to look into someone’s heart and know where they stand and that they stand with us. And I’ve looked into Barack Obama’s heart and his kishkas. I know that he feels the issues that are important to us,” she said at one town hall. “I’ve seen what’s in his kishkas, and I know that this is a mensch [a good person] that we have in the White House.”
It’s such an important voting bloc because Florida now awards 29 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, and the state is the largest in the country that analysts from both parties believe could go either way in the election. Jewish retirees in South Florida’s condos traditionally are loyal Democrats, and they’re among the most dependable at showing up at the polls.
Jewish support for the president is clearly waning. The Gallup Poll reported in September that Jews gave Obama a 54 percent job approval, down from 83 percent when he took office, similar to the slide he’s suffered among all adults.
The numbers reflect people like Roberta Nazimovitz, 79, who was a union representative for New York City teachers and lives at Century Village in Pembroke Pines. Nazimovitz is a Democrat, but isn’t a sure vote for Obama’s re-election.
“I am not crazy about him. I don’t think he supports Israel,” she said. One thing she won’t do is vote for the Republican nominee. “I may not vote for the first time in my life.”
Jack Furnari, a conservative writer, activist and political strategist from Boca Raton, said he doesn’t expect the Republican candidate to win a majority of Jewish voters. But losing even a small percentage of Jewish Democrats in South Florida could doom Obama’s chances of winning Florida. “It drops right from their column into ours. That’s a big deal. It’s a big swing.”
Preventing that shift is possible, said Bernie Parness, president of the Deerfield Beach Democratic Club. “To ignore it would be a mistake,” he said. His club is hosting Wasserman Schultz on Nov. 13 for a discussion of Obama and Israel. Parness expects 400 to 600 people to attend the event at Century Village in Deerfield Beach.
Leo Berkowitz, 86, said the president will lose some Jewish votes next year. But he thinks the falloff won’t be as great as some Democrats fear or Republicans hope. “When the election comes, [most] are going to vote for him. They don’t vote Republican.”