In the last statewide public opinion poll taken before news broke of Eliot Spitzer’s involvement in a high-priced prostitution ring, the New York governor’s approval rating was below 50% for every major demographic group, except one: his fellow Jews.
For much of his career, Spitzer was a source of great pride to Jews, with some supporters referring to him as having the potential to become the first Jewish president. In the blogosphere, that closeness was portrayed as simple ethnic pride; when the scandal broke, the Web site Gawker proclaimed it a “Shanda fur die Goyim.”
And yet, while Spitzer may have been of the Jews, in many ways he did not come across as particularly Jewish. He never projected the folksy charm of Joe Lieberman, not to mention the Connecticut senator’s religious observance. Nor did the former governor seem as comfortable among Jews as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — who, like Spitzer, moves in well-heeled circles and is not religiously observant. Even Mario Cuomo, the long-serving Italian American governor of New York, projected an ethnic credibility that was almost more overtly Jewish than Spitzer’s persona.
“He was more WASP than he was Jew,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who worked on several of Spitzer’s campaigns. “He was much more comfortable in Princeton than in an Orthodox synagogue.”
So why, then, was he embraced as a favorite Jewish son? According to some observers, the hopes invested by Jews in Spitzer, and the corresponding heartbreak over his fall, point to a far deeper and more complicated bond than simple ethnic solidarity. Spitzer was caught by the push and pull of two strains of Jewish politics. On the one hand, he seemed uncomfortable with the clannishness of retail Jewish politicking and appears not to have felt a part of that clan at all. But he also embodied the streak of reform-minded liberalism that has been the backbone of Jewish politics for more than a century. Despite his privileged background, he kept an outsider’s zeal for purging corruption from the political system. Though some Jews were alienated by his refusal to offer them special attention, far more were attracted by that same rectitude. Spitzer’s high-mindedness held the loyalty of Jewish voters even when the rest of his support had abandoned him.