Will Newt mobilize Jewish opposition

Newt Gingrich may be just what the Democratic Party — and Jews — need, say ranking members of a national Democratic Jewish group.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Jewish Democratic Council believes the House speaker and the radical right will offend most Jews, spurring many to mobilize for the NJDC's campaign to wrest the GOP's hold on Congress and re-elect Bill Clinton.

Political opposition to Gingrich, his "Contract With America" and the radical right is "the most motivational tool" the NJDC is using to enlist Jews in the fight to regain Democratic control of government, says Stephen Gutow, outgoing NJDC executive director.

"The power of the radical right has propelled Jewish Democrats," says Gutow, who recently visited the Bay Area and attended this spring's state Democratic convention in Sacramento.

Since the West Coast trip, Gutow announced he will be heading a Democratic Party initiative in his home state of Texas after four years at the NJDC, a 6,000-member group dedicated to nourishing grassroots Jewish activism and raising money for candidates through its NJDC Political Action Committee.

A year after helping found the NJDC, Gutow met San Francisco political consultant Marsha Smolens, who is now NJDC vice chair. Together, they worked to elect Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to the Senate and aided Clinton's winning presidential bid. That period was a "huge success" for the NJDC, Smolens recalls.

But in 1994 the NJDC's political fortunes fell. Despite hopes that Jewish Democrats would again rally, this time around opposition to Proposition 187, the NJDC board members say that never happened, and the measure succeeded.

"There was a lethargy at the grassroots level," Smolens says. "I don't believe Jewish Democrats realized the flavor of where Middle America was coming from — they wanted change."

And change swept through Congress with the election of a Republican majority, dealing a jarring blow to the Clinton administration's political clout.

Gutow, however, maintains that despite Republican inroads among Jews since the GOP's heyday during Ronald Reagan's tenure, most Jews have maintained their traditional liberalism.

NJDC exit polls in November 1992 showed that 67 percent of Jews ages 18 to 29 voted for Clinton, while 82 percent of Jews 60 or older voted for Clinton. The president's Jewish support has not eroded, Gutow says, adding that recent polls show "very high" Jewish support for Clinton — 80 percent.

The NJDC sees other signs of hope — between the lines of the "Contract With America" and the "Contract With the American Family."

The Gingrich-led "Contract With America" that aims to slash welfare spending has alienated Jews who generally support a social safety net for "the orphans, the sick and the hungry," Gutow says. Jews "recognize that this is part of what government does, what makes society survive."

But the attempt by the right wing of the GOP and the Christian Coalition to reintroduce prayer in the public schools will prove to be "a litmus test" for Jews in the coming months, Gutow adds.

"All the pluralistic values that have protected us are endangered by him," Gutow says, referring to Gingrich. "It is going to be a year in which our community has got to be deeply involved."

Another major issue topping the NJDC's list is affirmative action. Gutow supports some remedial measures in the workforce, since "there are egregious wrongs that have to be righted." One cannot "ignore racism," Gutow adds, but affirmative action, which has split the Jewish community nationwide, is a temporary solution.

In the coming months, the NJDC will be building volunteer networks to work on congressional campaigns and seek financial support for 17 targeted high-priority races, building momentum toward next year's presidential race.

"This is going to be a real watershed election," Gutow says. "If the Christian Coalition and the right wing are not stopped, we are going to have to face restraints on our way of life."

Meanwhile, the NJDC is in the midst of seeking a replacement for Gutow and has formed a search committee.

"We are looking for a politically savvy, energetic, accomplished Jewish Democrat who can build upon the very solid foundation Steve is leaving behind," Monte Friedkin, the NJDC's national chairman, recently announced.