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It's May, and the Heat's Turned Up, Just in Time for Primary Season

May 6, 2010
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Manan Trivedi

 

On May 18, Pennsylvania voters will decide the political fate of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, the longest-serving senator in the state's history and one of the most notable Jewish politicians in the country.

But there's no shortage of other key contests to be decided on primary day, including the race to succeed Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, one of three Jewish governors in the nation.

Democrats in Center City will also get to cast a ballot in a State House race that's gotten some national attention, which is almost unheard of for such a local contest.

Keeping in tune with the overall theme of this primary, the tough fights in the Philadelphia region largely seem to be on the Democratic side.

In a gubernatorial race largely centered around jobs and the economy, there are few clear-cut, specifically Jewish issues.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, State Auditor General Jack Wagner and State Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia have all, to greater and lesser extents, sought Jewish dollars and votes.

Onorato, who visited Israel for the first time in November, has nearly $7 million in his campaign war chest.

According to a May 4 survey by the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, Onorato has widened his lead to 36 percent; no other candidate has more than 9 percent.

Williams, who is the next highest fundraiser with more than $2 million, is supported by a number of Jews from the Philadelphia suburbs who back his approach to school choice.

Pollster Terry Madonna said that Wagner is the choice of party insiders, and Hoeffel is the favorite of the party's liberal wing, making it still an open contest.

On the Republican side, Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett is expected to defeat State Rep. Sam Rohr (R-District 128).

For several years now, the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition has lobbied hard for passage of a law that would force state pension funds to divest from foreign-owned companies that invest in Iran or Sudan.

All four Democrats have said that they would sign the bill, although the hope remains that it passes the House and Senate this year, and that Rendell will be able to sign it before his term ends.

On the Republican aisle, Rohr has voted for it, and Corbett has said that he supports it as well.

Williams initially opposed the bill when it came before his Senate committee; he has since reversed course and is now a vocal supporter.

Differing on Abortion Rights
Abortion is one social issue where the Democrats differ.

Hoeffel and Williams are pro-choice, while Wagner and Onorato have more nuanced approaches to the issue.

While the latter two say that they are personally pro-life, they have also noted that they support current state laws that allow for abortion but also restrict the performance of abortions at state-run facilities, require women to receive counseling first and stipulate that minors get parental consent.

In 2006, Jewish Democrats resoundingly backed Democrat Bob Casey, who favors restrictions on abortion rights, in his bid for the U.S. Senate, though the priority then for many was to unseat conservative Republican Rick Santorum.

In other races to watch:

· Lieutenant Governor: It's possible that, come 2011, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the state could be former Philadelphia City Controller Jonathan Saidel.

The Northeast Philadelphia resident -- who served as the city's top watchdog from 1990 to 2005 -- is leading in his bid to become lieutenant governor both in terms of union support and dollars raised. Earlier this year, the state Democratic Party officially endorsed him.

Saidel's primary opponents include retired Philadelphia Judge Doris Smith-Ribner and State Rep. Scott Conklin (D-District 77) of Centre County.

On the Republican side, nine candidates are expected to be on the ballot; the outcome can best be considered a crapshoot.

· U.S. Congress: The hottest U.S. congressional race in the region is the contest between Democrats Doug Pike and Manan Trivedi. The winner will challenge U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6) in the fall.

Pike, the former Philadelphia Inquirer editorial writer with $1.2 million in the bank -- most of it his own money -- is one of the best-funded House challengers in the country. But Trevedi, an Iraq-war veteran who entered the race late, has garnered the support of the Democratic apparatus in Chester and Montgomery counties.

Center City political consultant Larry Ceisler said "Trevedi has certainly impressed people."

No endorsement has perhaps bolstered Trivedi more than that of former State Sen. Connie Williams, an influential Jewish Democrat, according to Ceisler.

Because she's no longer in office, her political clout doesn't come with strings attached: "If she's going to give her endorsement to somebody, she believes it's the right thing," said Ceisler.

Pike made headlines back in March when he asked to be removed from J Street's list of endorsed candidates and returned more than $6,000 in contributions to the lobbying group.

The candidates, who both highlight support for Israel on their Web sites, don't differ much on issues ranging from national security to the economy.

Trevedi has expressed a little more skepticism of Obama's current policy in Afghanistan. But on the whole, the race has largely been about who stands the best chance to unseat Gerlach, who managed to win contested elections in 2006 and 2008, years when Democrats enjoyed landslide victories.

Pundits say it's likely that Gerlach will win again.

Gerlach, who is facing a primary challenge from electrician Patrick Henry Sellers, is known as a strong backer of the Jewish state and has long been supported by donors who base their giving on Israel-related policy.

He's also been a top target for defeat by Democrats throughout his eight years in the House.

Both Democratic candidates have their fair share of Jewish backers.

· State House races: Farther down the ballot, two state House races with a host of Jewish candidates have garnered attention. One is the contest to fill the seat being vacated by retiring State Rep. Kathy Mandarino (D-District 194) in a district that covers Roxborough, Manayunk, East Falls, and parts of Overbrook and Lower Merion.

Three of the candidates seeking the seat happen to be Jews: Lou Agre, Josh Cohen and Keith Newman. Mandarino is supporting the only woman in the race, Pam DeLissio. Bill Morris is also seeking the Democratic nod, and Timothy Downey is the lone Republican on the ballot.

But only one Pennsylvania State House race has made national news, and only one representative was named the "Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week" by The Huffington Post.

That distinction went to State. Rep. Babette Josephs (D-District 182). She is a Jewish pol who was first elected to represent Center City in 1984, and has long been considered the most progressive member of the General Assembly, as well as a staunch advocate on the environment, gay rights and abortion rights.

Josephs, a member of the Jewish Labor Committee who has defeated a slew of primary challengers over the years, is facing an insurgency from co-religionist Gregg Kravitz.

In widely circulated comments at one of her recent fundraisers, Josephs alleged that Kravitz had claimed that he wasn't straight in order to curry favor with gay voters. Kravitz responded with an acknowledgement of his bisexuality and accused Josephs of wrongly inserting sexual orientation into the race.  

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