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Specter and Sestak Set to Meet With a Number of Local Leaders

April 1, 2010 By:
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In the midst of a combative Democratic primary race, both U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7) are slated to sit down with Jewish communal leaders to discuss issues ranging from the needs of social-service providers to American policy in the Middle East.

On April 8, Sestak is scheduled to hold an off-the-record breakfast meeting at the Jewish Community Services Building at 21st and Arch streets with representatives of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and other agencies, including the Jewish Family and Children's Service, and several pulpit rabbis.

Specter is tentatively scheduled to follow suit later that morning, although the time has not yet been confirmed, according to Federation officials.

A similar meeting with Republican contender Pat Toomey, who will face the winner of the May 18 Democratic primary in the fall, is also in the works.

"This is an opportunity to come learn from us, as well as see what's important to the Jewish community," said Robin Schatz, who arranged the meeting and who directs government affairs for Federation.

Neither Federation nor the other participating groups endorse candidates.

The meeting comes with the primary fast approaching, and with Sestak, a Delaware county lawmaker, trailing the five-term senator by 20 points, according to the latest Franklin & Marshall Poll.

Specter, who is Jewish and who has grandchildren in day school, has long had deep ties to the community and to Israel.

Since entering politics four years ago, Sestak, a Catholic who has noted that he's found inspiration in talmudic stories, has worked to forge his own base of Jewish support but has hit some bumps along the way, according to political observers.

The congressman and retired naval admiral has particularly irked more hawkish elements among pro-Israel supporters.

In 2007, he spoke at an event hosed by CAIR, a controversial Muslim group. Some Jews had pressured Sestak to cancel the event, but instead he spoke to the group about the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship and the need for it to more forcefully condemn terror.

More recently, he signed a congressional letter -- backed by the lobbying group J Street -- that urged President Barack Obama to press Israel to lift its economic blockage of Gaza.

Critics of the letter said that it was one-sided, but supporters noted that it addressed the security threat that Hamas, which holds power in Gaza, poses to Israel.

According to several sources, Sestak's campaign initiated the meeting with Jewish communal officials.

His spokesman, Jonathan Dworkin, said that the meeting was part of his outreach efforts to various groups statewide.

For months now, Schatz said that she has been holding private meetings with candidates from both parties, discussing the funding needs and legislative priorities of various Jewish agencies.

Larger gatherings with candidates have taken place in the past, she noted, but usually, they have occurred after the primary and closer to the general election. But she said that since the Democratic Senate race has garnered so much attention, it made sense to have the meetings now.

She added that Federation plans to hold a series of public candidate forums in the fall to give Jewish voters a chance to hear from Senate and congressional contenders in the run-up to the November elections.

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