It’s no surprise that the road into Deal, New Jersey, the predominantly Syrian Jewish enclave tucked along the Jersey Shore about an hour south of New York City, was littered this morning—like most roads in the state—with campaign signs for today’s gubernatorial election, a high-profile neck-and-neck race between Republican Chris Christie and the Democratic incumbent, Jon Corzine. What is surprising is that almost all of the signs were for Christie, who, in his former job as U.S. Attorney, oversaw the corruption investigation that resulted in the arrests last summer of the Syrian community’s chief rabbi, 87-year-old Saul Kassin, and other prominent community members on charges of money-laundering and bribery—an episode that brought unwanted attention and embarrassment to the insular Syrian community.
“He was just doing his job—I don’t judge him,” said one 60-year-old woman, who declined to give her name. Dressed elegantly against the fall chill in a leopard-trimmed leather jacket, the woman—an Arabic speaker whose grandparents emigrated from Syria decades ago, and who splits her time between Deal and Brooklyn, where she grew up and where her children now live—said she wasn’t so much pro-Christie as against everyone else in the race, including the independent candidate, Chris Daggett. “To be honest, I don’t know if I like Christie,” she admitted. “But I hate Corzine, and you can’t waste a vote.”
Other voters emerging from Deal’s public elementary school—its sole polling place, only a short drive from the synagogues whose rabbis are currently facing criminal charges—didn’t make the link at all between Christie and the arrests, and few were willing to answer any questions about ongoing repercussions of the arrests. Instead, they offered a litany of explanations for supporting Christie: healthcare reform, the economy, the Obama administration’s apparent willingness to put pressure on Israel. Some said they considered themselves open-minded when it came to partisan issues—several recalled voting for John Kennedy—but tended to side with the Republicans when it came to state and national politics. Deal’s Syrian Jewish mayor, Harry Franco, who stopped by midmorning with his wife, offered a more straightforward explanation for Christie’s popularity in Deal. “Right now I think the main issue is property taxes,” Franco explained.
The Christie campaign—aided by the national Republican Jewish Coalition—has pushed the tax issue, targeting politically conservative Orthodox Jews, and Jewish swing voters, with pocketbook arguments, attacking Corzine for his decision to roll back property tax rebates in the face of a state budget deficit. “We’ve been getting e-mails for weeks in my crowd,” said one retired man, a McCain supporter who said he was an avid watcher of Fox News. Meanwhile, Democratic operatives spent the day focusing their efforts on turning out liberal Jewish voters in suburbs closer to New York and Philadelphia, leaving Corzine’s supporters in Deal mostly to their own devices.
One man sporting a large satin kippah described himself as a regular Democratic voter, and said he had voted for Corzine because Christie—a Bush appointee—represented “the same old business.” And over at M&A Kosher Meats, a few minutes from the school, one shopper said she planned to cast her ballot for Corzine on her way home, because she’d grown up in a Democratic household in Brooklyn and saw no reason to switch sides now. “I’ll tell you, none of them are any good,” she said, laughing. “But I always vote, because otherwise I couldn’t complain.”