The Courtship

By

"I'M ON THE record. D'ya hear me? I'm on the record. Dov Hikind is a self-anointed power broker and kingmaker. He's a political cross-dresser. He's not a man of enormous scruples or morals. He looks for a parade and runs to the front of it and declares he's leading it. He's a craven opportunist--d'ya hear me? An insufferable egomaniac."

Thus David Luchins, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's ordinarily discreet aide, sums up Dov Hikind, the Brooklyn assemblyman Hillary Clinton has been anxiously courting as part of her effort to woo New York's Orthodox Jews. Outside the parochial world of New York ethnic politics, Dov Hikind is unknown.But within it he occupies an almost mythic role. He is the closest thing to an Al Sharpton of the Jews: a child of Holocaust survivors who has assiduously cultivated a power base inside his ethnic enclave of black hats and payos by seizing on almost any perceived injustice to Israel or the Jewish people. No one knows how many votes he actually controls, but he is believed to command, or at least influence, tens of thousands of religious Jews, almost all in Brooklyn.

It is, by most standards, a small and insignificant army. But within New York politics it is considered indispensable. Many of the Orthodox vote in an organized bloc and, unlike other ethnic groups and their more secular Jewish brethren, swing from Democratic to Republican. What's more, outsiders--be they the political consultants who run New York campaigns or the pundits who pontificate about them--find the ultra-Orthodox world largely impenetrable, a place where married women wear wigs and families do not own televisions. Since the ultra-Orthodox view secular politicians with deep suspicion and eschew much of the secular media, communicating directly with ultra-Orthodox voters is almost impossible. Politicians and their aides feel they need a guide, someone to make their case in precincts where they cannot. And candidates for every office from governor down to city council have come to believe there is only one person who can effectively do that: Dov Hikind.

As a result, the courtship of Hikind has become an elaborate, familiar, and infuriating New York ritual. Hikind will withhold his support until the final weeks before an election, eliciting more and more promises from both sides, until finally, at the last minute, he leaves one candidate standing alone, arms outstretched, at the altar. After Governor Mario Cuomo was jilted in such fashion in 1994, someone in his office or campaign released to the Forward what has since become known as the "Hikind Files." Comprising "confidential" memos and correspondence between the governor and the assemblyman, they show how Hikind, in the words of the paper, "teased and tormented the Cuomo entourage for months into believing he was ready to endorse the incumbent governor for a fourth term--if only they met his demands." In the memos, Hikind sought, among other things, the accreditation of his district's Syrit trade school, which had repeatedly violated state regulations and was run by a key Hikind fund-raiser--a man who would eventually land in jail for stealing more than $700,000 from the school. (In 1998, another Hikind associate would plead guilty to a crime--this time for attempting to bribe the assemblyman. But Hikind himself was acquitted after his lawyer argued that he took the money without "corrupt intent.")

After Hikind and the governor met in February 1994, a Cuomo aide sent a memo to the governor's chief of staff saying the meeting had been so "positive" that Hikind had agreed to support Cuomo. Yet, several months later, Hikind told a reporter he was now considering endorsing the governor's GOP rival, George Pataki. And, as if to underscore the threat, he added that Cuomo had "insulted" many Democrats. As the governor's campaign scrambled to placate him, Hikind played both sides, assuring Cuomo that he was still "leaning toward" endorsing him. But Cuomo refused to approve the Syrit school's application, and, though he insisted there was no quid pro quo, Hikind eventually threw his support behind Pataki, who went on to a stunning upset and subsequently accredited the school. (Pataki's administration also later hired Hikind's wife and brother.) "The thing about Hikind," said one government official who has dealt with him, "is that he always exacts a high price."

Indeed, like New York's other ethnic chieftains, Hikind occupies a subterranean political world. It is, by all accounts, a grubby, grimy, unedifying, petty little place. But it is there where all New York politicians must eventually go, and where Hillary Clinton, the president's wife and the only first lady ever to run for higher office, has been spending a remarkable amount of her time.

 

THE COURTSHIP BEGAN in April, while Hikind was visiting his dying father in the hospital. As he leaned over the bed, his cell phone rang. It took him a moment to realize the first lady was on the other end. I want to express my sympathy for your father, she said. Then she said they should meet. Soon.

"Look," he said. "I'm not interested in photo-ops, or in some kind of ketubah-signing for the cameras. If you really want to talk to me, it will be about the real issues that concern me."

Of all Hikind's courtships, this was certainly the most extraordinary. It was not just that Clinton was the first lady but that to many in the Orthodox community she was, as Hikind often told his friends, "the enemy." A former disciple of the extreme right-wing rabbi Meir Kahane, Hikind had one litmus test every candidate had to pass: unwavering, unconditional support for Israel. It was the central tenet of his politics. "I am a Jewish nationalist," he once said. "I don't believe in physically throwing out the Arabs from Israel, but I could support taking actions to encourage them to move."

Clinton's views on the subject could not have been more different. Hikind himself had called her "the foremost supporter of a Palestinian state in the United States" and Yasir Arafat's "number-one advocate." Last year, after Clinton hinted she might run for Senate, Hikind predicted the greatest abandonment by Jews of the Democratic Party in New York history. He printed 10,000 buttons urging the first lady not to run and dedicated his weekly radio show to her "love affair" with the PLO. Then, in November 1999, Clinton embraced Suha Arafat only moments after the wife of the Palestinian chairman had charged Israel with poisoning Arab children. "To listen to this kind of horrible anti-Semitic rhetoric and not say anything is immoral," Hikind told reporters. "[I]t's cowardice."

In fact, Hikind and the first lady disagree not only about Israel but about almost everything else as well--from affirmative action to vouchers to abortion to gay rights. Even their characters seem diametrically opposed: he the fast-talking, flamboyant pol who chained himself to Russian consulates around the world on behalf of Soviet Jewry; she the restrained Methodist who wears pearls and speaks in slow, scripted platitudes. After Hikind called on her to get out of the race, Clinton's spokesman, Howard Wolfson, retorted: "Dov Hikind endorsed [Republican] Al D'Amato over Chuck Schumer. He was wrong then, and he is wrong now." Many of her aides and informal advisers warned her to stay away from Hikind. One of them, Schumer, has described him publicly as "nasty and off-the-wall."

As the election neared, however, the first lady grew convinced, like so many candidates before her, that she needed Hikind--indeed, even more than the rest.In March, a Marist poll showed she was receiving less than 50 percent of the Jewish vote, a disastrously low number. To win, Clinton's advisers knew she needed at least 60 percent, and probably more than 70 percent--which was still less than Schumer got when he defeated D'Amato in 1998. Getting Hikind on board would be essential, argued State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Orthodox Democrat quietly assisting Hillary's Jewish outreach.

Yet, when the matter came up in internal meetings, Clinton's aides and informal advisers split into hostile camps, with many vehemently opposed to any relationship with Hikind. According to people close to the campaign, Moynihan, Schumer, Clinton's consultants, and her Jewish liaison Karen Adler all spoke out against it. Many said it would look like the worst kind of pandering--as if she were courting Jerry Falwell, only worse. "I don't think it's becoming of her to be playing ball with a guy who in my mind is guilty of criminal behavior--though he got away with it," one informal Clinton adviser told the campaign.

But one day in April, undeterred, the first lady led her motorcade across the East River and into Jewish Brooklyn, past yeshivas and shtieblach--little, Hasidic-style synagogues--until it stopped in front of a small brick house, where Hikind was sitting shiva for his father. Wearing a plain black pantsuit, her hair neatly done up, the first lady approached the Brooklyn assemblyman and his mother. In the tradition of Jewish mourning, they were sitting low to the ground--and so Hillary got down on one knee. As she offered her condolences, Hikind rolled up his mother's sleeve. On her left forearm was the concentration-camp number the Nazis had tattooed at Auschwitz. "You see those numbers?" said Hikind. "That's who I am. That's what it's all about."

Clinton studied the tiny numbers, then said, "I understand." On her way out she slipped into a plate some money for one of the family's favorite charities, as is Jewish custom.

Later, Hikind seemed almost overcome. "She stayed at least thirty minutes, on her knees in front of my mother," he recalled. "The house was packed, nobody got up. Everyone was in shock: They had a front-row seat to Hillary Clinton." And she wasn't the only one who came to the Hikind house. "Everyone paid a shiva call ... I mean everybody. Mark Green, Alan Hevesi, Carl McCall. Everybody you could possibly think of. I'm not talking about assemblymen and others.I'm talking about major, major figures."

 

EVERYBODY EXCEPT ONE: Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Clinton's then-rival for the Senate seat, with whom Hikind had had a bitter falling out after the Brooklyn assemblyman switched his support from Cuomo (whom Giuliani backed) to Pataki. Giuliani paid his respects by fax.

In the days after her shiva call, Hikind's public assessments of the first lady's candidacy began to change. "She is a nice lady," he told reporters. "She's not anti-Israel by any means. She just has a point of view that's on the extreme left."

Then, while the first lady's campaign tried to arrange a sit-down meeting and Hikind stalled ("I wasn't in the mood," he explained), news broke that Clinton had allegedly called her husband's former campaign manager a "fucking Jew bastard." Despite the story's dubiousness, Hikind told reporters he believed she had made the remark. Still, he left a small, Hikind-like opening: "I'm not saying we should hang her for it," he said on his radio show. "I'm not saying we should call her an anti-Semite."

The controversy also left an opening for Representative Rick Lazio, who in May had suddenly replaced Giuliani as the Republican candidate for Senate and who didn't have the mayor's bitter history with Hikind. In August, Lazio planned a trip to the heart of Hikind's district--to Amnon's, a famous kosher pizza joint across the street from the assemblyman's office. But, despite his many years in New York politics, Lazio seemed unprepared for Hikind. "The day before he came, they called me up," recalled Hikind, "and they said, `Hey, Rick is coming to have pizza at Amnon's. Why don't you come across and meet Lazio and say hello and so on.' I said, `Listen, listen. First of all, I'm on a diet. I don't eat cheese pizza. I'm across the street. So come across the street.'"

Taken aback, Lazio's aides declined in a huff. "Even if we had wanted to, we didn't have time," said one aide, who castigated Hikind for his high-handedness.

"What was he going to do, have a picture with me eating pizza?" replied Hikind. "That's not what I do for a living ... and, by the way, when he walked in to eat pizza, no one was there. It was like eleven o'clock in the morning. They had to schlepp some people together to say hello to them."

 

THE FIRST LADY, meanwhile, forged ahead, even as more and more of her advisers urged her not to. On August 23, her campaign arranged a private meeting with Hikind in Sheldon Silver's Manhattan law office. Hikind showed up in a coat and tie, wearing his customary knitted blue yarmulke, his beard neatly trimmed. He brought a bag of kosher pretzels from Borough Park, which he passed around. For more than an hour they spoke, eating the pretzels along with bagels and lox and egg salad. Hikind sat with his two closest aides, Chief of Staff Simcha Felder and Communications Director Charni Sochet.

"A lot of things were said, which you or any reporter would love to know and would make major, major headlines," Hikind told me later, sitting in his Democratic Club office. ("If you found out," he had said earlier, "you'd win a Pulitzer.")

"I wish I had a video [of it]," observed Felder.

"[W]e hit it off," said Hikind. "I think she was shocked that anyone would talk to her [the way I did].... She was taken by someone coming in there and basically telling her what the facts of life were."

"I thought she was mesmerized," agreed Felder.

For his part, Clinton's spokesman, Wolfson, called the meeting "productive."

Within hours, speculation grew that, in exchange for Hikind's endorsement of the first lady, Democrats in the state legislature would, as part of next year's redistricting, redraw Brooklyn's districts to allow Hikind to secure a seat in Congress. "I hear there is a secret deal with him becoming a congressman," admitted a Clinton insider.

"It's the most disgusting thing I've ever heard," said a Lazio top aide.

"People will say Shelly this, Shelly that," replied Hikind, referring to the state assembly speaker and the purported deal. "They don't know what they're talking about."

What Hikind admitted he asked for, though, may be even more astounding: the release of a convicted traitor. "I told Hillary I have never seen a Democrat arouse as much anger as she does in a community of Democrats," said Hikind. "And the only way she can counterbalance that is to do some very dramatic things that she believes in to get across that she is not an enemy--that she is in fact a friend." The best way to do that, he told her, would be to persuade her husband to grant clemency to Jonathan Pollard, a Navy intelligence analyst who was caught in 1985 spying for Israel and has become a cause celebre for some American Jews. Hikind said Pollard's release was a matter of principle: His life sentence was too severe, given that he had spied for an ally. Still, it was a stunning request--to ask, openly, that the first lady ask her husband to free a prisoner to boost her Senate campaign.

Clinton said she had not made up her mind on clemency. But the day after their meeting Hikind learned that Pollard was being moved to a more dangerous prison compound. He alerted the first lady, who immediately contacted what her campaign described as "White House officials." Within 24 hours the prison decided, for undisclosed reasons, not to move Pollard. "I don't want it to be that Dov Hikind is pulling strings," Hikind said afterward. "The bottom line of this is that she is clearly moving in the right direction."

Hikind seemed to be laying the groundwork for an endorsement. "Lazio's position on Pollard is totally preposterous," he told reporters again and again."There are all kinds of things going on right now in terms of Israel. Where is this guy?"

Then, a few days later, Lazio called. He wanted to meet. Tomorrow. Hikind was jubilant. "I need some time to figure this all out," he told me that night. "I was flabbergasted. They suddenly reached out to me." At another point, sitting in his office eating kosher pretzels, he added: "Hillary Clinton is the wife of the president of the United States, and she's all over me. The Lazio people want to be all over me.... Everybody in town wants to know what Dov Hikind is going to do. It is the most remarkable thing. My brother goes to functions everywhere [and people say], `What's your brother gonna do? Is he? Is he?'... I'm getting calls from all over the country.... I can't go into it, but I met with certain rebbes--major rebbes--not a rabbi of a synagogue but major rebbes. I've actually gotten the OK to do what I want to do. And I might talk about it in the end. Major, major." He paused, then added: "Look, as someone said to me, no one cares what [Jerry] Nadler does, no one cares what any of these other Jewish figures do--who cares about them? Isn't that interesting? Nadler--he's a Jew, [a congressman] ... all these local Jewish figures, I don't think anyone cares what they do.... But everyone wants to know what Dov Hikind, a little assemblyman from Borough Park, is going to do."

 

DOV HIKIND, it seemed, always wanted to be a macher, the Yiddish word for "player," which he had heard since he was a child growing up in Brooklyn. In college he was drawn to Meir Kahane, the legendary rabble-rousing Brooklyn rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL)--a militant pride movement whose slogan was "Every Jew a .22." Imitating his mentor, Hikind mastered karate and patrolled his neighborhood, protecting Jews from street crime and beating up, in his words, anti-Semitic "thugs who were looking for trouble."

While some in the JDL turned to greater and greater violence, including terrorist attacks on Soviet buildings, Hikind relied on something more creative: street theater. Developing the flair for drama and publicity that would mark his political career, Hikind joined scores of other young militants and repeatedly chained himself to Russian consulates to call attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. The group would alert reporters, who would appear in droves as the police carried Hikind and his colleagues away in cuffs. "I was never involved in any bombings or shootings," Hikind has said. "I still sympathize with the JDL [of the 1970s].JDL's image [was] much worse than the group really [was].... There really is a time to be militant."

 

RELYING ON a mixture of militancy and savvy, Hikind slowly built a political fiefdom in Borough Park. After losing a race for city council, he ran for the state assembly in 1982 and won. While he spent little time in Albany toiling over the minutiae of legislation, over the next 18 years Hikind tended hyperkinetically to his constituents, fixing potholes and streetlights, dancing at the Bar Mitzvahs of supporters' children, and canvassing the district to register Jewish voters.

Just as he had with the JDL, Hikind developed a knack for putting himself in front of cameras. When racist vandals desecrated a Jewish shop, he demanded an investigation. When then-Mayor David Dinkins was slow to respond to the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, Hikind held a demonstration outside Gracie Mansion. In 1992, after Jerry Brown said he would choose Jesse Jackson as his vice presidential running mate, Hikind leaped to his feet at a Brown campaign event and yelled, "You disqualify yourself with the Jewish community."

Hikind's ubiquitous, voluble presence led outsiders to begin treating him as his community's spokesman. And he did little to discourage the impression. Soon he began saying things like my community wants or my community feels. Hikind usually describes himself as a conciliator, the person who constructively channels his people's anger in times of crisis. Last year, after New York City police shot and killed a mentally disturbed Orthodox man wielding a hammer, Hikind rushed into the crowd that spilled onto the streets and climbed atop a truck, begging the people assembled not to riot. Or at least that's how he describes it. The police commissioner accused Hikind of instigating the crowd.

But, like Sharpton--though with far more scruples--Hikind knows it is less important that outsiders deem him to be using his power constructively than that they believe he possesses it. And that is why Hikind's harshest words are reserved not for those who call him irresponsible--he generally views such charges as good fodder--but for those who call him impotent. Critics charge that, with his late endorsements, Hikind does not so much swing the ultra-Orthodox vote as follow it once the community has already made up its mind. And, even then, he doesn't always choose the right side. In 1997, when Hikind and the mayor were open enemies, Giuliani won 72 percent of the Jewish vote, compared with 65 percent in 1993, when Hikind actively campaigned for him. What's more, Giuliani carried Hikind's own Brooklyn district by an even higher margin in 1997, without Hikind's support. "His power is a myth of his own creation," said Bruce Teitelbaum, Giuliani's Jewish liaison and former campaign manager.

But still the politicians come. Jeff Wiesenfeld, who worked with Hikind for years as a top aide to both Pataki and D'Amato, said, "The one thing that even his critics can't deny is his ... ability to go far beyond the networking skills of ordinary people.... He is able through personal imagery and sharp political gamesmanship to convince public figures that they in fact need him and should therefore seek him out." He has become a higher form of operator, an ultra-macher. Hikind's lure is most potent, observers say, for the true outsider, the non-Jewish politician uninitiated in the rites of Borough Park--someone, say, like Clinton, who can imagine all the black hats rising at the nod of one man.

"Every Jew thinks they're a macher," Hikind said of his community. "How do you become one? Look, a lot of that is common sense. I am who I am." He paused, then confronted his critics, as if they had suddenly walked into the room. "But who are you? What are you? What credentials do you have?"

On one recent evening, Hikind invited me to sit in on his radio show. It broadcast on Saturday night, after the Sabbath ended, between 11 p.m. and midnight. After driving across the Brooklyn Bridge and snaking for nearly an hour through deserted streets, I was amazed to find the center of Borough Park teeming with people--men in black hats and long black overcoats, teenagers sprouting the first signs of beards, a woman with a wig carrying a loaf of bread.The commotion seemed to be centered around one building, and as I got out of the car and looked up at the sign, I realized it was Amnon's pizza joint.

The radio station was across the street, next to a bakery, and as I opened the door Hikind's chief of staff, Simcha Felder, appeared with a bag of the assemblyman's trademark pretzels. He led me upstairs. It was an old building, and the stairs creaked under our feet. Hikind campaign posters covered the walls, and it dawned on me that the building where the show was broadcast wasn't a radio station but a Democratic club.

Hikind was sitting in front of a microphone, preparing. He had on headphones, and his knitted blue yarmulke was clipped to his graying hair. "David, you sit here," he said with a smile, pointing next to him. "You want a drink?"

I shook my head and asked Hikind about the radio program. He said, with the kind of hyperbole to which I had, by now, become accustomed, that wmca was a "major, major" station. "I'm shocked, traveling places, at the cross-section of people who come up to me and say they hear the show."

Hikind's aide Charni Sochet, who doubles as a co-host, sat across from him, working the control panel. "Will we get Hillary callers tonight?" I asked.

"You mean anti-Hillary," Hikind said. "We've been taking these phone calls for two weeks." He offered me a pretzel, then turned to Sochet. "We must mention the milk issue," he said, referring to the growing local crisis over the quality control of kosher milk. Then to me: "Nothing is sacred here. Anything goes. We'll pick at any subject. The milk issue, believe me, that's a very controversial issue."

Just before the show started, Hikind's wife, Shani, and several friends joined us around the table. "OK," Sochet said, holding up her hand. In my earphone I could hear a disembodied announcer say, "All Jewish, all night.... Stay tuned next for the Dovvvv Hiiiikind Show."

Sochet quickly pulled her mike under her chin. "We're here to discuss your thoughts, your views, and your ideas," she said. "Hi, Dov, shavua tov."

"Hi, Charni. Great to be back."

For a while they chatted amiably about milk and the Middle East, and I listened quietly, eating pretzels, watching through the window the throng of people across the street at Amnon's. Then, with a suddenness that surprised me, the conversation swung to the Senate race--how neither Clinton nor Lazio had condemned Arafat's latest anti-Israel rhetoric. Hikind's voice grew louder and fiercer as he demanded that both candidates respond. "No one," he said, "is taking me for granted." He took a deep breath. "Do we have some callers?"

Caller upon caller--Dan from Spring Valley, Shifra from Brooklyn--lambasted Hillary Clinton. Hikind tried to defend his decision to talk to her. "Oy, God....Shifra, we're trying to get her to do something," he said of his discussions with Clinton. "Shifra, of course ... OK, stop, Shifra. I condemn her for her association with Al Sharpton. Are you happy now?... What else do you want me to do?... I'm trying to do something that would be helpful to everyone."

After an hour of angry calls, the show ended, and Hikind leaned back in his chair, drained. He fell quiet for the first time. It was after midnight and I was starting to gather my things when suddenly Hikind's wife stood up. Her face was slightly flushed. "Why are you doing this?" she asked, turning to her husband. "Why are you even talking to her?"

Hikind seemed startled by the intensity of his wife's voice. "I'm just not making it easy for Lazio," he said. He saw me watching him. "And I'll say something else--and David is here, I'm saying this for the record. Depending on what happens in the next couple of weeks ... Hillary Clinton could turn out to be a very good candidate."

"Well, that would be a real shocker, Dov," his wife said, her voice still taut.

"I'm telling you--and I've spent a couple of hours with her," he said defensively. "Can I tell you something? I've never felt more comfortable doing what I'm doing. I mean it very seriously. I know exactly what I'm doing."

"But why do you want to help her?" she pressed.

Hikind took a bite of a half-eaten pretzel. "Let's give them a problem here," he said, gesturing to the neighborhood. "Let them be concerned about us. That's my point." He paused, then added: "And by the way. After meeting with me, I can hurt Hillary more than ever before. What is her campaign going to do if I endorse Rick Lazio? `Oh, we never really cared about Dov Hikind.' They've spent more time with me than with the entire Orthodox Union."

 

Finally, as the conversation petered out, I asked Hikind the same question everyone has been asking all summer and fall: Who is he going to endorse? "Yeah, who do you plan to endorse?" asked one of his friends. "Come on," said his wife. Hikind looked at the ceiling, as if searching for something, and then, as if he had found it, broke into a slight grin. "I'm not sure," he said. "I'm not sure."  

This article appeared in the October 16, 2000 issue of the magazine.

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