In the final crucial lap of a political campaign, a local newspaper's endorsement can pay big dividends with voters. So when the Falls Church News-Press published an editorial in its June 3 edition supporting Rep. James P. Moran Jr.'s renomination in the 8th District, his campaign moved quickly to seize an opportunity.
Campaign manager Dan Lucas reprinted 38,000 copies of the editorial, "A Real Endorsement for a Real Democrat," on Moran's letterhead and enlisted volunteers to place them on car windshields in Falls Church, Arlington and Alexandria the night before the June 8 primary. Moran beat challenger Andrew M. Rosenberg and is now turning to his general election fight against Republican Lisa Marie Cheney on Nov. 2. Falls Church voters gave Moran his largest victory margin.
But even with the primary behind him, Moran continues to be haunted by his sensitive history with Jewish constituents and some leaders who said they were offended by the newspaper's choice of words in endorsing him.
The primary was not about Moran's leadership, the newspaper editorial said, but "about a cabal of powerful Washington, D.C. based interests backing the Bush administration's support for rightwing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's handling" of the conflict in the Middle East. That group is "trying to upend an outspoken and powerful Democratic opponent," wrote Nicholas F. Benton, editor and owner of the 25,000-circulation weekly, who went on to praise Moran's legislative record and attention to his district.
While not mentioning Jews, the editorial pushed an uncomfortable edge with what some Jewish leaders considered to be coded language that blamed Jews for steering U.S. foreign policy.
"It smacks of anti-Semitism," said David Bernstein, Washington director of the American Jewish Committee. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that when you speak of a pro-Sharon cabal, that means Jews."
Jerome Chapman, a Jewish activist from Alexandria, said the editorial "demonizes and scapegoats supporters of Israel for Moran's problems. An editorialist can, of course, express his opinion, but when the campaign reprints it and passes it out . . . it's outrageous."
The campaign's decision to hand out the editorial as campaign material rankled Bernstein and other regional Jewish leaders who were furious at Moran for suggesting in 2003 that American Jews were pushing the United States into war with Iraq. Moran has spent much of the last year apologizing for the remark, made at an antiwar forum in Reston, and seeking reconciliation with constituents.
Lucas said he and Moran, who personally gave the go-ahead to reprint the editorial, were keenly aware that the decision would "ruffle some feathers." But those concerns were outweighed by a larger goal: to publicize an endorsement after five days of political damage created by an allegation by Moran's former pollster, Alan Secrest, that he had heard Moran make an anti-Semitic remark in a private meeting. "Given the five days we had just gone through, we thought a few ruffled feathers were worth it," Lucas said. Moran has denied Secrest's allegation, and the pollster has not disclosed any specifics of what he said he heard.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict was in many ways an unspoken subtext in the primary contest. Moran has criticized Sharon's declaration that Israel would continue "targeted killings" of Palestinian militants and strengthen West Bank settlements and called his a more "balanced" approach to the conflict, while Rosenberg said he supported Sharon's policy "when justified." Rosenberg cultivated financial and political support from many Jewish voters.
Benton, whose newspaper weighs issues from downtown redevelopment in Falls Church to the war in Iraq, said he is frustrated that "you can't oppose Sharon's policies in the Middle East without being accused of anti-Semitism."
"To me, there's nothing anti-Semitic about my editorial," he said. "I take umbrage at the idea that 'cabal' is a loaded word. . . . It doesn't have prejudicial connotations."