Lenora B. Fulani, an important political ally of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's, has refused to disavow comments attributed to her in the late 1980's saying that Jews "had to sell their souls to acquire Israel" and had to "function as mass murderers of people of color" to keep it.
Asked about the comments on NY1 News on Wednesday night, Dr. Fulani, a high-profile official with the Independence Party, said, "What is anti-Semitic about it?" She added, "It's raising issues that I think need to be explored."
Dr. Fulani's party controls a line on the ballot that can be crucial for Republican candidates running in heavily Democratic New York City. Mr. Bloomberg has courted the party and has also appeared alongside Dr. Fulani, if awkwardly. Her defense of old comments that had been labeled anti-Semitic set off a new round of criticism of Dr. Fulani, who has long been a lightning rod for the city's Jewish leaders. Her position also created an awkward situation for Mr. Bloomberg and many other leaders who have run on her party's line, including Senator Charles E. Schumer, Gov. George E. Pataki and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Some Jewish leaders have called on them to impugn the remarks.
When Mr. Bloomberg was asked at his regular press briefing yesterday morning whether her stand was anti-Semitic, he initially said he could not hear the question. Then he said, "I don't know what she's referring to so you'll have to ask her." Aides later said the mayor had not been briefed on Dr. Fulani's remarks before the encounter with the press. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Dr. Fulani's remarks undercut arguments that she has matured since her earlier, more incendiary days.
"Any politician who has formed any sort of relationship and who has been telling us and the body politic that she is a different person now has a responsibility to look at what she says, distance themselves at first from her words," Mr. Foxman said. "And if she doesn't change or repent, distance themselves from her."
That many politicians associated with Dr. Fulani did not rush to criticize her underscored the importance of the Independence Party line, as it is now the third-largest party in the state and has grown in importance since the Liberal Party collapsed in stature several years ago. While the Independence line is considered valuable, it can carry a price because of Dr. Fulani's knack for controversy.
The line could prove especially important for Mr. Bloomberg, who needs Democratic votes to win.
In a separate development yesterday, Henry J. Stern, the chairman of the Liberal Party, said that he was considering a push to get the party on the November ballot and that Mr. Bloomberg could win as its nominee.
Mr. Bloomberg captured more than 59,000 votes on the Independence Party's line in the 2001 race. Last year he gave $250,000 to the party for what leaders described as "party-building activities," which included a phone drive to recruit members.
This week Mr. Bloomberg appeared at an event for All Stars Project, a children's charity of which Dr. Fulani is the co-chairwoman. Mr. Bloomberg also spoke at the Independence Party's "anti-corruption" awards ceremony in December at which he posed for a photograph with Dr. Fulani.
Yesterday afternoon Mr. Bloomberg's campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, said of her comments, "They are certainly not remarks that the mayor agrees with."
He said the mayor has supported the party because it "has come to represent the emerging political middle for voters who have been left out or disillusioned and that's why politicians from Schumer to Spitzer have run on the line."
Mr. Bloomberg's campaign officials also tried to diminish Dr. Fulani's importance to her party, saying she is but one person in a larger movement.
But Jackie Salit, a spokeswoman for the party, said Dr. Fulani was indeed "a very important person in the party."
Ms. Salit said that Dr. Fulani is not anti-Semitic and that those who are trying to exploit what she has said are doing so for political gain. Ms. Salit had harsh words for one of the mayor's opponents, Gifford Miller, the City Council speaker, who put out a statement calling on the mayor publicly to denounce his "political ally" and reject her line.
"Dr. Fulani's positions were well known to Gifford Miller when he ran on the Independence Party line in 1997, and he never raised any question or concern about Dr. Fulani at that time," Ms. Salit said. "But now he has a new set of political imperatives and so now he does so, and that is exactly what is wrong with New York City politics."
Mr. Schumer and City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz released statements yesterday criticizing Dr. Fulani's remarks. Spokesmen for Mr. Pataki and Mr. Spitzer did not respond