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Political Mailer Prompts Claims Of Anti-Semitism In Conn. State Senate Race

A political mailer by GOP candidate Ed Charamut attacking Democratic State Rep. Matt Lesser, who is Jewish.
A political mailer by GOP candidate Ed Charamut attacking Democratic State Rep. Matt Lesser, who is Jewish.

An attack ad against a Connecticut state senate candidate is drawing criticism by those who say it’s anti-Semitic.

The full-color, double-sided mailer shows an altered image of Democrat Matt Lesser, who is Jewish, with large, beady eyes, holding fistfuls of hundred-dollar bills. There’s also a lead tagline on the other side: “Matt Lesser will take everything you worked for.” It was mailed out to homes in and around Middletown -- the district where Lesser is trying to win a senate seat. It was sent by his Republican opponent Ed Charamut.

The flyer and the timing of its release are what’s troubling to Lesser, having been sent out the week following the shooting deaths of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“A new line has been crossed,” said Lesser, who is currently a state representative. “Two days after a horrific attack in Pittsburgh, the last thing we expected was to see something like this in Connecticut.”

He said he didn't get the mailer, but started getting messages from supporters when it appeared in their mailboxes. Eventually he got his hands on one.

"I've been in this business for a while, and I'm used to public attacks,” Lesser said. “And certainly there have been quite a few this year. To be honest, I was shocked when I saw the mailer, I've never seen any quite like it."

Anat Biletzki, a philosophy and human rights professor at Quinnipiac University, said the flyer reminded her of images she’s seen many times.

“That is a trope that's been used for hundreds of years… against Jews anywhere,” Biletzki said.

Charles Lansing, a University of Connecticut professor who studies the Holocaust and the Third Reich, said the image isn’t explicitly anti-Semitic, but he could understand how it could be interpreted that way.

“Certainly the beady eyes, that seem to kind of accentuate a kind of big nose and holding the money, it seems conceivable that people have imagined this to be anti-Semitic,” Lansing said.

One side of the mailer by GOP candidate Ed Charamut.
One side of the mailer by GOP candidate Ed Charamut.

Charamut has not responded to requests for comment, but Allan Greenspan, Charamut’s campaign treasurer, said Lesser’s face was digitally altered.

“His eyes were altered to look bigger and greedy,” said Greenspan, who’s also Jewish. When asked whether the nose was altered, he said he didn’t know. He said there’s nothing in the image that’s anti-Semitic.

“Matt’s not wearing a yarmulke, he’s not wearing a Star of David, he’s not holding a Torah,” Greenspan said. “There’s nothing in this ad that depicts him as Jewish.”   

He said he understood that Lesser is a Jewish surname, but he didn’t want to assume.

“Until these comments were made, none of us were aware Matt Lesser was Jewish,” he said, adding that the ad was designed about two weeks ago.

Steve Ginsburg, director of the Connecticut branch of the Anti-Defamation League, is calling on the Charamut campaign “to clarify its position and intent in disseminating this image.”

“The juxtaposition of a Jewish candidate and money in this manner suggests an age old anti-Semitic trope,” Ginsburg said in a statement, making clear that as a nonpartisan organization, the ADL does not speak out for or against candidates for elective office.

JR Romano, chairman of the state Republican Party, said he questioned the motivation of anyone who would express concern about the flyer.

“If you disagree with a Democrat, this is what they do -- they call you racist, sexist or bigot,” Romano said. “There’s terrible imagery of every candidate -- Democrat and Republican -- alike.”

UPDATE: On Tuesday evening, hours after being interviewed by Connecticut Public Radio, JR Romano released the following statement: 

"I had the opportunity to discuss some of the context of the recent mailer sent by candidate Ed Charamut involving State Representative Matt Lesser. Several things have come into perspective from conversations with Jewish friends, including Jewish Republicans.  In a race with a Jewish candidate, this image should be recognized as offensive, raising classic anti-Semitic tropes.  It cannot be justified.  I personally would not have approved this mailer, and I am grateful that the party did not approve it.  I have requested to sit down with the ADL to broaden my understanding of and sensitivity to anti-Semitism."

Copyright 2018 Connecticut Public Radio

David covers education and related topics for WNPR, and also mentors high school seniors who attend the Journalism and Media Academy magnet school in Hartford as part of Connecticut Public Broadcasting’s Learning Lab initiative.
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