On his path to the Democratic convention, Barack Obama had a complicated push-and-pull relationship with the Jewish community. When he was an upstart politician in Chicago, local Jews were some of his earliest supporters, and Obama likes to tell Jewish audiences that in some of his early races, he was criticized for being too close to Jews.
Obama came into this race with a Jewish chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, but in the Democratic primaries, much of the Jewish political establishment lined up behind opponent Hillary Clinton. The Jewish power brokers who backed him struggled to reassure voters that Obama would be good for Israel and that he could be trusted.
Now that Obama is preparing to accept the nomination in Denver, his Jewish backers go into the convention with their stock on the rise. Here’s a closer look at the Jewish conventioneers who helped Obama reach the stage at Invesco Field.
The Early Hekhsher
Democratic megadonor Alan Solomont will spend the week of the convention meeting with Jewish Democrats, conferring with Obama’s national finance committee, hosting a lunch for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and casting his delegate ballot to officially nominate Obama.
The bustle of conventions is nothing new for Solomont. He has played a prominent role in each of the past five Democratic presidential campaigns, and he was a national finance chair for the Democratic National Committee in the late 1990s under Bill Clinton. In early 2007, prominent Jewish donors had already begun to line up behind presumptive favorite Hillary Clinton, and Solomont was expected to do the same, but he broke ranks.
“It was clear this election was going to be about change,” Solomont told the Forward. “People were ready to turn the page, for a new approach to politics. I felt as though Senator Obama spoke to that longing in ways no other candidate did.”
Solomont signed on to the Obama campaign in January 2007, sending shockwaves through the Democratic Party. He was one of the first established Democratic fundraisers to back Obama outside the senator’s home state of Illinois, and it gave the fledgling campaign instant gravitas.
“It was huge,” said Steven Grossman, a longtime Democratic fundraiser and a backer of Hillary Clinton’s primary bid. “I think it gave Senator Obama great credibility early on in the community of heavyweight fundraisers and political activists.”
So startling was the news, according to a party insider, that it sent the Clinton campaign scrambling to roll out its own fundraising team ahead of schedule. Solomont took charge of fundraising for Obama in the northeast and was pivotal in helping Obama raise enough money in the early part of the race to prove he was viable.
When Obama and Solomont first met in 2005, Obama pointed out that they shared a common background in community organizing: Solomont worked for several years in Lowell, Mass., before going into the nursing home business, where he made a fortune. Solomont has also been a backer of a number of Jewish causes, including the J Street Project, a dovish Israel-focused lobbying group and political action committee that launched in June.
— Anthony Weiss
Jewish Surrogate #1
Wexler, a Democratic congressman from Florida, signed on to the Obama campaign in March 2007, making him one of the first congressmen, and one of the first Jewish politicians of national stature, to endorse Obama.
“Hillary got the top three tiers of people, in terms of staff and members of Congress and surrogates,” one Democratic party insider said. “Edwards got the fourth tier. Barack got the fifth tier, with a couple notable exceptions. Wexler was that exception.”
Wexler gave Obama instant bona fides in the Jewish community. Wexler represents the 19th district in South Florida, one of the most heavily Jewish congressional districts in the country, and he is respected as a pro-Israel voice in Congress. In fact, Wexler says, one of the issues that won him over was Obama’s stance on Israel.
“I was convinced then, and I’m even more convinced now, that Senator Obama’s staunch support for Israel, and his compelling case to directly engage in diplomacy with Iran for the purpose of thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambition and stopping their financial support for terror, was the most pro-Israel position that a presidential candidate could take,” Wexler told the Forward.
Not everybody shared Wexler’s confidence. The 47-year-old congressman became Obama’s most prominent Jewish surrogate, crisscrossing the country and speaking to audiences in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia and Iowa.
Wexler helped shepherd Obama through a much-publicized tour that he made of South Florida — including one event at the synagogue where Wexler had gotten married — to reassure Jewish voters.
Wexler says he got his political education in the district, going from couch to couch in the local condominiums and drinking in the advice of a group of elderly Jewish ex-New Yorkers who schooled him in the ways of the world.
But now Wexler’s stumping for Obama has taken him from the sofas of Boca Raton to the national stage in Denver.
— Anthony Weiss
The Chicago Booster
Pritzker grew up in one of Chicago’s wealthiest and most prominent Jewish families — owners of the Hyatt hotel chain, founders of the most prestigious prize in architecture and major donors to civic, Jewish and political causes.
At her dinner table, she told the Forward, there were two main topics of conversation, “business and politics.” And she recalls watching her mother and Nancy Pelosi stuff envelopes in the family living room.
Pritzker met Obama in the late 1990s, when his brother-in-law coached her son in basketball. She quickly became a member of Obama’s tight-knit circle of supporters from Chicago, many of whom were Jewish. Abner Mikva, himself a friend and adviser to Obama, said that the support of Pritzker and James Crown, another Chicago Jewish scion, helped establish Obama in the Chicago Jewish community.
“It’s not just money — it’s the fact that they’re both involved in Jewish charities and pro-Israel activities,” Mikva told the Forward. “They’re a seal of good housekeeping as far as Chicago Jews are concerned with Barack’s bona fides.”
Pritzker backed Obama in his 2004 Senate campaign, but she did not have a national reputation as a fundraiser when Obama tapped her in 2006 to chair his finance committee. In fact, she was not even a party line Democrat, having donated $2,000 to George W. Bush in 2003, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Still, she took on the job, drawing on her own experience running her family’s businesses to help craft a fundraising machine that has skillfully combined traditional big-money donors with large-scale, Internet-focused fundraising from small donors.
— Anthony Weiss
The Chicago Vet
Abner Mikva has not been a major part of this year’s campaign, but Barack Obama might not have made it this far without him. During Obama’s early days in Chicago, Mikva schooled him in the rough ways of Chicago politics and introduced him to a number of the supporters — many of them Jewish — who would become part of Obama’s Chicago base.
“I tried to help him whenever I could,” Mikva said. “When he was running for Congress, and later on for the Senate, I would help organize fundraisers for him on the North Shore, which had been my congressional district, and along the lakefront in Chicago…. A lot of people who came to those were Jewish.”
Mikva grew up in Milwaukee in a household that was Jewish politically, if not religiously.
“It’s a part of the Yiddishkheit we grew up with to be a liberal,” Mikva told the Forward.
After he moved to Chicago, Mikva put down his political roots in the Chicago Jewish community. During his first campaign for state senate in Hyde Park — later Obama’s neighborhood — his punning motto was “Mikva Means Clean Government.”
Later, after Mikva became a federal judge in Washington, he tried to hire Obama as a law clerk, but Obama turned him down. When Mikva returned to Chicago, the two became friends. Mikva took Obama under his wing, instructing him on how to speak and whom to know, and introduced Obama to his old base.
“I was fascinated from the first time I saw him with Jewish constituents at how easily they got along with him, how much they liked him and were drawn to him, and how well he answered questions, particularly on Israel,” Mikva said. “He did better than I used to do.”
— Anthony Weiss
The Middle East Hand
Dan Shapiro will come into Denver with a new job. In the week before the convention, Shapiro was hired to join the Obama campaign as a senior adviser and the outreach coordinator to the Jewish community. He had already been volunteering full time for the campaign for well over a year, advising on Middle East and Jewish community issues.
The decision to give Shapiro a formal job in the campaign headquarters is part of an effort to increase outreach to many subgroups of voters and to pay special attention to Jewish voters, who are considered part of the backbone of any Democratic campaign.
Obama now has a staff of three, headed by Shapiro, that deals with Jewish outreach. The McCain campaign, in contrast, does not have any staff members assigned to work only with Jewish voters.
“The Obama campaign is reaching out aggressively to the Jewish community through the creation of Jewish Community Leadership Councils in cities around the country, and Dan joins National Jewish Vote Director Eric Lynn to augment and expand this outreach effort,” an August 19 statement issued by the campaign read.
While Shapiro served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, most of his political career was spent working on Capitol Hill. He was deputy chief of staff for Senator Bill Nelson and worked on the staffs of Senator Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Lee Hamilton, who once chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Shapiro is known to hold moderate views on Middle East issues and is a strong supporter of the Israeli-Arab peace process. At the same time, Shapiro has made clear his opposition to having ties with members of the Hamas movement, which now controls Gaza.
For the past year, Shapiro maintained contact with Jewish groups in Washington and met with representatives of most Jewish organizations. He took part in all of Obama’s meetings with Jewish groups and joined the candidate’s recent trip to Israel and the Middle East.
— Nathan Guttman
The Campaign’s Jewish Face
Lynn joined the Obama campaign in July 2007 and has since been in charge of ties between the candidate and the Jewish community. He will remain in place as the campaign’s No. 2 Jewish staffer, with the title of “Jewish vote director.”
Lynn’s ties to Obama, however, extend back to before the candidate had even run for national office.
The two first met in 1999, in their hometown of Chicago. At the time, Lynn was the director of a local pro-Israel PAC and Obama was an Illinois state senator who was waging a long-shot campaign for Congress. Though Obama wasn’t well known, Lynn was impressed.
“I immediately saw he was the kind of person you’d like to see as the president of the U.S.” Lynn told the Forward in a June interview.
Since then, Lynn has worked for a number of politicians in Washington. He served on the staff of former Florida congressman Peter Deutsch, where he was involved in Middle East issues and Jewish affairs. In 2004, he filled a similar position in the John Kerry campaign under Jay Footlik.
In 2007, Lynn formally joined the Obama campaign and was quickly faced with the need to deal with the rash of anti-Obama e-mails circulating among Jewish voters.
Obama’s Jewish community staffers also double as Middle East advisers, and as such, Lynn is among those who discuss regional policy issues with the candidate. Lynn spent a year in Israel, studying at the Hebrew University and working for a Jerusalem high-tech company.
“His knowledge of the Middle East is incredible,” Lynn said of Obama.
Now Lynn’s work has brought him back to Chicago, where he has helped establish Obama support groups in areas that have large Jewish populations.
— Nathan Guttman