J Street Shows Its Strength in Numbers

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 13, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
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Washington — In its first real-life test, the new dovish lobby J Street, which was greeted skeptically when it burst onto the crowded national lobbying scene last spring, proved on Election Day that it could raise significant funds and bring success to many of the congressional candidates it endorsed.

J Street, through its political action committee, JStreetPAC, endorsed 41 candidates, 32 of whom were elected to Congress, with one race too close to call and one going to a run-off. The group distributed $570,000 in its first election cycle, a sum it claims is the highest among all PACs that give money to candidates based on their position on Israel.

Though its rivals dispute both that ranking and J Street’s impact, the group, which bills itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” was successful in persuading dozens of candidates to break ranks with the larger, existing groups that lobby on Israel’s behalf and to accept J Street’s money and endorsement instead. Some candidates were warned that they would lose contributions from other, more hawkish PACs if they accepted J Street’s support.

“I wasn’t surprised to see there were those who advised against receiving our endorsement and warned it would be dangerous, but I was surprised by how little of an effect these warnings had,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s executive director.

On Capitol Hill, J Street is in direct competition with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the organizational powerhouse that has dominated Israel-related lobbying for years. But since Aipac does not endorse candidates and does not raise money for political campaigns, JStreetPAC managed to carve its own niche and become a leading Jewish voice, backing candidates in favor of a more moderate approach to the Middle East peace process.

The $570,000 that the JStreetPAC distributed since the group was formed in April seems to surpass most other pro-Israel registered PACs, including the strong New Jersey-based Norpac and the Washington PAC, both known for their hawkish views. Yet the comparison might be unfair, as JStreetPAC includes in its accounts checks written out directly to candidates by donors, whereas other PACs include only donations that are given to the PAC and later distributed to candidates.

According to Federal Election Commission filings, Norpac disbursed nearly $200,000 from January 2007 through September 30, 2008; Washington PACs distributed a similar sum. Of J Street, Morris Amitay, head of Washington PAC, said: “They are comparing apples and oranges. They did not become a major player. J Street’s work is no more than a drop in the bucket.”

Amitay made clear to candidates seeking support from his PAC that he does not view favorably those who receive funds from JStreet. “There’s a striking resemblance between the people they support and the anti-Israel Hall of Fame,” Amitay said. U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida lost funding from the Washington PAC after agreeing to receive JStreetPAC’s endorsement and financial support.

The group chose 41 candidates who agreed with the policy of supporting a two-state solution and with advocating stronger American involvement in brokering peace. The group also prefers diplomacy to military actions when dealing with Iran.

Though JStreet did not endorse a presidential candidate, it did little to hide its favoritism toward Barack Obama. The group criticized Republican John McCain and organized activists against Senator Joe Lieberman, McCain’s leading surrogate in the Jewish community. After the election, J Street bought a full-page ad in The New York Times, congratulating Obama and promising support as he pursues Middle East peace.

One of the highest-profile contests that JStreetPAC took on was the Senate race in Oregon, where the group endorsed Democrat Jeff Merkley in his race against GOP incumbent Gordon Smith. The latter co-sponsored legislation, mandated by Aipac, that called for tougher sanctions on Iran. Merkley, on the other hand, supports the use of diplomacy when dealing with Iran. His campaign received more than $90,000 through JStreetPAC and he went on to defeat Smith.

“Their help was quite significant,” Merkley told the Forward. He said he did not experience any pushback from more hawkish PACs and lobbies by lining up with J Street.

Another race targeted by J Street was Michigan’s 9th Congressional District, home to more than 80% of suburban Detroit Jews. Democrat Gary Peters, supported with more than $40,000 of JStreetPAC funds, succesfully challenged eight-term Republican Joe Knollenberg, who is known for his hawkish views. Knollenberg tried last year to stop federal funding for the Carter Center after former president Jimmy Carter met with Hamas leaders. Peters won the seat with a 9% margin.

“I believe that peace should be reached through negotiations and that the U.S. must play a central role in promoting peace,” Peters said.

Not all JStreetPAC’s endorsed candidates were as successful. Seeking his state’s sole House seat, Alaska’s Ethan Berkowitz lost the race. And in Ohio’s 15th District, Mary Jo Kilroy, who received $40,000 from JStreetPAC, is waiting to hear the results of absentee and military ballots and may face a run-off.

Ben-Ami said that he measures success not only by money raised and races won, but also by his group’s ability to be a presence on the Israel lobbying scene. “We showed there is substantial and meaningful support for candidates who support the peace process,” he said.

Now the group will focus on working with members of Congress to promote legislation and resolutions that urge the new administration to take on the Middle East peace process.






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