By E.J. Kessler

Published August 20, 2004, issue of August 20, 2004.
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A new Democratic poll suggests that Republicans are failing to improve on the anemic 21% of the Jewish vote garnered by President Bush in 2000. But if they make progress, it will be with the help of a cadre of prominent GOP insiders, including Lewis Eisenberg, co-chairman of the convention’s host committee.

Eisenberg, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman, is a multimillionaire financier from New Jersey who, more than once, mulled a Senate run and sometimes is named as a possible pick for a second-term Bush Cabinet. A former chairman of the New York-New Jersey Port Authority, Eisenberg shepherded that agency, which owned the World Trade Center, through the attacks of September 11, 2001, so he’s worked under the most adverse of circumstances with the host committee’s chairman, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

What is less well known about Eisenberg, however, is that he is an avatar of a certain brand of moderate Jewish Republicanism that the GOP brass is taking pains to highlight at the convention.

The Democratic poll suggests that Eisenberg and other Republican moderates have made little headway in winning over Jewish voters (see Campaign Confidential, Page 7). The survey, commissioned by the National Jewish Democratic Council, found that 75% of Jews support Senator John Kerry, with only 22% backing Bush. In other words, not much appears to have changed since Democrat Al Gore captured 81% of the Jewish vote in 2000.

The new poll found that the top issue for Jews was the war on terror, leaving Republicans with hope that they can make inroads in the community during the final months of the campaign. The convention will give the GOP a chance to present Bush’s strong anti-terror message directly to Jewish voters, with Giuliani and Eisenberg standing as living symbols of the 9/11 events.

Eisenberg’s approach fits in well with the moderate speakers, such as Giuliani, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom the parley is showcasing over the protests of right-wingers clamoring for more red-meat declamations. It also represents a plausible political alternative for many Jews cut in the mold of former New York mayor Edward Koch, a Democrat and Bush supporter who heads up the volunteer committee of the convention. While Koch supports Bush for his stance in the war on terror, he has occasionally crossed party lines to endorse good-government Republicans like Eisenberg.

“Lew Eisenberg is emblematic of an important slice of the New Jersey Jewish community, which is socially liberal and fiscally conservative, many of whom have found a home in the Republican Party,” said the director of international affairs of the American Jewish Congress, David Twersky. Twersky is a longtime observer of Garden State affairs and former editor of the New Jersey Jewish News.

Among other traits, Republicans praise Eisenberg for his ability to talk to Democrats.

“Lew represents what’s best about our party,” said Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and another big-tent Republican moderate. “Look at how he was able to bring along a quote-unquote Democratic city and the money to put this convention on. It’s a remarkable achievement.”

That skill will be called on repeatedly in the weeks ahead as Eisenberg and the president reach out to American Jews, some 2 million of whom live in the New York metropolitan area. “Having the convention in New York is good for the Jewish community,” Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg was a founder of the Republican Leadership Council, a moderate, pro-choice group established to counter the party’s far right wing after the divisive 1992 convention speech by presidential contender Patrick Buchanan.

Eisenberg was appointed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by fellow moderate and longtime ally Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

He is also a longtime leader of the Republican Jewish Coalition, founded in 1985 to be, in the group’s words, “a permanent Jewish presence in the Republican community and a credible Republican presence in the Jewish community.”

The moment is a pivotal one for the Jewish coalition. In some ways, the group is at the pinnacle of its influence. Last year it opened a New York office that reportedly has brought in 1,000 new members. It’s holding three public events and several private ones during the convention, expected to draw several thousand attendees in cluding a raft of top officials and celebrities. Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who has crisscrossed the country speaking at RJC events, has been tapped as one of a handful of chief deputy convention co-chairmen, ensuring a high-profile role at the podium for a face associated with the group.

“This will be the most substantive and comprehensive presence RJC has ever had at any convention,” said its executive director, Matthew Brooks.

But the RJC has rivals within the Republican Jewish camp. Some Republican insiders say the coalition, which some deride as a bastion of country-club Republicanism, has come up short in the subtle game of placing its cadres in positions of influence at the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign. While RJC officials such as Zeidman and southern California region chairman Bruce Bialosky rank among Bush’s top fund raisers, the Bush-Cheney campaign tapped Michael Lebovitz, a Tennessee businessman with ties to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as its liaison to the Jewish community. Republican Aipac leaders sometimes have tried to claim the Jewish community as fund-raising turf. Aipac is sponsoring a packed schedule of policy-oriented events during the convention.

Bush also has been turning to a movement conservative, New York activist Jeff Ballabon, to expand his grass-roots outreach among Orthodox Jews and Jewish college students, two groups seen as open to the Republican message. The Jewish College Republicans, whose board Ballabon chairs, is having its first national event at the convention: a panel with the Jewish liaisons of Governor George Pataki, Bloomberg, Schwarzenegger and the White House. The White House quoted Ballabon among a raft of Jewish communal leaders in a new booklet it issued touting Bush’s friendship for American Jewry. No RJC leader was quoted as such.

But any differences in the GOP camp are likely to be papered over when the party’s leader makes his appearance in New York.

“The president is held in growing esteem in the Jewish community, which should show up in this election,” Eisenberg said. He added, “I’m going to be worried and concerned until November 2 at midnight, but I’m confident he’ll win.”

Like much of the RJC’s leadership, Eisenberg is a Reform Jew. He worships at Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon, N.J.

In a telephone interview with the Forward, Eisenberg recounted Bush’s shining moment of leadership after September 11.

“It was September 14 that the president came to Ground Zero,” he said. “I had been there for three days, not doing much except serving coffee and trying to give support to the rescuers. He turned the spirits of everyone around.”

Eisenberg allowed that he and the more-conservative Bush “disagree on some number of issues. But the most important issues are the security of our homeland and the economic well-being of our citizens. Everything else takes one step away.”

Eisenberg said the known areas of disagreements will not keep Jewish voters from voting for the president. “I think there’s a good chance this president will do better than any Republican president since Ronald Reagan,” he said. “He’s had a strong and affirmative position for Israel.”

The chairman of his own investment management firm, the Granite Capital International Group, Eisenberg is known for the intensity and focus that enabled him to rise to be the co-chief of equities at his longtime firm, Goldman Sachs. The man that Bush has nicknamed “Sweet Lew” also tends to model grace under pressure — pressures, in this case, such as raising more than $60 million and stewarding arrangements for a mammoth parley that will bring 30,000 GOPers and 15,000 reporters to New York City.

“I am a huge Lew fan,” said Bush’s campaign manager, Ken Mehlman. “Lew Eisenberg can always be counted on to take on the hard task and make it look easy.”

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