As the Democratic presidential contenders gear up for a final push before the primaries, a number of campaigns are designating personnel as liaisons to the Jewish community.
The campaigns’ fundraisers have been operating feverishly among Jews from the get-go — Jewish donors supply more than half the funds for any Democratic presidential campaign, political operatives estimate. But at least three campaigns have tapped operatives to work solely or primarily promoting their candidates to the Jewish community, touting their stances on issues such as the Middle East, education and social welfare policies. Two of those appointments have come in recent weeks. Others have staffers who work on Jewish concerns part-time.
That may seem like a lot of attention to devote to one tiny voting bloc — Jews are less than 3% of the population — but they don’t call American Jewry a “pillar” of the Democratic Party for nothing. In recent years Jews have delivered almost 80% of their vote to Democratic candidates in national elections. Moreover, Democratic politics as practiced today would be impossible without the contributions of Jewish donors, activists and operatives.
Sometimes, hiring a liaison to tend to the Jewish community is a sign that a candidate’s relations
with the community need to be repaired. The campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, for example, recently hired Washington public relations consultant Matt Dorf to serve as its senior adviser on Jewish affairs. The appointment comes after Dean antagonized many Jews with a September remark that America “ought not to take sides” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The campaign of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman employs former Clinton White House Jewish liaison Jay Footlik as its point man among Jews. It was assumed early on by the Lieberman campaign that the senator would draw overwhelming support in the Jewish community by virtue of his being Jewish; that didn’t happen.
“I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the campaigns with the most identifiable liaisons to the Jewish community are the ones with the most perceived problems in the Jewish community,” said Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz, who is Dorf’s partner in a Washington public relations firm but is not working for any presidential hofefuls. “Perhaps it’s less an issue of outreach than it is of damage control. You could almost make the case, separate from the perceived problems they have, that those two candidates were in a unique position to capitalize [on their Jewish ties] in disproportionate ways, Lieberman because he’s Jewish, Dean because he’s the most liberal mainstream candidate, but the timing seems to have been clearly much more after the perceived problem than as part of their political outreach designs.”
Campaign outreach to the Jewish community, operatives said, is similar in the form to outreach efforts to other minority groups such as blacks or gays and lesbians. There is no single approach: Some campaigns devote staff or pay consultants to look after specific constituencies, while others look to volunteer supporters to perform the function.
The Lieberman and Dean campaigns are not the only ones to have a designated aide for outreach to the Jewish community. The campaign of retired general Wesley Clark just named Greg Caplan, who worked in Germany for the American Jewish Committee, as its Jewish outreach coordinator and is tapping a Jewish supporter in Congress, Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, to help it with Jewish and Israel-related issues.
The campaign of Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, for its part, uses Steve Elmendorf, the campaign’s chief of staff, in the role of community liaison to Jewish groups as well as to some gay groups.
The campaign of North Carolina Senator John Edwards does not have a Jewish liaison as such, a campaign source said, leaving it up to its state campaign directors to deal with their local Jewish communities. The same is true at the campaign of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, although a supporter, Boston Jewish philanthropist Alan Solomont, often serves as the campaign’s public face at Jewish events.
One measure of the importance of the Jewish community to Democrats is seen in the fact that most of the leading campaigns sent top staffers to represent them at the annual meeting of the National Jewish Democratic Council in Washington this Thursday. Gephardt’s campaign sent Elmendorf; Edwards’s sent the campaign manager, Nick Baldick, while Kerry’s was to have sent its manager, Jim Jordan, before he got fired this week. Dean’s campaign dispatched a senior media strategist, Steve MacMahon, while policy adviser Ron Klain represented Clark’s. Lieberman’s campaign sent its former communications director, Jonathan Sallet, who remains an adviser.
The importance of Jews to Democratic politics is also reflected in the fact that the Democratic National Committee intermittently has had a so-called Jewish desk. The desk was last revived for the 2002 campaign under the direction of Jeanne Ellinport, the last Jewish liaison for the Clinton White House, but it has not had a full-time staffer since the 2002 election. The Jewish beat is currently being tended by the DNC’s chief operating officer, Josh Wachs, and the chairwoman of the Women’s Vote Center, Ann Lewis.
Wachs told the Forward that newly appointed DNC deputy chairwoman Susan Turnbull, a member of the NJDC’s governing body who is active in local and national Jewish affairs, would be responsible for helping with Jewish outreach as well.
“This will be an important focus of ours leading into the 2004 election,” he said. “The Jewish vote is going to be important in our effort to beat George Bush.”
So what does a liaison to the Jewish community do during a day? Footlik, the Lieberman aide, said he talks to the heads and Washington representatives of national Jewish groups as well as to local Jewish community federation executives and lay leaders around the country “as a way to gauge what people are saying.”
“It’s similar to what I did for President Clinton — making sure the lines of communication are open,” he said.
Elmendorf, who had worked closely with the Jewish community as Gephardt’s longtime congressional chief of staff, told the Forward that he maintains his role as liaison to Jewish groups, especially those based in Washington, such as the NJDC and lobbying powerhouse the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, because the campaign lacks the resources to have separate staffers for community outreach.
A bright spot for Gephardt, however, is his congressional support. “We are fortunate to have some members such as [Reps.] Howard Berman [of California], Nita Lowey [of New York] and Ben Cardin [of Maryland] who are close to the community,” Elmendorf said. “They are some of the most effective surrogates and messengers in the Jewish community. They can speak to his lifetime commitment. They’ve traveled with him to the Middle East.”
Having a volunteer as the campaign’s public Jewish face, however, can lead to some funny situations. Solomont, the Kerry fundraiser, is good friends with the man who until recently was the Dean campaign’s most public Jewish face, its national co-chairman Steve Grossman, a former president of Aipac. The Kerry and Dean campaigns are at loggerheads, but recently Solomont had a chance to defend his pal: The two men represented their respective campaigns November 1 at a conference in Boston of a left-wing Jewish group, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom–The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. Solomont told the Forward that at a question-and-answer session a participant got up and asked an “impertinent” question: “How should we understand Howard’s position on Israel and the peace process when his national chairman is the former president of Aipac?”
Solomont came to his friend’s defense: “I told him there were many reasons not to vote for Howard Dean, but Steve Grossman wasn’t one of them.”