In Crowded Field, Candidates Are Scrambling for Big Donors

By E.J. Kessler

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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As the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination gains momentum, the nine declared candidates in the field are in an unusually tough scramble for the backing of wealthy donors who fuel the nation’s campaign apparatus.

But this year’s Democratic campaign is not like other years’ campaigns. Given the size of the field, candidates are under extraordinary pressure to set themselves apart, in terms of both electability and fundraising prowess.

There is another pressure in the race, as well. The turmoil in the Middle East and the heat of the political debate over war with Iraq have complicated Democrats’ efforts to attract the major Jewish donors who traditionally form much of the backbone of their finance system. The result is a race for Jewish donors that appears more competitive than in the past.

Democratic fundraisers are busily honing their pitches and working their social networks — including their Jewish connections — for the benefit of their candidates.

“Batman, Superman, Lieberman! That’s what I say when I’m calling for money, to build excitement,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Mitchell Berger, a top Democratic fundraiser who is national finance co-chairman of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman’s campaign. “He’s a super hero. He’s a great guy. He’ll make a great president.”

While Lieberman, as an Orthodox Jew, might be expected to have an advantage in the Jewish community, Berger insisted that the lawmaker is drawing on a fundraising base that is “not just Jewish people.” But at least one Lieberman fundraiser, New York chemicals magnate Jack Bendheim, is leveraging his Jewish communal ties to drum up support for the candidate. Bendheim is co-sponsoring a “dessert with Joe and Hadassah” March 9 at a mansion in the posh Fieldston enclave in the Bronx. Parents of students at the Bronx’s Salanter/Akiba/Riverdale Academy, a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school of which Bendheim is president, were surprised to receive invitations bearing the distinctive address labels of the school’s mailing list.

With so many more campaign events and solicitations expected in the coming months, prominent Jewish Democrats are warning that the sheer size of the field will end up hurting the fundraising prospects of the party’s eventual nominee.

“The Democrats will line up in a circle and shoot each other,” said Florida fundraiser Monte Friedkin, who said he hasn’t “given a dime” yet to any of the candidates. “At the end of the day, there’s enough money for everybody in the primary, but they’ll tap everybody out and there won’t be enough money for the general election. Half [of the contributors] will go for the hills because they don’t want to write another check. The other half will be mad [that their candidate lost].”

“I’m waiting to see how the large field sorts itself out. I don’t feel the need to jump on anyone’s bandwagon,” said Manhattan communications lawyer Stuart Shorenstein, who has hosted many campaign fundraisers with his wife Janice at their Central Park West apartment. “No one has come out and overwhelmed us.”

Some, however, pointed to ideological and political reasons for the large numbers of Jewish Democrats remaining on the fence. Foremost among these is concern for Israel.

“The Jewish community as a whole is going to take a fresh look at the Republicans, partly because of their support for Israel,” Shorenstein said. “Democrats should be getting out in front of the Republicans on this, but they are not at all. That’s why the Jewish vote will re-examine.”

It may be a sign of that issue’s sensitivity, as well as the growing acceptability of public discussion about Jewish political activism, that those campaigns that could supply names of Jewish supporters were quick to do so. (For a list of names, please see sidebar).

Despite such predictions of a GOP shift, Jewish Democrats evinced all kinds of reasons for supporting their man.

Strauss Zelnick, a top entertainment executive who lives in Manhattan, said North Carolina Senator John Edwards is “an unabashed liberal, but a reality-based liberal” who connects with people and articulates “what made the Democratic Party great.” Edwards, Zelnick said, is also “electable. That’s not a done deal for Democrats. Often we’ve chosen people who are not electable.”

Boston philanthropist Alan Solomont, a former Democratic National Committee finance chair, bluntly declared that he thinks Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is the best candidate for the Jewish community.

“We believe in tikkun olam,” he said, using the Hebrew expression for “repairing the world.” “This world is broken right now. I don’t believe the government is leading us in a direction consonant with our Jewish values. Being good for the Jewish community means more than being close to Israel. It means being as good as your word. If you say you support education, support it. If you say you’re a compassionate conservative, you better bring the compassionate part.”

Kerry, Solomont said, has the best chance of turning President Bush out of the White House. “In a campaign where there is no incumbent, he is showing as much strength organizationally, politically and financially as any candidate I’ve worked for,” said the veteran of five presidential campaigns.

St. Louis investment banker Lee Kling said former House minority leader and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt’s years of campaigning for Democratic congressmen and 1988 presidential run give him a broad base of support that will be tough to beat. The new McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws also are “a benefit to Dick,” Kling said. “He’s got an active direct-mail campaign. All that’s matchable.”

Berger, meanwhile, claimed that all was going well in what the campaign calls “Lieberland.”

“He’s doing well in New York and Chicago. Los Angeles looks like it will be spectacular,” Berger said. “We have a big event in northern New Jersey that will do multiple six figures. These are incredible events for the beginning of a campaign. In Florida, he took in $300,000 in two days. That’s a very good showing. The first time Bill Clinton did an event in Florida, in 1991, he did $6,000.”

Candidates Start Attracting Backers

Below are the results of an informal survey of how the various presidential campaigns are doing in their search for Jewish backers.

* * *

The former Vermont governor’s campaign sports a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Democratic National Committee, Massachusetts businessman Steven Grossman, as a top adviser.

Grossman named Wall Streeter Roy Furman, who hosted an event Wednesday at New York’s Harmonie Club, as a major player in Dean’s New York fundraising operation. Kenneth Klothen, former executive director of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, is spearheading Dean’s efforts in Philadelphia, while the co-chairman of Dean’s California operation is actor-producer Rob Reiner.


The North Carolina senator has the support of Manhattan fundraiser Laura Ross, a former chairwoman of the DNC’s Women’s Leadership Forum, and Strauss Zelnick, a top entertainment executive.


The Missouri congressman is supported by St. Louis investment banker Lee Kling, a former DNC finance chairman, who is serving as campaign treasurer. Gephardt’s campaign also touts the involvement of Missourians Steven Stogel and Michael Newmark and New York heavy hitters Felix Rohatyn, the financier credited with saving New York City from bankruptcy in 1975; Loral Space Communications mogul Bernard Schwartz; financier Elliot Stein; lawyer Martin Nussbaum, and real estate magnate John Tishman. Others for Gephardt include Joyce Schecter of Texas, Gene Pavalon and Jack and Sandy Gutman of Illinois, Ira Middleberg of Louisiana and Bobby Sager of Massachusetts.


The Massachusetts senator has the backing of Boston philanthropist Alan Solomont, a former DNC finance chair and big supporter of Jewish charitable causes. Also for Kerry: Boston real estate magnate Alan Leventhal, New York literary super agent Mort Janklow and San Francisco real estate scion Darian Swig.


The Connecticut senator has tapped Fort Lauderdale attorney Mitchell Berger, a top Democratic fundraiser, as national finance co-chairman of the campaign. According to Berger, Lieberman can also count on the efforts of such Florida fundraisers as real estate developer Michael Adler, accountant Richard Berkowitz and lawyer Jerry Berlin. In Los Angeles, Lieberman has lawyer and former congressman Mel Levine. New York chemicals magnate Jack Bendheim is also raising money for Lieberman.

* Spokesmen for Reverend Al Sharpton and former senator Carol Moseley Braun said it was premature to list their Jewish contributors. Spokesmen for Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Florida Senator Bob Graham did not return calls seeking comment.

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