WASHINGTON — The country’s multi-billion-dollar network of Jewish charitable federations, an avid advocate for boosting government spending on social programs, has chosen a Republican activist to be its chief Washington lobbyist.
This week the United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of local Jewish federations, tapped William Daroff, 36, to be its vice president for public policy and director of its Washington office. For the past four years, Daroff has served as deputy executive director and national grassroots director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
In his new job Daroff will be expected to push an agenda that is often at odds with that of the GOP, including increased funding for Medicaid and food stamps. Social service agencies affiliated with UJC receive more than $7 billion annually to deliver assistance to the needy.
Daroff told the Forward that he would have no problem pushing for a robust federal safety net.
“I am a strong supporter of the agenda of UJC when it comes to domestic policy priorities for the Jewish community,” Daroff said. “I am a strong believer of there being a vibrant and strong social safety net to help out those who are in need. I don’t have any cognitive dissonance. The policy positions of UJC and the federations system are generally ones that I wholeheartedly endorse.”
Daroff said he is “looking forward to increase the profile of UJC and the federation system, to utilize my relationships and my understanding of both the Jewish community and the policy process for the betterment of the Jewish people.” He noted that as RJC deputy executive director he worked closely over the past five years with the UJC’s Washington office to “open doors on Capitol Hill, brainstorm on approaches to take with the Bush administration and speaking to delegations from across the country.”
Daroff acknowledged that it will be more difficult to garner federal appropriations in coming years, especially after the hurricanes. He stressed the importance of working creatively.
He also said his focus would be on making UJC the central address for American Jewry in Washington. He plans to mirror the role Jewish federations play in metropolitan areas, minimizing overlap in policy focus and event scheduling. He also said he would like to resurrect regular meetings among key Jewish players in Washington.
“My idea is not for the UJC Washington office to be in supremacy, but like local federations, we will serve as a vehicle for coordination and cooperation,” he said.
Officials at UJC said they have no doubt that Daroff would be effective in pushing the agenda of the organization, which unites 156 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities.
“In his former position at the RJC the ‘R’ for Republican came first. At UJC, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, the ‘J’ comes first, and he will refocus just like other advocates for our Jewish community causes do,” said Joyce Garver Keller, executive director of the Ohio Jewish Communities in Cleveland.
Daroff’s appointment comes in the wake of an influx of major Republican Jewish donors to the federation system in recent years, as some Jewish communal officials have noted. The donors are said to be pushing UJC away from backing Democratic social programs, with some success. The UJC has refused to fight the Bush administration’s tax cuts, even though, many Democrats say, they will lead to cuts in anti-poverty programs.
Barry Swartz, UJC’s senior vice president and a member of the search committee that tapped Daroff, said that Daroff “came highly recommended by individuals on both sides of the aisle as someone who can be nonpartisan, who is extremely Jewishly committed and passionate about the work that we do, who is well-connected and has the political acumen and skills necessary to lead our efforts.”
Even staunch political rivals agree. David Harris, deputy director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, who says he has spent hundreds of hours debating Daroff before Jewish audiences across the nation, describes him as a “decent guy, a wonderful person and a mensch” who is capable of effectively advocating the UJC’s views.
“I think people know him and people like him, and think he is a person of integrity,” said Reva Price, the Jewish liaison for the House of Representatives’ minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, a Calfornia Democrat. “I am totally confident he can put the partisanship aside,” Price said.
Daroff’s main strength, several UJC officials said, is his close contacts with Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration. “We are dealing with the reality that the administration, as well as the House and Senate, are controlled by the GOP, and we understand and appreciate and embrace the idea that we need to work with members on both sides of the aisle if we want to be successful in moving our agenda forward,” said Garver Keller. The Ohio federation leader knows Daroff, a former Cleveland resident, from his work as a lay leader there in the late 1990s and 2000, before he moved to Washington.
In Ohio, Daroff was often a lonely conservative among liberals, said Andi Milens, former director of Cleveland’s Jewish Community Relations Council. Daroff was a lay member of the council, and often “represented a point of view that wasn’t shared by many people in the room,” but did so in a considerate, tolerant way and “accepted the end result” when it contradicted his views. “He earned everybody’s respect that way,” Milens said. “He is committed and dedicated to the Jewish community and its interests, and he will advocate for the Jewish community’s best interests,” she said.
Daroff served on the staff of former Ohio governor George Voinovich, now a senator in Washington, and worked on former New York congressman and Housing and Urban Development secretary Jack Kemp’s vice presidential campaign. The first President Bush appointed Daroff to a mid-level position at the Department of Energy in 1989. A graduate of Case Western Law School, Daroff practiced law at Calfee Halter & Griswold, a Cleveland law firm, before joining the RJC in Washington.
The UJC’s top Washington lobbyist position has been vacant since January, when Chuck Koenigsberg, a longtime Capitol Hill staffer for both Democratic and Republican senators, was fired over personality clashes after one year on the job. Koenigsberg was hired in December 2003, after an almost yearlong search, which followed the resignation of star lobbyist Diana Aviv. Aviv left the UJC in February 2003 to become president of Independent Sector, a coalition of more than 700 foundations, non-profits and corporate philanthropy programs.