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Campaign Confidential: Three’s a Charm, ADL Slams Ellison, Supporting Jewish Refugees

Three’s a Charm

How many Jews does it take to run for Senate in Minnesota?

The answer is three, according to Democrat Jim Cohen, who recently launched a long-shot bid for the seat once held by liberal standard-bearer Paul Wellstone.

Cohen, a public interest lawyer with deep roots in the consumer rights and environmental movements, is the latest Jewish contender to enter one of the most competitive 2008 Senate races, following the one-term Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman, and Al Franken, the “Saturday Night Live” comedian turned talking head.

Jewish politicians have held the Senate seat, once Hubert Humphrey’s, since 1979, starting with Republican Rudy Boschwitz, followed by Wellstone and now Coleman. Every general election since 1990 has pitted two Jewish candidates against each other, except for the two weeks in 2002 when former senator and vice president Walter Mondale faced Coleman after Wellstone died in a plane crash.

Now Cohen is the newest Jewish hopeful in a crowded primary field that includes not only Franken, but also deep-pocketed lawyer Michael Ciresi, local banker Bob Olsen and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Peter Agre. Cohen’s the underdog, to be sure, but it’s a position he seems to be relishing.

“Call me a little bit of a callback to the old days,” Cohen said in an interview with the Forward. “I can raise consciousness and I can raise hell. Raising money is difficult…unless you are a super wealthy person, or a celebrity or in the case of, in my view, a person like Norm Coleman who is beholden to special interests.”

Raised a Conservative Jew in Rockville and West Hartford, Conn., Cohen moved to Minneapolis in 1994. He occasionally attends services at Temple Israel, the city’s Reform congregation, as well as at Beth Jacob Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in nearby Mendota Heights.

While his father, Simon Cohen, was a Republican lawmaker who served as the majority leader of the Connecticut House of Representatives during the early 1950s, Cohen cut his teeth at Vietnam protests, and spent years working at the Bureau for Consumer Protection and for groups like the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund before winning the Democratic nomination in Connecticut’s fifth congressional district in 1986.

This time around, Cohen says he is running as a “pragmatic progressive,” committed to reducing poverty, fighting global warming and backing a single-payer health care system, but also determined to promote a less confrontational, more bipartisan style of politics.

Since officially announcing his bid on July 11, Cohen has been desperately trying to gain ground on his formidable Democratic competitors. In recent weeks, Franken has grabbed headlines after his campaign announced it had raised $1.9 million from April to June, exceeding Coleman’s quarterly take of more than $1.6 million. While Franken’s pals from Hollywood — including Harvey Weinstein, Larry David and Tom Hanks — have contributed mightily to his war chest, $1.4 million of the some $3.2 million Franken has raised since entering the race in February has come from grassroots donors giving $200 or less.

If Cohen’s long-shot candidacy fails to break through, he vows to support whoever takes on the Republican incumbent.

“This is a process of ABC — Anyone But Coleman,” Cohen said.

—jennifer siegel

ADL Slams Ellison

Aides to the country’s first Muslim congressman say they were blindsided by a stinging condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League.

Aides to Rep. Keith Ellison, say the ADL criticized Ellison after the Minnesota Democrat had told the ADL that he planned to recant his comparison of Bush administration policies to Nazi tactics.

The offending line came in a July 8 speech to an atheists’ group in Minnesota. Ellison compared Bush administration policies after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to Adolf Hitler’s use of the burning of the Reichstag to consolidate his rule.

After Ellison defended his remarks in a subsequent interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the ADL reached out to him to discuss the issue and convinced him that it was inappropriate to use such an analogy.

Ellison aides and ADL staff in the ADL office in Washington spent much of Tuesday negotiating the language of his recantation, both sides said. It was understood that Ellison would release a statement expressing regret over his earlier comparison and make his feelings known in an interview with The Associated Press.

After this cooperation, Ellison aides said they were shocked when, before the congressman released his statement and the AP article was distributed, journalists called asking about an ADL statement slamming his earlier remarks. The statement said Ellison demonstrated “a profound lack of understanding about the horrors that Hitler and his Nazi regime perpetrated.”

The flap follows several incidents during the past year that have left Democratic lawmakers and staff fuming over what they describe, often privately, as unfair treatment from Jewish organizations. In this case, Ellison aides said the ADL turned its back on good-faith negotiations.

“We went to great lengths, had ongoing conversations,” Rick Jauert, Ellison’s spokesman, said. “No sooner had we gotten off the phone than I received the news — what did we just engage in? It’s not the way friends treat each other.”

The ADL statement, which quoted its national director, Abraham Foxman, landed in journalists’ e-mail inboxes at 5:30 p.m. with an urgent notification — just after Ellison thought he had wrapped up his negotiations with the organization and after he had spoken with the AP. The AP story was sent out a couple of hours after the ADL statement, at 7:30 p.m.

Foxman said he put out the statement although he was aware of the negotiations between Ellison’s staff and the ADL’s Washington office, because the congressman waited too long.

“That story was out there for days,” Foxman said. “He didn’t say anything.”

In his July 8 speech, Ellison said Bush’s post-9/11 policies “kind of reminds me” of the Reichstag fire.

“After the Reichstag was burned,” he said, the Nazis “blamed the communists for it, and it put the leader of that country in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted.”


Supporting Jewish Refugees

In attempt to raise awareness of the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, activists took to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers and staffers.

In a briefing last Thursday in front of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus — a congressional bipartisan group committed to the promotion of human rights — Jewish activists tried to gather support for legislation which recognizes the issue of Jewish refugees who were forced to leave Arab countries after Israeli independence.

The legislation, which was presented in both chambers after the briefing, calls on the administration to ensure that at any time the issue of Palestinian refugees is mentioned in an international forum, the American representatives will match it “by a similar explicit reference to Jewish, Christian and other refugees.”

The briefing, which was attended by members of congress, congressional aides and reporters, was organized by B’nai B’rith International and by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a group which advocates for rights of Jewish refugees.

Stanly Urman, the organization’s president, said that it is an injustice to deal only with the Palestinian refugee issue without addressing rights of the Jewish refugees.

Regina Bubil-Waldman, who escaped Libya in 1967, told the caucus: “I’m here to break the silence by sharing my personal story” before describing the hardship her family went though after being forced to leave Libya.

A vote on the House and Senate resolutions concerning Jewish refugees from Arab countries has not been scheduled yet.

—Nathan Guttman


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