Tracking Jewish Money
Local givers have yet to crown
By Eric Fingerhut, Washington Jewish Week - Online Edition, April 26, 2007
When it comes to presidential politics, Washington-area Jews are a lot like the country as a whole - they don't have a clear favorite in either political party.
An unscientific survey of campaign finance reports from the first quarter of 2007 and interviews with political insiders find that local Jewish political activists are dividing their donations among a number of candidates.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) appears to have raised the most money from local Jews, with Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) coming in a competitive second and John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, a distant third. Sens. Joe Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson were further back.
Among Republicans, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani seems to have the most local Jewish backing, although Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also garnered significant support from local Jewish Republicans.
Both Matt Dorf, a consultant to the Democratic National Committee on Jewish issues, and Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said no top-tier candidate favorite has emerged among Jewish voters.
"Each major candidate has done a very good job" in courting Jewish givers, said Brooks.
Among Clinton's supporters are former National Jewish Democratic Council chair Bill Dockser, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington vice president for campaign Deborah Ratner Salzberg, former Md. Sen. Ida Ruben, local activist Annie Totah, former ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration Martin Indyk, Jewish Primary Day School president Orit Frenkel, Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen, American Jewish Committee Washington chapter past president Richard Schifter and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism director Rabbi David Saperstein.
Saperstein said he made the contribution due to his two decades-long friendship with Clinton and plans to make contributions to other candidates he believes would also make good presidents.
In Clinton's first race for Senate in 2000, questions about her position on Israel led to a relatively weak showing among New York's Jewish voters - she garnered slightly more than a majority, according to exit polls. Any doubts about her among American Jews have melted away since then, according to Steve Grossman, who has been a leader in raising funds in the Jewish community for Clinton.
"Seven years in the Senate has given them the opportunity to take a look at her up close and personal, her vision and values and passionate support for the American Jewish community" and the issues it cares about, said Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Democratic National Committee.
Obama's contributors included federation president Irene Kaplan - who said she plans to contribute to other candidates as well - and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom D.C. chapter chair Lee Diamond.
Diamond said he sees only "subtle differences" between the candidates on the Israel issue, and prefers Obama instead, mainly because of his proven skills as a "community organizer" in Chicago.
"He's somebody who understands the needs of people" and has an "understanding of what government can and can't do for them," said Diamond, adding that Obama's background fits well with Judaism's support for social action.
Despite questions about Obama raised by some pro-Israel activists, former DNC finance chair Alan Solomont of Boston, an Israel Policy Forum activist and chair of the board of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, said "there is no daylight" between Obama and the other Democratic candidates on support of the Jewish state.
Interestingly, many of the most recognizable local Jewish names on Obama's contributor list also donated to Clinton. Among those who gave to both Obama and Clinton are high-profile defense attorney Abbe Lowell, former Solicitor General Seth Waxman and Stuart Eizenstat, who served in both the Clinton and Carter administrations (Eizenstat also gave to Biden and Dodd). The daughter of Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner, Debra Lerner Cohen, contributed to Clinton, while her husband, Edward, gave to Obama.
Bethesda's Roz Jonas gave to both Clinton and Obama. A former president of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington and an abortion rights activist, she said that she wanted to support the two candidates who "I think have the best shot," but was "not prepared to make my pick yet" between the two.
Bethesda's Diane Feinberg, a past federation president, cast a wider net with her contributions. She gave $4,600 each to Clinton, Biden and Dodd and $2,300 apiece to Obama and Giuliani. Her husband, Kenneth, the special master for the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, contributed the same amount as his wife to all those campaigns, as well as $4,600 to Richardson. Feinberg declined to comment on the couple's donations.
Former federation president David Butler, meanwhile, gave to both Clinton and Giuliani.
American ORT activist Barry Chasen and local lawyers Allan Gerson, who represented the victims of the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing, and Michael Hausfeld, who represented Holocaust victims in their suit against Swiss banks, are among the local Jewish contributors to Edwards' campaign.
Steven Perles, the lawyer who has represented Alisa Flatow and other terrorism victims in suits against foreign governments sponsoring terror, is backing Biden. "The depth of foreign policy experience - no else in the field has that," Perles said of Biden.
Among Dodd's contributors is former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams' onetime Jewish outreach man Jim Wareck. Richardson's list of contributors includes local developer Morton Funger.
On the Republican side, Giuliani received contributions from local developer Dennis Berman, former New York City consumer affairs commissioner Jules Polonetsky, former JCCGW president Michael Gildenhorn and former NCSJ president Harold Paul Luks.
Michael David Epstein, a Potomac real estate investor and board member of the RJC, is Maryland finance committee co-chair for the Giuliani campaign.
Giuliani's ability to "transform New York" from a crime-ridden place "where nobody wanted to live" into a thriving city is a big part of his appeal, Epstein said, along with his more liberal stances on social issues - including his support for "first-term abortions" and his signing of a domestic partnership law as mayor.
He also praised Giuliani's strong support for Israel, recalling that the mayor threw the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat out of a 50th anniversary celebration for the United Nations "because he wasn't invited."
Donors to McCain include developer Stuart Bernstein and his wife, Wilma, former George H.W. Bush White House Jewish liaison Bobbie Kilberg, Virginia Israel Advisory Board chair Mel Chaskin and RJC Washington chapter chair Bradley Wine. Wayne Berman, a D.C. lobbyist, also contributed to McCain and is a key fund-raiser in the Jewish community.
Pundits have attributed McCain's recent drop in the polls to his continued support of the Iraq war, but Wine said he believes Jews, and all Americans, will be swayed by the "clarity" with which McCain speaks in the post-9/11 era about the war on terror.
"I tend to believe [voters] are willing to listen to a candidate" who can explain "why it is necessary to fight" and "how to do a better job doing it," said the Bethesda resident.
Romney financial backers include JCRC board member Lee Cowen and lobbyist Mark Isakowitz. Ron Kaufman, a lobbyist who splits his time between Washington and Boston and served as political director in the first Bush White House, is a key man for Romney in the Jewish community.
Cowen noted that Romney is the only candidate who has "run something" in the private sector, and believes the contender's religion may help him among Jewish voters.
"The fact that he's a Mormon is positive for the Jewish community," said Cowen. "He's a minority religion like we are [and] we as Jews have sympathy for other groups suffered from persecution."