WASHINGTON (JTA) — AIPAC photo-ops? Check. Initiate and pass Iran divestment bill? Check.
Pheasant-hunt fundraisers, sandbagging for flood protection and running a bail bonds business… Check.
Could Dan Lederman, an energetic and peripatetic 38-year-old Republican state senator in South Dakota, set a new template for Jewish politicians?
“He’s somebody who clearly could be governor, congressman, senator,” said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He’s somebody who is totally committed to his constituents.”
Last week, total commitment meant helping evacuate residents of the two counties, Lincoln and Union, he represents in the southeastern corner of the state ahead of floods anticipated because of melting snow.
“The whole town is being evacuated,” Lederman told JTA from his town of Dakota Dunes in one of two phone calls abbreviated because of his efforts to find temporary housing for the residents and help set up sandbags.
Lederman couldn’t resist getting in some partisan digs at the federal government.
“I call it a political flood,” he said, blaming what he called “lax” use of dams. Building dams “used to be for public safety, and now it’s for environmental and recreational purposes.”
Lederman’s trajectory to Republican lawmaker is not unusual for Republican Jews: He grew up in a politically active Democratic household and switched gears in college when he found that his concerns about national security did not jibe with those of the party with which he was raised.
It’s the same narrative that shaped nationally prominent figures like Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush — except that Lederman’s transformation happened in the Great Plains, not on some leafy Northeastern college campus.
Lederman was raised in Waterloo, Iowa, where Lederman’s had been a prominent name in local retail since 1905. It was typical small-town Midwestern store: Packed with clothing and shoes, with the kids attending to customers and Lederman’s father supervising from a raised office in the back of the store.
His father was prominent in Black Hawk County Democratic Party politics. “We were little campaign workers,” he said of himself and his three brothers. “We would get out the vote.”
Lederman switched political gears by the time he started attending the University of Iowa in 1990 and joined Iowa’s National Guard as a combat medic. “I took a hard right,” he said.
As a sideline, his father had started a bail bonds business. When their father died in 1992, Dan and his brothers discovered that the bail bonds business was more lucrative than retail. Lederman moved west to South Dakota in the late 1990s to obtain a bail bonds license so the brothers’ business could expand. He fell in love, he says, with the state’s friendliness and conservatism, and with its tiny Jewish community of just 300.
Lederman got involved in local politics in South Dakota, first as a county commissioner, then with a two-year stint in the state House of Representatives and then last year to the state Senate.
He is one of three Jewish lawmakers in the state legislature; his mentor and fellow Republican, State Sen. Stan Adelstein, is something of a legend for his philanthropy. Serving in the House is Marc Feinstein, a Democrat.
Lederman has acted as a bridge between the Jewish community and South Dakota conservatives, said Steve Hunegs, the director of the Minneapolis-based Jewish Community Relations Council, which covers the Dakotas as well as Minnesota. That’s key in a state where Republicans have supermajorities in both houses. “With Dan, you have an opportunity to meet with people in different political philosophies from different parts of the state,” Hunegs said.
In February, Lederman was escorting officials from the JCRC through the State Capitol in Pierre when a group of Tea Partiers from Sioux Falls, S.D., spotted a favorite legislator and said hello, Hunegs recalled.
Lederman introduced the Minneapolis Jewish delegation to his constituents, and they postponed their bus trip home to attend the JCRC’s presentation. As a result, Hunegs said, the group of Tea Party activists emerged better educated about Israel and the challenges it faces during the so-called “Arab Spring.”
Lederman brought the Jewish group to the annual House vs. Senate basketball game, then took them out for dinner to a local steakhouse with a sawdust floor — where they ran into the immediate past governor, Michael Rounds, who had signed the Iran divestment bill that Lederman had introduced during the previous session.
Such first-name-basis relationships in a state with only 800,000 people help Lederman advance a pro-Israel agenda, one that he prominently displays on his website’s home page, where he touts his leadership on the Iran sanctions legislation as well as a pro-Israel resolution in the wake of Israel’s 2008-2009 Gaza military campaign.
Lederman says he casts such issues in terms familiar to South Dakotans. The state, with one of the highest rates of military recruitment, is acutely aware of the damage that roadside bombs believed to be manufactured in Iran cause soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Research from the Minneapolis JCRC on the Iranian origins of the improvised explosive devices proved critical in passing the bill.
“When we ran the bill, we had the support of all the veterans’ groups,” he said.
Lederman, active in Sioux City’s Congregation Beth Shalom, is “very Jewish in his outlook and beliefs,” said Bill Cohen, a friend since Lederman moved to South Dakota.
Lederman said Israel is something he has in common with devout Christian constituents. “When I went door to door to in many of the towns in my district, people would ask me about it, and they were curious about the faith,” he said.
He is proud of the state’s idiosyncratic Jewish history; on tours of the Capitol, he guides visitors to a portrait of Sol Star, the Jewish lawmaker most recently immortalized by John Hawkes on the HBO series “Deadwood.”
And Lederman’s achievements in just his third year in statewide office are getting broader regional notice.
The lawmaker makes much of his upbringing in Iowa, and he maintains close ties with the state where he grew up. The town in which he now resides, Dakota Dunes, is right across the border from Iowa, and Lederman has brought prospective Republican presidential candidates like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to address the Iowa chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition in that pivotal caucus state. (Barbour has since declared that he won’t run for president.)
Cohen noted Lederman’s close friendship with the Iowa governor, Terry Branstad, and said it signaled national ambitions.
“He will be on the national scene,” Cohen said. “You see him with all those national politicians on his Facebook page.”
Indeed, the page is peppered with photos of him with prominent Republicans like Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader in the House, U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Fleischer.
Adelstein, who is 80, said he is pleased Lederman is taking his place as a prominent Jewish voice in a region where such voices are otherwise lacking — but which deserves attention from supporters of Israel. “South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota have just as many U.S. senators as New York, California and Pennsylvania,” he said. “And South Dakota has two more U.S. senators than it has rabbis. I’m so grateful he’s taking the positions he is.”
Lederman is not above poking fun at himself, in one website posting noting his uncanny resemblance to notorious White House party crasher Tareq Salahi, tagging a photo of him “Dan Lederman” and telling followers, “Where do you think I was last Tuesday?”
More prominent on the page are photos from the annual RJC pheasant hunts, with Lederman and other local Republicans — most prominently Thune — decked out in orange gear and holding up dead birds.
One such hunt from two years ago has already gone down in the national group’s lore when it ended with emergency medical treatment for the group’s national director, Brooks, after he was hit with buckshot in his face and arm.
Lederman made sure a physician on the hunt attended to Brooks. When it emerged that Brooks suffered from nothing worse than flesh wounds, Lederman did what others did, Brooks recalled: “He laughed.”
Lederman seems to revel in introducing easterners to the hunt. He recalled taking Cohen, who hails from New Jersey, on one such hunt.
“Bill says he doesn’t like to shoot animals, so I say, just shoot from the hip,” he said. “He gets out there, and knocks a bird straight out of the sky, first try!”