How a ‘Hub’ chased down undecided Jewish votes

(Washington Jewish Week) — A moment of silence. That’s what Jews worldwide were demanding at last summer’s London Olympics in memory of the 11 Israeli Olympians killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The Obama White House wasted little time releasing a statement supporting the gesture.

But Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, and himself the director of the Salt Lake City Olympics, said virtually nothing.

For that he was openly criticized by Barbara Berger, a Maine resident and the sister of the late David Berger, one of the Munich 11.

At some time in the top-floor office of the Woodley Park public relations firm of Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications, a detailed research document noting Berger’s criticism of Romney was put together and distributed.

It would prove to be one of thousands of such documents, news releases, Op-eds and social network sites that were directed at undecided Jewish voters.

And the word “office” in describing the working space is generous. Standing up in what the group called the Jewish Media Hub meant not hitting one’s head on a rafter.

There, a staff of 10 full- and part-timers generated information. It was done under the radar. There was a battle, if not a war, going on with the Republicans for the undecided Jewish vote. On the floors below, Tucson native Steve Rabinowitz and Matt Dorf were still working independently with their clients, and it was business as usual.

On the top floor, though, getting a message to Jewish voters was the priority. That message drove whatever favorable press they could provide concerning the president’s re-election bid and conversely what unfavorable information they could disperse regarding Romney.

Rabinowitz had to raise half a million dollars to fund the effort. They were up against the tens of millions of dollars going for the same vote provided by the Sheldon Adelsons of the world. The game breaker could have been Romney’s trip to Israel last summer, backing up his rhetoric against Iran. The Obama administration had provided Iron Dome protection to Israel as well as other significant support, yet the street and Shabbos-table word was that it wasn’t enough.

The Hub was a 501(c)(4), a nonprofit loosely affiliated with the National Jewish Democratic Council. It could send Op-eds and press memos pointing out positive aspects of Obama and negative points on Romney. To remain a non-profit, it couldn’t urge that a voter choose one candidate over another.

Two weeks before Election Day, with the campaigns sprinting toward Nov. 6, the Hub went into overdrive, drafting and/or placing more than 15 Op-eds, including pieces by former New York Mayor Ed Koch; Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz; former U.N. Ambassador Nancy Soderberg; Stuart Milk, the nephew of the late civil rights leader Harvey Milk; the last three presidents of JCPA; an Israeli and a Palestinian writing on Romney and Middle East peace; NJDC leader David Harris; former Rep. Mel Levine; the three Rabbis for Obama co-chairs; and noted attorney and author Alan Dershowitz. That was just in two weeks.

The Hub also wrote, edited and publicized a Barbra Streisand video for NJDC that garnered more than 75,000 YouTube views. The Hub promoted a viral email from Michigan Sen. Carl Levin that was sent to more than 150,000 Jews in the battleground states. It also arranged interviews with Jack Lew, the president’s chief of staff.

The Hub started in early July when Aaron Keyak was hired to be its leader, managing more than 10 staffers. Keyak told the Washington Jewish Week that the goal was to “talk to Jews where they live.”

“We were basically a rapid response media war room,” said Keyak, who came to the Hub after serving on the staff of former New Jersey Rep. Steve Rothman. “We were responding at times minute by minute to events of the day. We had all the data and research at our fingertips. If there was an issue on Romney and Iran, we were able to move faster and in a smarter way than anyone else doing media outreach.”

The Hub had prepared documents such as Op-eds in anticipation of some subjects that would come up in the media, such as the debates or Romney’s trip to Israel or daily issues.

“We were also proactive,” said Keyak, “because we had a specialty area. We were churning out all of these memos and we were in constant contact with reporters.”

He said the Hub was fluent when it came to issues such as the president’s support for Israel. That fluency also covered issues such as Iran and the Middle East, but the Hub knew that Jewish voters also held social issues near and dear.

“We knew that 90 percent of Jews are pro-choice,” he said. “We knew that 80 percent of Jews were in favor of same-sex marriage, so it wasn’t difficult to paint Romney as out of step with the Jewish voters. But we had to get that message out. We were more than happy to engage in issues of Israel and Iran, but the biggest differences between the two were social issues. As the Republicans worked to reach out to its base, it only pushed away Jewish voters in even greater numbers.

“This was all about informing the Jewish voters about their choices in this election. With all of the predictions from the right-wing media, Obama got overwhelming support from the Jewish community despite tens of millions of dollars to attempt to smear his record on Israel.”

Keyak, who also previously worked for the NJDC, had been talking with Rabinowitz for a while about the project. Both knew that the GOP was going to come after the Jewish vote.

“We wanted to make sure we combated their smear campaign against Obama to the best of our ability,” Keyak said. “It’s something Steve has done for his whole career.”

The Hub worked with reporters covering the story of the Jewish vote in nationally known newspapers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post and others. It also placed articles or Op-eds in Jewish newspapers reporting on battleground communities. Op-eds included bylines from former and current members of Congress and other high visibility supporters, including Sen. Frank Lautenberg (New Jersey), Rep. Adam Schiff (California) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Illinois), and former Reps. Ron Klein (Florida) and Robert Wexler (Florida). Also, former Ambassador Stuart Eizenstadt, Dr. Zeke Emanuel, former AIPAC President Steve Grossman, philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg (former president of the Rabbinical Assembly), and former presidents of Hadassah, Jewish Women International and the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Hub also created websites such as comparing the Israel records of Presidents Bush, Reagan and Obama with the record of Romney. It created a video of Sderot residents praising the president on the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Sderot is the development town on Israel’s border with Gaza and the target of Hamas terrorism.

On Facebook, a Hub graphic asked Romney what he meant by “doing the opposite of President Obama” on Israel. There was also the “Jewish Test,” a site asking people to respond with their positions on 10 issues.

All of this was in addition to sometimes hourly advice to key campaign people, the Democratic National Committee, the White House and other 501(c)(4)s on how to send a message to the Jewish community and remain in touch with the most widely read reporters covering the Jewish vote, as much as the law permitted, said Rabinowitz.

Rabinowitz said he felt the Obama campaign was taking the challenge seriously, hiring Ira Forman a year-and-a-half before the election as a connection to the Jewish community.

Somehow, though, Rabinowitz and Dorf thought there was a tremendous need for more.

“Obama was under tremendous attacks from the right,” said Rabinowitz. “There was a lot of money behind the attacks from people who were more concerned about bringing down Obama than keeping Israel as a bipartisan issue. They’ve spent years attacking Obama. And it had to be responded to. We had to do something.”

That something resulted in the hiring of Keyak, a member of Georgetown’s Kesher Israel. They headed upstairs to the attic of Rabinowitz/Dorf, where one can only stand up straight between the rafters.

“They cranked out content,” Rabinowitz said.”They talked to reporters all day long. We had rapid response, and we’d also put out attacks. We’d put out stuff about Romney and Ryan. NJDC got Barbra Streisand to do a video. The Hub wrote the script and helped distribute it to the battleground states.”

Forman, the Jewish outreach director for President Obama’s re-election staff, told WJW that the Hub “was amazing.”

Getting back to the Olympics’ moment of silence, the Hub staff saw an opening.

“Romney,” said Rabinowitz, “had been completely silent on it. We thought we could make some hay of it. The White House went ahead and issued a statement in support of the moment of silence. Romney was hammered pretty well, including by David Berger’s sister.

“We could be critical of Romney; we just couldn’t say don’t vote for him, but we could be hypercritical. Everything else we did, though, was informational.”

One Obama staffer who requested anonymity said “the campaign had a very good communications operation. But on any campaign, you never have enough resources. We would have been at a disadvantage without these guys. The Hub was just brilliant.”

Both Rabinowitz and Keyak felt exhilarated and a bit tired when it was all over.

“We had a good time, we worked hard, the NJDC did great stuff as did the campaign,” Rabinowitz said. “We tried to help them along.”