Desert Caucus PAC, known in D.C., spreading word in Tucson

Desert Caucus President Chuck Gannon, M.D., in the waiting room of his ophthalmology office. (Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri)
Desert Caucus President Chuck Gannon, M.D., in the waiting room of his ophthalmology office. (Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri)

Although it’s been around for 37 years and currently has over 200 members, the Desert Caucus has a reputation as the best-kept secret in Tucson’s Jewish community. President Chuck Gannon would like to see that change.

According to Gannon, an ophthalmologist who has been with the organization for the past 30 years, the Desert Caucus is better known in Washington than it is locally. “It’s not a secret among politicians,” he says. It is the largest regional political action committee of its kind, and one of the oldest pro-Israel PACs in the country.

“Supporting the U.S.-Israel relationship is a way to help Israel thrive. And that is what the Desert Caucus does,” says Gannon. The bipartisan PAC provides campaign funding for congressional candidates who advocate for a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. Since its founding in 1976, the Desert Caucus has funded over $1 million in campaign contributions.

In the last election cycle, seven Republicans and eight Democrats received support from the Desert Caucus. All but one were elected to office.

Candidates are invited to speak to the group, and in exchange the Desert Caucus contributes $5,000 to their primary election campaign and $5,000 to their general election campaign. These contributions are funded through annual membership dues: $1,200 per couple, with discounts for single members and part-time residents. The PAC doesn’t do any fundraising beyond that. Dues have stayed at the same level since the organization began.

Although Tucson might be off the standard campaign trail, the group has no trouble getting representatives and senators to meet with them, especially if they can combine their trip with other fundraising stops on the way. Candidates pay their own expenses to get here.

“The U.S.-Israel relationship is very important because of our shared values and because of how much we contribute to each other’s defense and well-being,” says Gannon. “Nations around the world benefit from Israel’s technological advances in medicine, electronics, water use and defense.”

The Desert Caucus is not the only pro-Israel organization in Tucson with significant political clout. It is sometimes confused with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The main difference between the two is that, as a PAC, the Desert Caucus can contribute to a candidate’s campaign. AIPAC, as a public affairs committee, cannot. “The Desert Caucus contributes to campaigns of candidates who already have a track record of supporting Israel on important issues, either by their votes, sponsoring bills or public statements,” says Gannon. “AIPAC does more in educating congressmen and senators by supplying information regarding the US-Israel relationship, lobbying legislators and taking legislators to Israel to show them first hand what’s really going on. Both organizations are very important to a healthy, vibrant Israel, although they work in different ways.”

Given the size and nature of Tucson’s Jewish community, some overlap is inevitable between the Desert Caucus and the local chapter of AIPAC, in both leadership and membership, but the two are completely distinct entities.

“The Caucus promotes a personal connection and cements relationships with influential politicians by having them speak face-to-face at our meetings, personally visit with our members and answer questions directly asked by members,” says Gannon.

Upcoming speakers include Sen. Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.) on Jan. 12 and Rep. James Lankford (R-Ohio) on March 30. Shaheen was the first woman to be elected as both governor and a U.S. senator. She serves on the Senate Committee on Appropriations and on the Committee on Foreign Relations, and has cosponsored several pro-Israel resolutions. Lankford chairs the House Republican Policy Committee and serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He cosponsored the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, the U.S./Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 and a resolution commemorating Israel’s 65th year of independence.

The Desert Caucus meets six to eight times during the year, with a three-month hiatus over the summer. To maintain an environment where politicians can speak candidly, meetings are restricted to members and their guests.

To learn more about the Desert Caucus and future events, visit www.desertcaucus.org or contact desertcaucus@gmail.com. You can also find the PAC on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thedesertcaucus. For information about joining or attending as a guest, contact Elsa Goldberg, membership chair, at 577-4970 or elsanj@com cast.net.

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson. She can be reached at nancy_ozeri@yahoo.com.