‘Rebuilding’ efforts overshadow Jewish issues in DNC election

Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota at a town hall meeting at the Church of the New Covenant-Baptist in Detroit, Dec. 22, 2016. (Sarah Rice/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The race to lead the Democratic National Committee is nothing if not granular.

Among the leading candidates Tom Perez, the former labor secretary, says “every ZIP code counts.” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, touts his “50 plus” states strategy. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., talks about a “3,143 county strategy.”

After the devastation of November – defeat in the White House and both chambers of Congress, and Republicans dominant in two-thirds of the state legislatures – buzzwords like “grass roots” and “door knocking” are proliferating ahead of Saturday’s election in Atlanta, when the 447 DNC electors meet and vote.

That puts one of the party’s most loyal constituencies, Jewish voters, in an odd position: At a time when two global issues critical to the relationship between the party and the Jewish community, Israel and anti-Semitism, are in crisis mode, the party is focusing on electing folks to school boards and reaching out to rural voters.

Those global issues – protecting the U.S.-Israel relationship, and cultivating the diversity that protects Jews and others from bias – have long driven the relationship between Democrats and the disproportionately engaged Jewish voters, activists and party donors that former DNC spokeswoman Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi calls “super-citizens.”

“It’s very important for both parties to have a good relationship with a community of ‘super-citizens,’” said Mizrahi, who served as spokeswoman in the 1990s. (She now helms a disability advocacy group, RespectAbility.)

Mizrahi, who has called herself “post-partisan” since 2003, when she helped establish The Israel Project advocacy group, named major Jewish donors to both parties as critical to how the parties shape policy – casino magnate Sheldon Adelson for Republicans and entertainment mogul Haim Saban for Democrats.

If anything, the issues Mizrahi named as critical to the relationship – Israel and anti-Semitism — are felt more acutely by many Jewish Democrats than they have been in years.

After years of tensions between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish Democrats are gingerly seeking a means to sustain the party’s pro-Israel posture while accommodating criticism of Netanyahu within the party.

And the spike in anti-Semitic threats and attacks, coupled with an uneven response by the Trump administration and President Donald Trump’s broadsides against other minorities, has Jewish Democrats seeking ways to bolster a culture of tolerance.

“The Jewish community, with its input on domestic issues and on American-Israeli relations, is critically important,” Barbara Goldberg Goldman, a longtime fundraiser for the party who backs Perez, said in an interview. “As a proud member of the Jewish community and someone who is committed to not just the survival but the thriving of Israel, I feel strongly that I want a DNC chair to understand all the intricacies of Israel.”

The leading candidates are sensitive to the disproportionate importance of the Jewish community to the party. They have not forgotten Jewish outreach, even while campaigning on the nuts and bolts that are preoccupying the state officials, state-level party officials and special interest representatives who make up the 447 electors.

No one is more acutely aware of the need to reassure the party’s Jewish base than Ellison, whose association decades ago with the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam movement and his more recent departures from pro-Israel orthodoxy have haunted his campaign.

The issue has arisen repeatedly, with Saban saying in December that he believed Ellison to be an “anti-Semite.” (Ellison has said that he has since reached out to Saban, who underwrote the building of DNC headquarters in the early 2000s.)

Ellison, who apologized to the Minneapolis Jewish community for the Nation of Islam association prior to his election to Congress in 2006, has sought and received statements testifying to his closeness to the Jewish community.

He was armed with the testimonials on Wednesday night at a CNN debate for the eight DNC candidates and pivoted from the anti-Semitism question by moderator Chris Cuomo to implied criticism of the Trump administration.

“I have 300 rabbis and Jewish community leaders who have signed a letter supporting me,” Ellison said, referring to a letter from mostly liberal rabbis released in January. The Minnesota lawmaker also noted that he joined with HIAS, the lead Jewish immigration advocacy group, in New York City to protest the Trump administration’s ban on entry to refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“When I spoke at that, I invoked the memory of the St. Louis, where Jews fleeing the Third Reich were turned away in Cuba with the knowledge of our government and sent back,” said Ellison, who has taken a lead in educating fellow U.S. Muslims about the Holocaust.

“I just want to say, it is critical that we speak up against this anti-Semitism because right now, you have Jewish cemeteries being defaced and desecrated. Right now, you have Jewish institutions getting bomb threats,” he said, referring to the phoned-in threats leveled at Jewish community centers in recent weeks and Monday’s cemetery desecration near St. Louis. “We have to stand with the Jewish community right here, right now, foursquare, and that’s what the Democratic Party is all about.”

Backing Ellison’s candidacy are a Jewish odd couple: Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is emblematic of the party’s establishment, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a symbol of the anti-establishment insurgency.

Fundraiser Barbara Goldberg Goldman and Susan Turnbull, a longtime Jewish community activist who backs Buttigieg, in interviews said they rejected insinuations that Ellison is anti-Semitic, but worried that his baggage could weigh down the party.

Indeed, Republican consultant Karl Rove effectively endorsed Ellison in December, writing that by selecting “a left-winger’s left-winger,” the DNC would be “handing an early assist to the GOP” for the 2018 midterms. Ellison has also earned the unwanted endorsement of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who also backed Trump.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and an Ellison backer, said in an interview that Democrats should not fear “trolls” who say he is a gift to the GOP.

“As Jews we know the difference between that kind of demagoguery and that kind of swift-boating and that kin of marginalization of people. We should not apply it to others, we know better,” Weingarten said.

Tom Perez, then the U.S. labor secretary, at a public meeting of the Financial Literacy and Education Commission in Washington, D.C., June 29, 2016. (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Tom Perez, then the U.S. labor secretary, at a public meeting of the Financial Literacy and Education Commission in Washington, D.C., June 29, 2016. (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

Perez, until January the Obama administration’s labor secretary, spoke for 45 minutes on a conference call in December with Jewish community leaders. The call featured as endorsers figures such as Ann Lewis, a communications strategist, and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla. — two key Jewish surrogates for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

On the call, Perez spoke about his impressions of Israel during a recent visit.

“It was impossible to walk around during the visit and not appreciate the strategic importance not only of the Golan Heights but of Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East,” he said at the time.

Perez also noted his past close association with the Anti-Defamation League in combating hate crimes when he was a senior Justice Department official.

Buttigieg, 35, an Afghanistan war veteran, has the backing of Turnbull, the vice chairwoman of the DNC in the late 2000s. She has led an array of Jewish groups, most recently chairing the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public policy umbrella.

But if it was notable how quickly Ellison’s past came up in the CNN debate, it was also notable that it did not come up again – nor did any other major foreign policy question. It was back to issues like building up the party and combating Trump’s domestic agenda, and protecting immigrants and LGBTQ students who would be affected by Trump’s rescission of Obama-era protections.

That was true also of interviews with Jewish backers of the lead candidates. After framing their replies in “good for the Jews” terms, their inclination was to veer into the need to rebuild the party.

“Just like the Women’s March was started by someone sitting in her living room in Hawaii on her computer, you want to make sure that someone sitting in her kitchen in Kansas but can’t get to their office, that they have the enthusiasm who can get people elected to local councils,” Turnbull said, explaining why she was galvanized by Buttigieg and his ability to excite younger people.

Predicting the outcome of Saturday’s election is a dangerous game – there’s a strong current of “who really knows” in speaking with longtime Democratic activists — but Ellison and Perez are seen as having the edge. A survey this week by The Hill, a Washington daily, of 240 DNC electors showed Ellison with 105 votes and Perez with 57.

But the way voting works could benefit a dark horse like Buttigieg: No one is chosen until he or she has secured a majority. Last-place candidates are dropped until that happens, and Buttigieg’s strong performance in debates across the country has attracted social media support.

Goldman said she knew Perez going back to his run for Maryland’s Montgomery County Council in the early 2000s and their joint work in creating affordable housing in the Washington, D.C., suburb.

“When I found out he was interested in the DNC, I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified,” she said.

Weingarten said Ellison was the best candidate to galvanize the younger Democrats who were attracted to Sanders’ candidacy, among others.

“The Democratic part is about equal opportunity and justice,” she said. “That is what he would operationalize.”