Saturday, November 10, 2012

Politics, Money and Israel

I’ve hesitated writing this post because of certain sensitive areas. In the spirit of Fight Club, there are things you are encouraged not to talk about. They are not, however, illegal, immoral or any different from how thousands of other interest groups operate, so being it’s after the election, here goes.

The well-deserved trouncing of Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel by Senator Sherrod Brown provided an added dimension to an aspect of political fundraising. I met Mandel after his presentation before an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) meeting in 2008. He seemed like an earnest young man, with much in common with my sister-in-law’s brother: Jewish, Republican, Marine Corps Reserve and state government. I thought it would be good connection for the two.

Mandel was elected Ohio state treasurer in 2010 at age 33, swept into office as part of the Tea Party revolution. During his campaign, I began receiving emails from Kasich for Governor in addition to those from Mandel. I didn’t pay any attention, figuring they had gotten my name from a contribution to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Silly me; I hadn’t noticed Kasich was a Republican. After sending an unsubscribe reply, I told Mandel’s people to not only unsubscribe me but to never give out my email address again.

Despite assurances he was going to serve at least one term as state treasurer, Mandel quickly announced he would run in the Senate primary in 2012. He soundly defeated four opponents, winning 63 percent of the vote. Last spring, I received an invitation letter signed by a prominent real-estate executive for a Mandel fundraiser. It related a litany of supposed anti-Israel positions and votes by Brown and the need to elect a staunch pro-Israel supporter like Josh Mandel. The fundraiser would bundle the contributions (minimum request: $500) and present them to Mandel in the interest of further strengthening U.S.-Israel relations. After sharing it with a friend – pointing out the overwrought tone and many fallacies – the letter went into the recycling bin. So here’s where the story starts.

This sounds familiar, some might say; doesn’t AIPAC do that? The answer is no. It’s a common misconception that AIPAC endorses candidates and contributes to their campaigns. First off, it can’t because it’s not a political-action committee. Second, it gains much of its strength from being bipartisan. Another fallacy about AIPAC is that it makes policy and then pushes it on Capitol Hill, including urging the U.S. to invade Iraq after 9/11. Again, not true. It takes its cue from the government of Israel (which by the way warned us about invading Iraq) and lobbies for issues important to Israel. Passing the foreign aid bill is always the top priority because contrary to public perception, aid to all countries is packaged in one bill, and the members of Congress vote up or down. One can’t vote Yes for Israel and No for Egypt.

AIPAC’s influence on electoral politics is more indirect and, I may add, even more effective. Persons active in AIPAC are encouraged to join a local group that raises money for Congressional – but not presidential – candidates. I was involved in one such group; it deliberately does not have a name, and if asked its name, the reply would be, “We’re just a group of pro-Israel supporters.” Because I’m still on its distribution list and respect its wish to stay out of the limelight, some of my details will remain sketchy.

Some years back, supporters of strong U.S.-Israel relations realized it was inefficient and ineffective for individuals to send money to a candidate and express support for these policies. Forming a group to bundle the contributions was a sensible solution. Members pledge to make a minimum contribution of a size I won’t disclose over a two-year election cycle. How much and to whom is your business; in fact, the group is strictly bi-partisan in that sense.

Members organize luncheons or home visits for Senators, Representatives or candidates they feel have done a good job supporting U.S.-Israel relations or filled out questionnaire to the group’s liking. Discussions are limited strictly to that subject. Most often it’s an incumbent, since his or her record is public knowledge. Rarely do you see a fundraiser for somebody running against an incumbent, unless that incumbent is somebody like Ron Paul. On that subject, I’ve only received three special solicitations that simply asked for contributions because of opposition to a particular candidate: Rand Paul, when he was running in the Republican primary in 2010; Charles Barron, a 2012 candidate for the Democratic nomination for Congress in Brooklyn who has a history of anti-Israel statements; and Tammy Baldwin, who was accused of being “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish” by opponent Tommy Thompson, despite that fact she was raised by her Jewish grandmother.

Thus, I was not surprised by a summer invitation to a Sherrod Brown fundraiser. He was an incumbent with a good record on U.S.-Israel relations, and several Democratic members of the group staged the event. The Mandel fundraiser I know garnered contributions from group members but the group did not organize one.

This gets me to another local organization involved in pro-Israel fundraising: To Protect Our Heritage. It is in fact a political-action committee that endorses and contributes money to candidates. Its members were (and maybe still are) invited to select group fundraisers, with mixed results. I say this because it’s made up mostly of right-wingers, some far enough on the fringe to write for the loathsome American Thinker. One of them audaciously asked Sen. Patty Murray whether because Rachael Corrie, who was killed by a bulldozer protesting the destruction of the house of a suicide bomber, grew up in Washington it reflected on the quality of education in the state. Sen. Murray (a great lady, I might add) after some hesitation deflected the question as being off the subject. Another lectured then-Cong. Shelly Berkley to go back to D.C. and tell her Democratic colleagues to not oppose expansion of West Bank settlements. She meekly replied that she would. The group’s endorsements for 2012, in addition to Mandel, included Tommie Thompson and Richard Murdock for senator and Michelle Bachmann, Steve King, Joe Walsh and Allen West for Congress. Need I say more?

There then, is the real strength of the so-called Israel Lobby and – surprise! – it’s money. The sums now pale next to the tsunami of Super PAC cash, which thankfully was mostly wasted on the Republican side. Candidates will still heed the calls from pro-Israel fundraising groups to help ensure continued support on Capitol Hill. As for Josh Mandel, the money from names like Pritzker, Crown and Zell and tens of millions from Super PACs only served to make the race closer than it should have been. I hope those who attended that Chicago fundraiser or sent in their checks because they thought Mandel should be a U.S. Senator solely on his pro-Israel position realize what a callow, pro-life-with-no-exceptions pisher he turned out to be.