WASHINGTON - 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.RELATED:Israel to be major subject of US political debate in 2012 Romney: Obama treating Israel with suspicion, distrust
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
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
It’s the same narrative that shaped nationally prominent figures like
Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush,
and Joshua Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff -- 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
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
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 super-majorities 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
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 US 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, US Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Fleischer.
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!”