Head to head

Two friends, Boston boys and key Democractic players, are split over their next presidential candidate.

October 11, 2007 12:37
grossman solomont 224

grossman solomont 224. (photo credit: Hilary Krieger)


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Two friends, Boston boys and key Democractic players, are split over their next presidential candidate. What this says about the race for the Jewish vote. If you were to look up the definition of alter ego in the dictionary in this New England city where American democracy and political activism drew their first breaths, you might find "What Alan Solomont is to Steve Grossman. Or vice versa." Both are homegrown boys who turned the family enterprise into a thriving multimillion-dollar business with a social conscience. (Solomont set up an array of elder-care facilities; Grossman's communications company pushes environmentally sound marketing materials.) They both have used their wealth to benefit the Jewish community and Jewish causes, with Solomont having served as chairman of the board of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston's federation) and Grossman once holding the presidency of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. They have used their community standing and financial savvy to become major Democratic Party players - and fund-raisers - both locally and nationally. And as it happens, they are good friends. But now their shared path has forked. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, each has chosen a different Democratic candidate to raise money for and advise. Grossman has stayed with Hillary Rodham Clinton, former first lady and current New York senator, while Solomont has joined with the newer face, freshman Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. How they made their choices says something not just about each of them, but about the candidates they back. Steve Grossman on Hillary Clinton Steve Grossman didn't need to have an introductory dinner arranged for him to get to know the candidate he would be backing in the 2008 presidential campaign. His relationship with Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband stretches over almost two decades, to the AIPAC policy conference of 1989. As an AIPAC officer, Grossman had been tasked with prepping Bill Clinton, then head of the Democratic Governors' Association and a relative newcomer to Middle East politics, to speak at a lunch session. "He got up and gave just a wonderful talk," Grossman recalls while sitting in his office, where one long wall is covered with several photos prominently featuring one or both Clintons. "He made it clear what the Democratic Party's relationship had been for generations with Israel." But, the future president told him, "The person you really want to talk to, if you want to talk to someone who's very close to the Jewish community and who's got some interesting ideas and has seen Israel's innovative qualities, is Hillary." So later Grossman did talk to her, and formed an enduring bond with both her and her husband. "People ask me when did you decide you were going to be with Hillary Clinton for president, and my answer to that is, 'I was always going to be with Hillary Clinton. If she ran in 2008, there was no question but that I was going to be with her. Why? Because she's prepared. She is electable." That experience, both personal and professional, is what drew Grossman to her team and is what her advisers hope will draw voters as well. The campaign is building on a pool of familiar names and deeply loyal backers to deliver that message and attract that support. When it appeared that Clinton might be losing some of that base - as when Solomont chose to back Barack Obama - her campaign was quick to line up other prominent people. "When someone gets a big endorsement, the other candidate wants to get another big endorsement right away. Alan's big in the Jewish world, and Steve's very big in the Jewish world, too," notes one Democratic operative. "Hillary's people put a lot of pressure on to come out and back her very quickly. [Grossman] didn't need to be persuaded." Indeed, given his connections to the Clintons as well as the Jewish community, it's not surprising that Grossman would be one to come on board. It was Clinton's husband, after all, who gave Grossman the nod to head the Democratic National Committee during his term in office. "I'm sure part of the reason he's working [with] Hillary is a certain amount of loyalty," said Steve Rabinowitz, the head of a Washington PR firm which works with Democratic and Jewish organizations. If Grossman had gone with another candidate, "I would have been surprised." So far, Clinton's experience and the perception thereof have been reaping rewards. Though polls have been mixed in terms of who better represents change, Clinton is considered to have more experience, and overall that has resonated more. Since both Clinton and Obama announced their candidacies, Clinton has never seriously lagged in the polls. Her lead has grown stronger in recent weeks as the first primaries in January loom ever sooner, though some of the same polls find that she faces stiff competition in some of the early states. Being more of a known quantity is certainly helpful in making the case for Clinton within the Jewish community. "I know of no candidate who is as credible, as solid, as consistent as Hillary Clinton is on issues of concern to the American Jewish community, particularly on matters that relate to Israel and the Middle East," Grossman asserts. He points to her long connection with Israel beginning with a trip in the 1980s. There she was introduced to the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters program. Developed at the Hebrew University, the HIPPY plan helps parents prepare their children for school. Parents with limited formal schooling are provided with educational materials for their children and receive support and training by community educators. Clinton was so impressed by the program that she brought it back with her to the school system in Arkansas, where Bill Clinton was then governor. One Democratic Party source in close touch with Jewish leaders describes the ties with Clinton as long and familiar, removing doubts that might have been raised in a fresher candidate. Plus, he points out, "she represents New York." Being a senator from New York means by definition having an extensive relationship with the Jewish community and knowledge of the issues that matter to it. But Clinton's experience can also be a liability, because experience means having a record - which sometimes needs to be defended. MANY OF those in the Jewish community who would like to see Israeli-Palestinian negotiations esteem her for her role by her husband's side as he labored to hammer out an agreement between the two parties - as she reminds Jewish audiences she's courting. But during that time, she ruffled some feathers in the pro-Israel community. She stirred controversy when she backed the establishment of a Palestinian state, well before it was American policy, in comments which were later explained as being her personal view rather than that of the administration. It was in an unquestionably official capacity, however, that she committed her biggest offense, one that continues to be mentioned. In late 1999, Clinton was photographed embracing Yasser Arafat's wife Suha after the latter gave a speech that accused Israelis of crimes, including using toxic gas against Palestinian women and children. Grossman suggests that it was precisely because of the official nature of the event that she reacted as she did: "You're first lady and you're terribly conscious of issues of protocol, even when you know that a wrong has been done. And the question is not whether you right the wrong but how and when." Her office later explained Clinton's lack of immediate reaction to a poor and incomplete translation of Arafat's comments, which were in Arabic. That incident factored into her relatively weak showing among Jewish voters during her first Senate race in 2000, according to analysts. Though the Jews voted overwhelming for Democrat Al Gore over Republican George W. Bush 79% to 19%, that same year they chose Clinton by only 55% to 45% over Rick Lazio. She made up ground in her reelection race in 2006 though, with exit polls giving her strong Jewish support. That's a sign that the experience is behind her, says one Democratic Party source. "That might have been an issue for her 10 years ago. I just don't think that's an issue for her now," he said. "It's hard for me to imagine her losing even one vote based on that." GROSSMAN CALLS politics "the other family business." His grandfather first became involved in political activism in 1910 campaigning for JFK's grandfather in his run for reelection as Boston's mayor. Grossman sees his political activism as developing naturally alongside his Jewish activism, tracing the former back to the passage in the Book of Isaiah referring to those who follow God as "the repairer of the breach." He considers that chapter a cry for social justice, with words that implore readers to "share your bread with the hungry," to "take the wretched poor into your home," to "let the oppressed go free." And those sentiments, he says, were echoed by Franklin Roosevelt - sentiments he can quote from both places with ease. Referring to Roosevelt's second inaugural address, Grossman says, "He made it very clear when he said, 'The test of our progress is not whether we provide more for those who already have much, but whether you provide enough for those who have too little.'" And so it is that Grossman says he finds "no conflict whatsoever between being a Jewish activist and Democratic activist." His political and religious convictions collided in 1992, when he agreed to forgo a planned run for governor of Massachusetts to become AIPAC president. Grossman recounts that the pitch he was given was less than convincing. "When they called me, they said, 'We know you can't do it, but we want to ask you to become president of AIPAC anyhow.' I said, 'What kind of salesmanship is that? What do you mean, I'm not going to do it?'" The AIPAC officials knew of his planned run for the governorship and that the AIPAC job would mean he'd have to resign his post at the DNC, sacrifices they assumed he'd be unwilling to make. But he told the AIPAC official on the phone: "If I were going to go out this afternoon and buy a gravestone for myself, a headstone, and there were two identical pieces of granite, and one of them said, 'He reformed workers' compensation in Massachusetts,' and one of them said, 'He served the Jewish people,' which one do you think I pick? He says, 'I know which one you'd pick.' And I said, 'That's why I'd be proud to become president of AIPAC.'" Grossman sums up, "My life in the last 30 years has been in one way or other about serving the Jewish people. It's also being a servant to this country." In Hillary Clinton he sees someone who shares those passions. "She's an intensely religious person and her faith and the antecedents of that faith all having started right there in that land created an intense bond between her and Israel," he says. The way Grossman sees it, "There's an unshakeable commitment from Isaiah to Roosevelt for social justice, and I think that's been an important element in Hillary Clinton's entire career." Alan Solomont on Barack Obama The first time Alan Solomont had the opportunity to work with Barack Obama, during the latter's Senate campaign in 2004, he turned down the offer. "I'm a pretty easy mark usually," admits Solomont, explaining that at that time he was so busy with Democratic nominee John Kerry's presidential bid, he didn't have the "bandwidth" to help Obama. "I decided later I would never make that mistake again." So when he got a chance the next year to meet the newly elected senator, who had gained national attention for his "Audacity of Hope" speech at the Democratic National Convention, Solomont didn't pass it up - though he almost missed their dinner because his plane was late. But Obama waited, and when Solomont showed up, the first thing the senator pointed out was that they had both started out as community organizers. "I've been involved in Democratic politics and working to help elect Democratic candidates for 30-odd years. Nobody has ever bothered to learn that about me. So I was instantly impressed," a smiling Solomont relates from the conference room of his office, with its vista of Greater Boston and its mementos from Israel. The fact that Obama had a different approach was not only a key factor in Solomont's decision to join his upstart bid rather than the established forces of Hillary Clinton; it is also one of the principal reasons why Solomont believes Obama will be able to win over the majority of the American public. As he weighed which candidate to support, Solomont says, "What I focused on was not the candidates, but on what I thought the American people were looking for in their next president. And it was very clear to me [that] the American people want change. This is an election about change versus the status quo, and I'm with Barack Obama because he represents change, and other candidates represent the status quo." Since Solomont felt that Obama best promised that change, he "signed on in a big way" to his campaign, even though it ran against his allegiance to the Clintons. "Whom we select as president is a big deal, and it's a choice that transcends politics and partisanship and even to some extent personal loyalty," says Solomont, whose desk now features a photo of himself and Obama standing in isolation from his wall of pictures of earlier events and administrations. He notes his "great respect" for the Clintons - whom he supported for 15 years over four elections - "as human beings, as public servants and as leaders," and compliments Hillary Clinton's performance in the Senate. But he adds, "That was then, and that doesn't necessarily dictate the terms of the future. Bill Clinton would be the first one to say elections are about the future, not the past." "Alan's a totally righteous guy who I don't think has any bad blood with the Clintons. I think he was just taken with Obama and persuaded," says Steve Rabinowitz, who runs a Washington PR company that works with Jewish organizations and the Democratic Party. A slightly less charitable spin is offered by a party insider, who assesses that Solomont, and other prominent players who chose smaller campaign teams, are motivated at least in part by the desire to have a larger role. "It's the whole big fish, small pond thing. Grossman is a big fish in Hillaryland. But Solomont is a gigantic fish" in Obama's pool. It's a charge that Solomont wholeheartedly rejects. Either way, his decision to join with Obama certainly had ripple effects. It generated a good deal of media attention - more than Solomont says he expected - as one of the first high-profile Clinton backers to decamp. The move made "two very positive statements" that helped cement Obama as a serious candidate, explains Rabinowitz. "One was that Obama would be able to raise big Democratic party money and not just grassroots Howard Dean-like money," he says, referring to the former Vermont governor whose bid for the 2004 Democratic nomination started strong but then fizzled. And secondly, "This is a guy that could get mainstream Jewish and pro-Israel support." For all that being a fresh face can attract potential voters, the unknown can also be a liability in the Israel-oriented community. Solomont giving Obama a kashrut certificate helps, but doubt lingers in some quarters, according to one Democratic source familiar with the thinking of Jewish community leaders. "There's always going to be an extra amount of scrutiny for the new kid on the block," he said. And Solomont acknowledges, "We still need to fully introduce him to the American people and fully introduce him to the Jewish community." In one very unofficial bipartisan poll by Haaretz of eight Israeli experts on the candidate best for Israel, Obama suffered for being an unknown. He ranked the lowest of the three top Democratic (and Republican) candidates according to the "Israel factor." One of the experts explained, "We don't know and have no way to know to what extent he really means what he says." But one Democratic Party strategist discounted the poll's composition and its findings. Obama has said and done "all the right things" when it comes to Israel and that has reassured concerned voters, he said. The only troubling position he has taken, he added, is his statement that he would meet with Iranian and Syrian leaders without preconditions within the first year of taking office. "From everything I've heard and seen, it's the one thing many Jewish voters have had a problem with." The issue of meeting the Iranian leadership and that of other rogue nations turned into one of the biggest policy spats between Obama and Clinton when it came up at a summer debate - indeed it became one of the largest blowups between them so far. Clinton used the opportunity to call Obama "irresponsible and naïve." She had answered that she would first try to learn their motives and what progress would be possible before agreeing to talk to them. The Obama camp labeled her stance "Bush-Cheney lite" in return. Or, as Solomont put it: "Barack Obama really wants to change the way we do our business in the world. He wants to change the way we conduct foreign policy. He doesn't want to continue the same approach as the Bush-Cheney administration." Solomont paints the response - unpopular though it may be - as a sign of Obama's willingness to overlook short-term political goals for a broader purpose. "I don't think this is a candidate who fashions his approach to foreign policy issues based on what he thinks people want to hear." Obama's approach has earned him a large following of grassroots supporters and, with them, a large campaign kitty. Though his poll numbers have consistently lagged behind Clinton's - he generally garners about 20 percent of the vote as the second choice to Clinton, whose numbers hover around 35% to 40% - he has kept up in the money race and has an expansive grassroots network which has raised funds from record-breaking numbers of people. Having the veteran rainmaker Solomont on his fund-raising team - his official, though voluntary, campaign role is that of New England finance chairman - doesn't hurt. According to Solomont, as of August Obama had raised more money in Massachusetts than any other Democrat, more money in New Hampshire and Maine than all the other Democrats combined and more money in Vermont than all the other candidates - Republicans included - put together. SOLOMONT HAS a long history in fund-raising, which began with him selling $50 tickets for a Massachusetts state senator three decades ago. But he traces his grounding in the field back much further than that. The product of an Orthodox home, he quips that his father "tried to teach me Halacha and tzedaka, and he was one for two." The substantial amount of money he made running nursing homes, after first studying nursing like his mother, has allowed him to become a formidable donor himself. (Rabinowitz notes that Solomont and Grossman often contribute to each other's causes.) But Solomont says the ability to fund-raise effectively actually comes from his earlier activism rather than his financial acumen. Solomont, who teaches a course on the American presidency at Tufts University, puts the fund-raising business in historical perspective: "People who do what I do became perhaps much more important than we deserved to be in the process of the '80s and '90s, because campaigning became more expensive because it was driven by television. People like me, who 20 years earlier might have been organizing precincts to get out the vote, are now organizing fund-raisers so we can purchase TV advertising." So now, he says, "I define my work as being a political activist, because fund-raising is just a means to do it." For all the focus on tzedaka, Solomont also relates learning the importance of tikkun olam, or healing the world, of which political involvement is an extension. "I think it's important work to do. It has taught me what a great democracy we live in, where a middle-class Jewish kid from Brookline, Massachusetts, can have an impact on the campaign for the presidency. "Part of it was going off and [organizing] in Lowell and I think, like Barack, seeing the value of collective action, seeing the side of America that needed work more than the nice community of south Brookline that I grew up in." Obama's opening reference to their similar beginnings, in addition to highlighting the connection between them, also impressed Solomont because of what it told him about the senator. "It said to me that it wasn't all about him, which I think is an occupational hazard in politics," he says with a knowing grin. "The hardest thing in American politics is to listen to what voters are saying. Politicians like to listen to what they [themselves] are saying." And right now, according to Solomont, the voters are saying they want change. "They're ready for a new generation, they're ready for a new voice. And they're ready not just for a change in party and government, but in how we conduct our politics." Obama, according to Solomont, "is the one candidate that really speaks to that longing."

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