William Daroff, deputy executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, was chosen by the Jewish federations' umbrella organization to serve as its vice president for public policy and director of the Washington Action Office. He replaces Charles Konigsberg, who was let go in February.
The selection of a Republican operative reflects the reality of GOP control of the White House and both houses of Congress. It also comes as some major federation donors are strengthening their Republican ties.
Barry Swartz, UJC vice president, acknowledged that Daroff's contacts with key players were a key factor in considering him. Equally important was the fact that Daroff maintains ties to Democrats as well, despite his current partisan role.
"His ability to traverse both sides of the aisle, his relationships, his skill, acumen and accomplishments all contributed to the feeling he was the candidate," Swartz told JTA.
Daroff will need to work hard in the coming year to garner federal appropriations for Jewish groups in an economy squeezed by hurricane devastation in the Gulf Coast.
Jewish officials in Washington say Daroff, 36, has the community's respect. He joined RJC in 2000, starting as director of congressional relations. He is a former Energy Department staffer in the administration of the elder President Bush, and was an adviser to former Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, now a US senator.
A Cleveland native, Daroff worked as an attorney in Ohio and was active in the state's Republican Party. But he said he would be able to forge ties with Democrats as well.
"I am someone who is very committed to Jewish communal issues, and I see myself working with all sorts of folks," Daroff said last Friday. "I don't see it as being a problem, but rather an opportunity to expand my horizons and work for the betterment of the cause."
Daroff said his focus would be on making UJC the central address for American Jewry in Washington. He plans to mirror the role Jewish federations play in metropolitan areas, minimizing overlap in policy focus and event scheduling. He also said he would like to resurrect regular meetings among key Jewish players in Washington.
"My idea is not for the UJC Washington office to be in supremacy, but like local federations, we will serve as a vehicle for coordination and cooperation," he said.
In recent years, UJC's Washington office has focused on appropriations for federations and other Jewish bodies. Federation-administered programs receive between $5 billion and $7b. per year in federal and state grants, UJC officials said.
The Washington office was instrumental in obtaining funds for Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities - a program that helps elderly people stay longer in their communities - and for security upgrades for synagogues and other Jewish sites through the Homeland Security Department.
The organization largely has abandoned Jewish advocacy not directly related to getting federal dollars to local Jewish communities. Daroff said he believes it's important to return to public advocacy.
"I think the Washington office staff has done a great job in helping federations with earmarks and appropriations," he said. "But I also think UJC has an obligation to be a voice on public policy issues where it can make a difference."
Daroff acknowledged that it would be more difficult to garner federal appropriations in coming years, especially after the hurricanes. He stressed the importance of working creatively.
"It's often easy to look at how things have always been done and say 'lets do it again,'" he said. "In tough budgetary times, there are ways to look at the margins and create creative solutions." Those include building stronger ties on Capitol Hill and stressing the role Jewish community groups play in providing assistance to those in need, he said. He also said the UJC would be involved in long-term solutions for New Orleans and other places devastated by Katrina.
Daroff will enter unfamiliar territory at the UJC, occasionally having to speak out against the GOP on social policy issues such as Medicare and Medicaid funding - which he said would be a key issue - along with refugee and immigration concerns.
"I believe a social safety net is necessary, and it's the responsibility of the Jewish community and government to help those who need help," Daroff said.
Jewish community officials have noted the influx of major Republican Jewish donors to the federation system in recent years. The donors are said to be pushing the UJC away from backing Democratic social programs, with some success.
Konigsberg, who served for just over a year, also had Republican ties: He had worked as an aide to Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and in the Bush administration. But he also worked for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and in the Clinton White House.
Swartz said Daroff's background, coming from a Jewish community job - albeit a partisan one - was a factor in his hiring, as was his reputation in Washington as a friendly, team player.
Daroff received praise from Democrats, who said they believed he could adapt to the new position.
"I think people know him and people like him, and think he is a person of integrity," said Reva Price, the Jewish liaison for the House of Representatives' minority leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "I am totally confident he can put the partisanship aside."
Swartz did not mention it, but in recent years the UJC's Washington office has suffered from difficult staff-management relations, and from relationships with other Jewish groups that at times have been tense.
"It was important to me to have someone who is a team person," Swartz said. "It's a strategic direction of UJC to partner with other Jewish organizations and institutions."
Daroff's colleagues stressed his affability and his familiarity with key Washington players. "Daroff is extremely well-liked by anyone who deals with him," said Noam Neusner, a former White House liaison to the Jewish community. Daroff will have to tone down his public expressions of partisanship. He was known in Washington Jewish circles for wearing ties adorned with elephants, the GOP symbol, and his car had Bush/Cheney bumper stickers.
"I am very much looking forward to a bipartisan lifestyle," he said. JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.