In a move that startled Jewish Washington, the senior lobbyist at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has announced he will join the inner circle of Newt Gingrich, the next Speaker of the House.
Arne Christenson will end his two-year career with the pre-eminent pro-Israel lobby next week to assume one of the top four policy positions in the speaker’s office.
He will become senior policy staffer on budget and spending, Christenson said in an interview Wednesday.
Before coming to AIPAC tow years ago, Christenson, the lobby’s first non-Jewish legislative director, worked eight years as chief of staff for former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) and as legislative director for former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R- Minn.)
Jewish activists predicated that Christenson’s return to Capitol Hill will serve the community well.
“It’s always good to have friends in high places.” said Jason Isaacson, director of the America Jewish Committee’s Washington office.
“To have Arne, who is not only a gifted communicator, but a strategist as well, advising the speaker on a wide range of issues will have a direct positive impact for the Jewish community,” Isaacson said.
Mark Pelavin, Washington representative for the American Jewish Congress, added that Christenson’s move will only strengthen Gingrich’s already strong ties to the pro-Israel community.
Pelavin cautioned, however, that Jewish activists will still have some problems with Gingrich’s domestic agenda.
Just because a former lobbyist for AIPAC will be working for Gingrich, Pelavin said, “We cannot expect the speaker to change his view on a school prayer amendment, the same way we can’t be expected to change ours.”
Gingrich has vowed to push for a school prayer amendment in the 104th Congress, which begins work Jan. 4.
Jewish groups in Washington have begun to prepare for an all-out battle with Gingrich and the Republican leadership on a range of issues including school prayer, welfare reform and a balanced budget amendment.
Christenson refused to address domestic issues of concern to the Jewish community, saying only that his new position is “to promote Gingrich’s agenda.”
For their part, AIPAC officials stressed that Christenson is departing on good terms and that this is a career decision.
“Arne has given two years of outstanding service to AIPAC and the pro Israel community and we wish him well in his new position,” Neal Sher, AIPAC’s executive director said.
According to many observers, Christenson came to AIPAC to bolster the organization’s Republican ties. While his departure will presumably give the lobby a significant entree into the new speaker’s office, it also leaves a potentially large gap in AIPAC’s legislative department at a time when AIPAC needs to foster its ties with the new Republican-controlled Congress.
Only last week, AIPAC announced a major reorganization effort including layoffs of 18 staff members and budget cuts aimed at trimming over $1 million.
Under the reorganization, AIPAC planned to hire a new lobbyist, in addition to Christenson and Ester Kurz, the director of policy and strategy who recently returned to full-time work.
Christenson’s decision to leave hastened the announcement of the new organization’s new lobbyist, Bard Gordon.
Gordon will replace Christenson as AIPAC’s legislative director.
Gordon comes to AIPAC from the House Subcommittee on International Operations, where he worked as a staff director, the most senior committee position.
AIPAC officials said the lobby will now begin looking for another lobbyist to bring the total full-time staff in their legislative department to eight.