Behind the Headlines: Aipac Chairman Comes Full Circle As He Moves to Democratic Party

Steve Grossman shed his official Democratic posts in 1992 when members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee elected him as their president.

Now, Grossman has come full circle, resigning his AIPAC affiliations to become the next national chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

President Clinton this week tapped the Newton, Mass., businessman and longtime Boston Jewish activist to help take the Democratic Party into the next century.

After next week’s vote by the party’s membership — considered a mere formality — Grossman will assume the day-to-day operations of the DNC. Colorado Gov. Roy Romer will serve as its general chairman.

Grossman said he was resigning his position as chairman of the board at AIPAC, the pre-eminent Jewish lobby, because “AIPAC is a non-partisan organization with bipartisan leaders. It would not be appropriate for the chair of AIPAC to also serve as the chair of a national party.”

“One part of my life will always be dedicated to grass-roots activism in the Jewish community,” Grossman said in a telephone interview Tuesday from his Boston-area office in between television interviews.

“My commitment to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship is unwavering.”

AIPAC officials said Mayer Mitchell, a former AIPAC chairman, would resume that title to replace Grossman.

For Grossman, the new post will pose an immediate challenge.

Grossman will take over operations at the DNC as an ethical cloud hangs over the party. Revelations about illegal campaign contributions and million of dollars in returned contributions have plagued the party since the November election. The Justice Department is weighing an investigation into the matter.

Grossman said he and Romer plan to tackle the issue head-on.

“While it’s too early to get terribly specific, we plan to acknowledge that mistakes were made and put in place a very stringent system of rules and guidelines” to prevent any future problems, he said.

“We will also make clear to our fund-raisers, contributors and to the American people that we will not make the mistakes of the past.”

Part of this will be accomplished through campaign-finance reform, which Grossman termed “a major agenda item for us.”

The push for such reform conflicts with the view of some in the Jewish community who fear that a change in the system would reduce Jewish influence.

Grossman, whose wife and two young children will remain in the Boston area, plans to spend a great deal of time in Washington as well as Boston. He will continue to run the family-owned business, Massachusetts Envelope.

Grossman served as chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party from 1990 until he assumed the AIPAC presidency in 1992.

After his term as AIPAC president ended last year, Grossman became chairman of the AIP AC board. Grossman helped found the National Jewish Democratic Council and is an honorary national vice chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and a former campaign chairman of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

Grossman’s friends and business associates lined up to praise the 50-year-old, self-described “genetic Democrat.”

“Steve has the ability to right the ship,” said Michael Brown, the son of Ronald Brown, the former DNC chairman and Cabinet secretary who was killed in an airplane crash last year.

Grossman’s decision to back the elder Brown’s candidacy to head the party going into the 1992 election has won him praise from the Brown family.

“I remember how proud I was of Steve and the Jewish community when they stepped up behind my father,” Brown said. “You alway= 29 massacre.”

Warnings of a renewed confrontation are not difficult to fie able to knock these down.”

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he was “delighted” that Clinton chose “such a superb man. He’s just excellent.”

“Steve is a successful businessman who understands the important role for the public sector,” he said.

Frank predicted that Grossman would be able to tackle the fund-raising problems plaguing the party. “Now that the problem has been bought to his attention, it won’t be repeated.”

Frank also hailed the appointment because, he said, “it’s important to have someone who is such a strong advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Clinton chose Grossman in part for his management experience and his time spent as the head of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

“Steve is a businessman with a real good conscience,” said Ann Lewis, deputy director of communications at the White House.

Lewis, also a Massachusetts native and Frank’s sister, added, “We are fortunate to have someone who has such a global view of the world and understands that the United States is a world leader.”

In Boston, Jewish activists were unanimous in their praise of Grossman, whose family was recently honored when a street was renamed “Grossman Way” in their honor.

Joel Sherman, a past chairman of the board of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and a local attorney, said Grossman is “an exceptional mensch.”

“Steve has such a commitment to the Democratic Party’s ideals and what it stands for. The DNC is extremely fortunate to have chosen someone of Steve’s integrity,” said Sherman, an attorney and fellow congregant at Newton’s Temple Emanuel.

“Steve understands the human element. He comes to this job not as a Jew, but as a deeply committed Jew.”

Another of Grossman’s friends, Leonard Fein, said the choice is nothing but good for Jewish interests.

“It clearly does not hurt Jewish interests to have a person so closely identified with those interests in this position,” said Fein, the former editor of Moment magazine who now serves as director of social action at the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

For its part, AIPAC said in a congratulatory statement: “AIPAC has long seen up close Steve’s integrity, fairness, extraordinary intellect and the commitment he brings to everything he does.”

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