Washington Activists Race to Learn Who is Dennis Hastert

Who is Dennis Hastert? That was the question Jewish activists and everyone else in Washington was asking this week after the six-term congressman from Illinois emerged from the wreckage of the impeachment debate as the consensus choice to fill the Republican leadership void.

The void was suddenly created after House Speaker-designate Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) announced over the weekend that he would resign from Congress in the wake of revelations of his marital infidelity.

Hastert is expected to be elected speaker on Jan. 6.

Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach, has a reputation as a behind- the-scenes deal-maker and consensus builder — a skill most political observers say he will need to employ as he faces the challenge of bridging deep divisions within the Republican Party and reaching out to Democrats across the fierce partisan divide.

As chief deputy whip. Hastert has close ties to Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R- Texas), the prime mover behind President Clinton’s impeachment. But for the most part, little is known about the man who would be third in line to become president, and the generic initial reactions from some Jewish activists reflected that.

“He’s in a unique position to be a very strong speaker with universal support,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition. He cited Hastert’s record supporting foreign aid to Israel and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, adding that his group was in the process of finding out more about him.

While his interactions with the Jewish community have been limited — there are relatively few Jews in hastert’s district west of Chicago — Jews from his home state say he is far from an unknown quantity.

Michael Kotzin, director of Chicago’s Jewish Community Relations Council, described Hastert as a “solid Midwestern hard-working kind of guy who has been accessible to our community and has been there on Israel matters.”

Chuck Brooks, executive director and treasurer of National PAC, the largest pro-Israel political action committee, noted that Hastert has a 100 percent voting record on pro-Israel issues. Hastert has visited Israel on three separate trips — with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti- Defamation League and as part of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s delegation marking Israel’s jubilee earlier this year.

On the church-state front, the other realm of major Jewish concern, Hastert has staked out positions that are more or less in step with most conservative Republicans. The Christian Coalition gave him a 100 percent rating, and he voted earlier this year in favor of a constitutional amendment allowing for prayer in public schools — an issue viewed by some in the Jewish community as a church-state litmus test.

Marcia Balonick, executive director of the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, an Illinois based multi-issue Jewish PAC, said her group has never supported Hastert because of his opposition to abortion rights and support for school vouchers and other measures that challenge church-state separation.

But she said she hoped he would be a “bipartisan player.”

Hastert’s emergence, meanwhile, even struck Jewish Democrats as relatively unobjectionable.

“If the standard is milquetoast, then Hastert wins with flying colors.” said Stephen Silberfarb, deputy director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “He might be better than Livingston, but he’s not a sufficient upgrade to make people forget Newt Gingrich.”

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