WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (JTA) – For eight years, Stephen Goldsmith piloted the city of Indianapolis through a renaissance of social reform, spearheaded by a link between private charitable services and government resources known as the Front Porch Alliance.
Although it was a small program, dollar-wise, the alliance gained Goldsmith a reputation as a politician who could “think outside the box.”
Now he has been brought in to do the same thing on a national scale.
Goldsmith, the Jewish Republican who served two terms as mayor of Indianapolis, was named Monday as an adviser to President Bush on faith-based initiatives, a controversial program that would give federal funds to religious organizations engaged in charitable programs, such as homeless shelters and drug treatment centers.
He also will serve on the board of the Corporation for National Service, which oversees AmeriCorps, and is believed to have a shot to head that federal agency one day.
Goldsmith steps into this role after serving for the last year as the Bush campaign’s domestic policy adviser. He is respected within the Jewish community, and even opponents of the faith-based initiative programs applauded his appointment.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called it a “wise decision.”
“He brings an understanding of the hopes and the fears, the aspirations and the concerns of the Jewish community,” Saperstein said.
Goldsmith and John Dilulio, the University of Pennsylvania professor who will head the program, are praised for their openness to differing views, but Saperstein said he is concerned that Goldsmith’s presence may be seen as Jewish endorsement of the initiatives.
“The fact that a prominent person who is Jewish is attached to this gives political cover for people to do things that are not in the best interest of the Jewish community,” Saperstein said.
But Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said both sides of the Jewish community have made their positions clear on this issue, and the hiring of Goldsmith and Dilulio, a devout Catholic, show the program is not geared solely to the religious right. “For those who think that this was going to be some White House office for evangelical Christians, they are going to have a hard time making that argument,” Diament said.
As Indianapolis mayor, Goldsmith gained national attention for giving aid to secular and religious institutions for community and charitable projects. Among them, he helped churches adopt and maintain local parks and helped fund religious groups that set up drug treatment centers.
The small-scale program known as the Front Porch Alliance showcased Goldsmith’s genuine interest in finding new solutions to the city’s ills, said E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written about Goldsmith in columns for The Washington Post.
“My experience is that Stephen Goldsmith is many liberals’ favorite conservative,” Dionne said. “Not because they agree with him on everything, but because they view a real sense of commitment and integrity in him.”
Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, said Goldsmith was a true innovator in Indianapolis.
“He’s certainly recognized as someone who was willing to think about new initiatives and how those initiatives might function in today’s public-private relationship,” he said. “He was perceived as someone who would look beyond the traditional role of government and the way government operates in the community.”
Goldsmith gained respect in the state’s capitol for his pilot program but his philosophy did not resonate statewide, and he lost a close race for governor in 1996 to Ed O’Bannon.
Schmuhl said some of the local media hinted that the state was not ready to accept a Jew in the governor’s mansion. Dionne said it was Goldsmith’s humility, which prevented him from taking credit for the city’s improvements.
But Dionne also said it may have been another characteristic that is unusual in politics – the ability to reflect on one’s failures. Goldsmith talked openly about projects that didn’t work, and he paid the price.
Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) said Goldsmith’s ability to focus on social service issues, instead of the economic issues favored by many GOP leaders, separated him from the pack.
“It made him a trendy mayor for the Republicans,” Souder said.