WASHINGTON (May. 10)
Michael Lebovitz’s wife, Lauren, watched the evening news from her home in Chattanooga, Tenn., and suddenly her husband’s new volunteer work made sense.
On the screen was President Bush changing the landscape of U.S.-Israeli relations, endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and enunciating American support for some Israeli claims in the West Bank.
“My wife looked at me and said, ‘That’s why you’re doing this,’ ” Michael Lebovitz said. “And that’s exactly right.”
Lebovitz, 40, has become the key conduit between Bush’s re-election campaign and the American Jewish community, which is a key constituency for the Republicans in several vital states, including Florida.
Driving him, he says, is a feeling that the Jewish community should show gratitude for President Bush’s Israel policy by helping him win another four years in the White House.
“I have a very strong conviction that our community has a responsibility to thank this president for how he has supported us,” Lebovitz said in an interview in a colorless conference room in the campaign’s northern Virginia offices.
Lebovitz travels to Washington about every other week, coordinating outreach to Jewish communities across the country. The rest of the time, he works out of his home and office.
He recently worked to find Jewish leaders in Michigan who could help campaign staffers there galvanize Jewish outreach. He also has been making similar connections in other states, and nationally.
A real estate developer, Lebovitz has taken on the campaign task without pay, and tries to downplay his role as a mediator between the Jewish world and the Bush campaign.
“I’m not the head of anything,” he said. “I’m not in charge of anything.”
In fact, he has no official title at the campaign; his business card reads only “Jewish Outreach.”
The story of how Michael Lebovitz became Bush’s go-to guy for the Jews starts, he says, at the Shabbat dinner table, where the third-generation Chattanooga resident saw his father engage in Jewish activism, rising to become vice chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.
“That part is definitely hereditary,” he said. But Lebovitz combined his family’s interest in the Jewish world with his own interest in politics.
Lebovitz was a Republican from the beginning, said Fred Zimmerman, president-elect of the Nashville Jewish Federation, who participated in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization with Lebovitz when they were in high school.
“He was the first person I ever heard predict the great Jewish migration to the Republican Party,” Zimmerman recalled.
In college at the University of Texas, Lebovitz volunteered at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. In 1996, when he served as a delegate at the convention, Lebovitz formed a friendship with his state’s new Republican senator, Bill Frist.
A year later, Lebovitz and his wife took Frist to Israel on a trip sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
He also has been active in Jewish circles, serving on AIPAC’s executive committee and as national vice chairman of the United Jewish Communities umbrella organization of Jewish federations.
“He has a good feel for how his age peers will react to issues and challenges,” said Stephen Hoffman, UJC’s chief executive officer. Lebovitz serves as chairman of one of UJC’s pillars, helping craft strategies for campaign and fundraising efforts to UJC federations.
Still, many seemed surprised when Lebovitz was chosen to head up Bush’s Jewish outreach, having assumed that someone with a longer list of contacts and experience in Washington would get the job. Rumors have spread throughout Washington that Lebovitz was placed in the position to appease AIPAC or Frist.
But as Lebovitz and his supporters tell it, it was his quiet discussions with Bush campaign officials about the opportunities for gaining ground in the Jewish community, mixed with the logistical ability to take on the job as a volunteer, that won him the role.
Jeff Ballabon, a Bush fundraiser in New York’s Orthodox community, calls Lebovitz an “incredible mensch.”
“Whatever people said at the beginning because they didn’t know him, what has emerged over the last year is that he is dedicated to the set of goals and priorities,” Ballabon said.
Lebovitz’s goal for the next six months is to improve on the 19 percent of the Jewish vote Bush received in 2000. In 1980, Ronald Reagan received the largest percentage of Jewish votes for a Republican, winning 39 percent against President Jimmy Carter.
As part of the campaign’s outreach, Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to speak Friday to a Jewish audience in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“There is an opportunity in the Jewish community for more votes than last time,” Lebovitz said. “There’s not a number out there we have to reach.”
The opportunity stems from Bush’s outspoken support for Israel, Lebovitz says. Even before Bush’s support last month for the Gaza withdrawal plan, many American Jews were touting Bush’s defiant stances against terrorism and his designation of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as persona non grata at the White House.
Even Sharon has called Bush the best American president Israel has ever seen.
Lebovitz feels that may be enough to turn the tide in the traditionally Democratic voting bloc by convincing Jews that it’s not about the candidate who agrees with them on most issues, but rather on the issues that matter most.
“You have to decide what’s most important to you, and as an American Jew, Israel right now is the most important thing to me,” he said. “This is a man who, from the day he came into office, has changed policy.”
The Bush campaign is focused on increasing its numbers in several key states, most importantly Florida, where Bush won by a very small margin in 2000, and where the Jewish community makes up almost four percent of the population.
But he also is spending time courting Jews in New York, who he says have a lot of connection to Florida Jews, and in California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial victory last year shook up the state’s political landscape.
“The Jewish community is very mobile; we have friends and relatives all over,” he said. “There is no part of the community that we are not contacting, that we are writing off.”