America Decides 2004 Politicos Engage in ‘strange Dances’ As They Navigate New Election Laws

It’s hard to get your candidate into office. But this election cycle, it’s even harder to play by the rules. New campaign finance laws have made it more difficult for Jewish donors, political activists and consultants to aid their favorite candidates and causes at the same time. As is also the case among other political players, Jews are forced to choose between backing a candidate or a political organization, or advising one group over another.

This has forced some to cut ties with their traditional allies, pitted partner versus partner at some political consulting companies, and even forced senior officials to opt out of attending their own organization’s events.

For example, the Jewish liaison for the Kerry campaign and the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council are not speaking to each other, to avoid the appearance of collusion, since both are working on separate projects to court Jewish voters.

“We exchange niceties, but that’s about it,” Jay Footlik, the Kerry campaign’s senior adviser for Jewish and Middle East affairs, said of his relationship with Ira Forman.

The new campaign finance laws, which were enacted in 2002, banned so-called soft money, or unlimited contributions to political parties, which used to run a lot of election ads for their candidates.

The new laws resulted in the proliferation — and increased importance — of advocacy groups, known as 527s because of their Internal Revenue Service designation.

Election law states that national political candidates and parties cannot coordinate activities with these advocacy groups, which due to the new rules have, in this election, taken on a greater role in promoting their candidates.

Several Jewish political organizations have created 527 groups to run political advertisements and outreach efforts and, therefore, have to refrain from communicating with some of their strongest allies and frequent collaborators.

This has led to redundant actions and frequent confusion among advocacy groups and consulting firms that work with 527s.

But, Jewish politicos say, caution has to rule the day.

The two partners of Rabinowitz-Dorf Communications are working different segments of the Jewish Democratic outreach game. Steve Rabinowitz, the company’s president, is advising the NJDC. His managing partner, Matt Dorf, is helping the Kerry campaign place ads in Jewish newspapers.

So while the colleagues still go for walks together and shared Yom Kippur break fast at Rabinowitz’s home, they have erected a figurative firewall in the office and keep their insider knowledge secret.

“It’s not like we don’t talk about the campaign,” Rabinowitz said. “It’s just we go to great lengths not to talk of what NJDC is doing or what he knows the Kerry campaign is doing.”

Dorf said doors rarely were closed in the office here before the political season, but now it’s a daily occurrence.

“It certainly makes for awkward moments,” he said.

Both NJDC and the Kerry campaign placed ads in Jewish newspapers around the High Holidays. Dorf and Rabinowitz say they were upset to see they had both placed ads in the same issues of the same papers, thus not spreading their resources.

But, they said, it helps prove they aren’t working together.

To help show he isn’t working with the Republican Party, Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, skipped the GOP national convention in August, even though his group held several high-profile events, including one with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Brooks said that after consulting with campaign law experts, his group concluded that the national convention would be a place where interaction with party decision makers would be virtually inevitable, and those conversations could, theoretically, impact the work RJC is doing in trying to bring Jewish votes for the Bush/Cheney ticket.

“We considered it in our best interest to avoid being even in that situation,” Brooks said.

At the same time, one of RJC’s board members, Fred Zeidman, resigned from the group, so that he could work more actively on Bush’s campaign. Zeidman was appointed by Bush as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the Holocaust museum in Washington.

“We want to be so clear on this, to withstand the most extensive scrutiny,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t cost us that much more to have the gold standard of compliance.”

Jewish leaders in both parties say they have gone to great lengths, and expense, to remain kosher.

Forman, NJDC’s executive director, said his office tries to avoid talking directly with the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee, and certainly doesn’t tell them what the NJDC is doing.

That means even members of his own board — like Ann Lewis, who is chairing the Women’s Vote Center at the DNC, and Mark Mellman, Kerry’s pollster — are off-limits.

“I can’t use them for political advice anymore,” Forman said. “That’s frustrating, but understandable.”

Many involved in the game say the deliberate moves they are making are more for appearance than to prevent accidental collusion.

“I understand why it is, and I think if there are going to be independent groups and independent expenditures, they have to be truly independent,” Rabinowitz said.

“But it seems ridiculous, and to the outside observer it seems completely unbelievable.”

In fact, he said he fears or even expects to be investigated within the next few months because of his company’s political work.

But at the same time, he says, he will not be stopped from doing his job or supporting his candidates.

“We don’t want to be locked out of doing everything we can for the campaign,” he said.

So, until Nov. 2, more doors will be closed, and more voices hushed around Washington.

“It’s a very inside Washington Beltway thing,” Dorf said. “You go with where the law is. This cycle, this is where the law is and some people are doing some really strange dances.”

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