Jewish groups weigh election-year rules

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), second from left, speaks at a Conference of Presidents meeting with COP Chairman Harold Tanner and COP Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein on June 16, 2005, in New York.  (Office of Senator Rick Santorum)

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), second from left, speaks at a Conference of Presidents meeting with COP Chairman Harold Tanner and COP Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein on June 16, 2005, in New York.

(Office of Senator Rick Santorum)

WASHINGTON, July 11 (JTA) — When is it kosher for Jewish leaders to consort with lawmakers, and when does it become payback for political pork? The propriety of appearances with politicians is once again an issue in an election year, with a focus on the re-election campaign of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in November. At issue are what the rules should be when dealing with incumbents up for election. Some argue that as long as Jewish groups avoid events that expressly endorse a candidate, the timing of their appearances is of little import. Others argue for stricter rules as an election approaches to avoid giving the impression that the politician has the group in his pocket. “I am trying to get the message out to every Jewish nonprofit: Do not be used,” said Ira Forman, executive director for the National Jewish Democratic Council, which has led the campaign. In a recent action alert to members, the NJDC targeted Jewish groups that have hosted Santorum or that have agreed to appear at a Jewish Leadership Summit he’s holding July 18. “In a true sign of political deviousness, Santorum has roped the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) into this recent political charade,” the e-mail said. “And in doing so, he and Republicans are playing games with the tax-deductible status of Jewish not-for-profit organizations.” Nonsense, said Santorum, who notes that he long has hosted such forums for constituents. In a letter of reassurance to Nathan Diament, who heads the O.U.’s Washington office and who will appear at the event, Santorum expressed his “dismay” at charges that the event is political. “This is an official Senate function, and speakers will discuss the policy-related issues of the day,” Santorum wrote. “Since 1997, my office has hosted various coalition days in Washington, D.C. to introduce my constituents to lawmakers and experts in the nation’s capital.” Also scheduled to appear are Daniel Pipes, who leads the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, and Shoshana Bryen of JINSA. They dismissed Forman’s concerns. “There is no fund-raising involved,” Bryen said. “I have spoken before many, many groups of people, Republicans and Democrats. What I do is engage in American security policy as endorsed by JINSA. We do not support electioneering or candidates.” In his letter to Diament, Santorum outlined a number of events he has hosted, in election years and non-election years, for a variety of constituencies, including African Americans, Asian Americans, women and Hispanic Americans. Diament said he was comfortable with his appearance. “The O.U. does not engage in political campaign activities, it does not endorse political candidates and we’ll be talking about the issues,” he said. He noted a May event hosted by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who is also up for re-election this year. “I don’t think because the president of AIPAC gave a presentation at that meeting that it was an endorsement,” he said. Forman argues that the Clinton event was different because it was private, and because although Clinton led the event, the Senate Democratic leadership organized it. Additionally, Clinton is virtually assured victory, while Santorum is trailing his Democratic rival, Bob Casey, and needs every vote he can get. Republicans say such vagaries make the question of what’s proper and what’s not difficult to determine, and set a burdensome standard. Matt Brooks, Forman’s counterpart at the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Forman’s proposals threaten to choke off dialogue. “It stifles the ability of elected leaders and organizations in the community to engage the wider community in discussion on important policy matters,” Brooks said. “Santorum is absolutely correct in wanting these conversations with the Jewish community.” Democrats scored a success recently with the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body for Jewish federations, after its monthly e-mail newsletter featured an interview with Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican who faces a tight re-election race in November. The interview lauded Ehrlich for his role in distributing state homeland security funds to Jewish groups. The newsletter had run similarly friendly interviews with Democrats in the past, but after Jewish Democrats complained about the Ehrlich interview, UJC made it a policy not to write about politicians in an election year. “We’ve decided that we will only highlight public officials not seeking public office within 12 months of the publication of the e-newsletter,” said William Daroff, the top UJC official in Washington and a former RJC official. That standard is overly burdensome, said Hadar Susskind, Daroff’s counterpart at the Washington office of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for community relations councils. For example, it cuts off members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who serve two-year terms, for half of their time in Congress. “Congressmen are always running,” he said. “We inevitably invite people up for re-election to our plenums.” Still, there is room for precautions, Susskind said. In such situations, JCPA advises constituents to make sure to invite not just incumbents but their opponents, he said. “Anyone campaigning is always in campaign mode,” he said.

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