If money is, as former California Treasurer Jesse Unruh said, the “mother’s milk of politics,” then Alan Solomont is one successful dairyman.
Solomont, a longtime leader in Jewish philanthropic and national Democratic political circles, is one of the go-to men when big money is needed.
Now, despite his longstanding ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton, he is applying his skills on behalf of the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Solomont, however, approaches his work not as just helping a candidate but as furthering a cause.
“This is a mission-driven, value-laden enterprise, and I am philosophical about it,” he said during an interview in the memorabilia-filled conference room of his office in this Boston suburb.
Throughout the conversation, Solomont emphasized that raising money is a means to an end: getting politicians who share his goals of a more economically and socially just country. He said his work is deeply driven by the Jewish teachings he learned growing up in an observant household in the nearby town of Brookline.
Solomont, 58, has chaired the board of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, where he helped raise money for a new senior citizens residence, among other projects.
“I departed a bit from my Jewish roots in the 1970s and 1980s but as I have gotten older, more of what I do is informed by Jewish values and teachings,” the father of two daughters said. “It goes back to Genesis when Abraham asked if ‘the God of justice will act in a just way.’
“We are judged by our level of concern for others and our willingness to do the right thing,” he said.
This morally driven approach has won Solomont admiration from the politicians he has helped as well as those who support other candidates.
“He has a social conscience as deep and impressive as you’ll find,” said Michael Dukakis, a former governor of Massachusetts and ! 1988 Dem ocratic presidential nominee. “He is one of the most constructive and caring people I’ve ever worked with.”
Steve Grossman, a top fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton and a former Democratic National Committee chairman, believes there is nothing phony or insincere about Solomont.
“He’s a warrior for social justice,” said Grossman, who has known Solomont and his wife, Susan, for 25 years. “He’s as honest as the sun about his causes and principles.”
Those principles were shaped in part by Solomont’s work during the early 1970s in Lowell, a once-prosperous textile manufacturing center that had been beset with an array of problems.
Solomont worked with immigrants in the city’s North end to persuade officials to enact rent control, and led efforts to stop the expansion of a local highway into a residential neighborhood.
“The war on poverty created structures for citizen involvement, and my work centered on getting people empowered through collective action,” he said.
After working as a community organizer Solomont, who has undergraduate degrees in nursing and political science, made his wealth in the nursing home and senior home health care businesses. He now devotes almost all his time to political and philanthropic work.
Solomont says working as an organizer helped him form an instant bond with Obama, who undertook similar efforts in Chicago in the 1980s.
“During our first conversation over dinner in Washington, D.C., we talked about our work in communities and how it shaped our views about affecting change,” Solomont recalled. “This election will be about change: a change in government and the way politics is conducted. There is a connection between gridlock and the smallness of our politics. Barack Obama strikes me as a new voice who is able to speak in a new way.”
He said Obama s approach to Middle East issues will serve him well on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office.
“He respects peop! le, incl uding the Jewish community, too much to tell them what they want to hear,” said Solomont, Obama’s Northeast finance chairman. “If elected he would put the full weight of the presidency behind a search for Middle East peace.”
Solomont said the controversy over Obama s recent statement that “nobody suffers more than the Palestinians” was blown out of proportion because it was taken out of context — Obama had noted that the Palestinians suffer from the failure of their leaders to recognize Israel.
For Obama to have the chance to transform politics, Solomont and his other fund-raisers will have to sustain and build on the current momentum. During the first three months of 2007, Obama’s campaign raised $25 million, compared with $26 million raised by the Clinton campaign.
Solomont, who has worked on five previous presidential campaigns and was national finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee, once organized an event that raised $4 million for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign.
He uses a subtle but firm approach when asking for money.
Speaking to a prospective donor who returned his phone call during the interview, Solomont said: “I hope you and your wife will be able to help out as we put together a smaller event for Barack. We have him for a few hours on a Saturday night, and this would be a good chance to introduce him to key people.”
But as a former member of the Clinton fund-raising team, Solomont knows he is up against the political equivalent of the New York Yankees, the most financially successful franchise in baseball history.
His conference room contains a picture of the former president helping him with his golf swing. It also prominently displays a frame with 13 pictures of Hillary Clinton visiting a nursing home in Boston for which he helped raise money.
Solomont says Hillary Clinton, a U.S. senator from New York, would make a “fine president” — but Obama would make a better one.! He know s his work for Obama means that his friendship with the Clintons, who place a premium on personal loyalty, won’t be the same.
“He thought about it and agonized about it because his relationship with the Clintons is important to him, but it took second place to what he saw as the promise of Obama,” Grossman said.
Solomont, who describes fund-raisers as the 21st century equivalent of ward bosses, says money is a vital part of any campaign. But he is also well aware of the negative effects money has had on the political system.
“The excessive reliance on money has increased people’s sense of alienation from their government. And politics has been reduced to a passive activity for many because of television, which drives the money chase,” he said. “But given the way the rules are, I have to work to raise money to give the opportunity to serve to those people who can best change the system.”