WASHINGTON (JTA) — Halie Soifer says her transition from national security expert to political operative started with a crisis of violence: the deadly neo-Nazi march last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Soifer says the march, which culminated in a car-ramming attack on counter-protesters that killed one and injured at least 20, spurred the establishment of the organization she now leads as executive director, the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
The JDCA accelerated its launch by three months, to August, because of President Donald Trump’s equivocal response to the violence, when he said both sides — neo-Nazis and counter-protesters — were at fault and include “very fine people.”
“President Trump’s outrageous handling of the tragic events in Charlottesville compelled us to speak out now,” the group’s founders said at the time. It also offered a political opportunity for Democrats.
Soifer says that moment also launched a reexamination of her priorities, leading her to become the JDCA’s first executive director last month.
“At that moment it was very clear, unlike even past Republican administrations, this administration had no qualms about affiliating itself and even sympathizing with anti-Semites,” she said.
Soifer was at the top of her national security game: Having advised Obama administration UN Ambassador Samantha Power, she was then in the same role on the staff of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., one of the most talked-about politicians likely to seek the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
“I wanted to do something political,” she said in an interview with JTA last week in the offices of Bluelight Strategies, a PR firm that does work for Jewish groups and Democrats. “I wanted to help shape the composition of Congress as opposed to working for one member.”
There are other likely factors in the establishment of the JDCA, a successor to the National Jewish Democratic Council, which withered and all but disappeared after the 2014 midterm elections. Democrats traditionally garner the vast majority of the Jewish vote, but Republicans have been making inroads in recent years.
Trump, with his plainly stated biases about minorities and women, was expected drive away Jewish voters. Instead he persuaded 24 percent of Jews to vote for him, according to exit polls — commensurate with George W. Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008, politicians regarded with affection by Jewish organizational leaders, even those with political differences.
In 2012, the NJDC played a role in keeping Florida Democratic with a door-knocking drive in the final days of the campaign; Obama edged Mitt Romney by just under 1 percent. In 2016, Florida went for Trump, winning the state by 1.2 percent.
The party and the Hillary Clinton campaign also had Jewish outreach teams in Florida and other states in 2016. It’s unlikely that a separate Jewish outreach effort would have changed much, but its absence was notable.
Soifer won’t venture a guess as to whether she thinks the NJDC absence made a difference in 2016, but acknowledges that JDCA was created “to fill a vacuum and in response to this administration.”
Soifer, not having been associated with the NJDC, said she doesn’t know why it disappeared. A number of the JDCA board members were involved with NJDC, many others were not. According to a former NJDC official, establishing a new organization was a way of attracting new blood. Another former official said a defamation lawsuit against the organization filed by Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who is also a major funder of the GOP and pro-Israel causes, was too much of a distraction to sustain other activities. NJDC won the lawsuit.
Soifer says Trump’s presidency is propelling Jewish interest in the midterms.
“What I’ve seen is younger people, and especially women, want to get involved, many for the first time,” she said, anticipating door-knocking campaigns in swing districts with big Jewish communities as the November vote approaches.
Soifer, 39, exudes energy, speaking forcefully, in paragraphs. She headed Jewish outreach for the Obama campaign in Florida in 2008 when she was barely 30. In 2006 she was a star of sorts to Washington wonks: Her then-boss, Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., agreed to let the Sundance Channel track him and his staff for a reality show, “The Hill.”
Soifer was a much-watched presence on the show. She ditched a Republican boyfriend for a Democrat, then spent the series debating whether they should move in together. (They eventually married.) The Hill newspaper called her “ridiculously idealistic.” Soon after, she left Wexler’s office to obtain a master’s degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Middle East Studies and international economics.
She is now coupling her ideology with her organizing skills, but envisions a big tent: The JDCA announced its first eight endorsements this week and last, all moderates in the Hillary Clinton mold, but she won’t turn away the Bernie Sanders wing of the party as she seeks out more candidates to endorse.
Soifer inherits a challenge that grew in part from the 2016 campaign — and it was via Sanders, not Trump. Sanders, who is Jewish, ran an unexpectedly strong challenge against Clinton in the primaries. He was and remains more willing to criticize Israel than Democratic politicians of the past, and insists on America’s role as an “honest broker” in the region.
In January, the Pew Research Center reported that the share of Republicans who sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians is growing, while Democratic sympathy for Israel is slipping. The political action committee affiliated with J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group that is consistently critical of the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announced last week that more than half of the Democratic caucuses in both the US House of Representatives and the Senate accepted its endorsements.
Republicans this season are not hesitating to use Israel against Democrats they find questionable. In Virginia, Leslie Cockburn is a congressional candidate in a district that Democrats hope to pick up and a former journalist who co-authored a book in 1991 lambasting the US-Israel alliance. The state’s GOP describes her as “anti-Semitic.”
Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican counterpart to the JDCA, the Republican Jewish Coalition, told JTA that J Street figures large in the challenges facing Soifer.
“Currently J Street is raising millions of dollars for Democrats and is seen as the dominant presence in the Democratic Party,” Brooks told JTA. “It’s going to be hard for [JDCA] to compete against them and have the kind of impact J Street is. I think one area where JDCA can make an impact and differentiate themselves is to come up with a plan and take a leadership role in working to address the troubling trend of weakening support for Israel amongst Dems as we’ve been seeing lately in all the recent polling.”
JDCA is pro-Israel, Soifer says, but she turns around questions about Democrats and Israel to focus instead on the other party.
Instead she describes a divisive president and Republican Party, citing the firestorm around David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel. Democrats have accused Friedman of not inviting them to the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem last month, and he said recently that Republicans are more pro-Israel than Democrats.
“I don’t think it’s Bernie Sanders who is politicizing Israel. I have never seen a US diplomat at any embassy speak in such political terms or treat an event like the opening of the embassy in such a politicized manner,” Soifer said, referencing her years of working at the State Department.
On Twitter, Brooks welcomed her aboard.
“Congrats!!!” he wrote. “Look forward to working with you.”
Grinning, Soifer says “I don’t envision us working closely together. I hope we have a cordial relationship.”
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