Jewish donors play major role in Democrat fund-raising

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

WASHINGTON — Unfazed by investigations into his fund-raising practices, President Clinton went to Florida last weekend looking to make a dent in the Democratic Party's mounting $15 million debt.

By the time Clinton returned to the White House, the Democrats were nearly $3.5 million richer — thanks in a large part to continued Jewish loyalty.

At least 45 cents of every dollar raised at three separate events came from Jewish donors, according to Democratic sources.

That Jewish Democrats met the president's challenge with open checkbooks says as much about Clinton's stellar fund-raising abilities as it does about Jewish concern over the success of Democrats in next year's congressional races.

At the same time, Clinton's intensive fund-raising has contributed to renewed calls for campaign finance reform, putting some Jewish political givers on a crash course with some congressional leaders.

All this comes as both the House and Senate pledged this week to bring campaign finance reform legislation up for a vote in the spring.

Clinton's fund-raising drive over the weekend was partially motivated by the knowledge that Democratic candidates running in Tuesday's elections were outspent by their Republican opponents.

In three of the major races — for governor in Virginia and New Jersey and an open New York congressional seat — the Republicans poured in significant funds.

Democrats want to make sure their candidates do not face the same cash-flow problems next year when all 435 members of the House and 34 senators face election contests.

The largest event in Florida — billed as an "autumn retreat" at a hotel — netted about $2.5 million from 50 donors, about half of whom were Jewish, according to party insiders.

Each donor gave at least $50,000 to the Democratic National Committee.

The weekend marked the first time that a sitting president and vice president joined forces to fete donors.

Half of the participants at other, less expensive, events were Jewish, according to Monte Friedkin, a Florida businessman who has raised and contributed millions to the Democrats.

While Republicans also attract large Jewish contributions, Jews make up a far larger share of Democratic givers.

And even though American Jews represent just about 2 percent of the American population, their political largesse has made them central to the money system that drives national politics.

Referring to synagogue fund-raising and the annual United Jewish Appeal campaign, Friedkin said, "Jewish people are educated and trained in giving money."

As for Clinton's fund-raising success, Friedkin, who serves as the national chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said, "It's my inclination that Democrats are coming out from the woodwork who were never involved."

There's an attitude that "we're not going to let the Democrats collapse."

But even as they keep giving, many Jews feel torn between reform and influence.

Privately, many say they long for changes that would limit the amount they can give.

This view comes on the heels of the 1996 election, the most expensive in history, and its scandal-ridden aftermath that has emerged from recent investigations into Democratic fund-raising.

Here, too, Jews have played a role.

Some of the biggest Jewish contributors were unhappy earlier this year to see their names splashed across newspapers, which published lists of overnight White House guests and coffee attendees.

About a dozen were included on lists of those who were awarded flights on Air Force One.

So far, the investigations have not incriminated any of Clinton's Jewish supporters.

But the Senate investigation, which was suspended last week, gave a public glimpse into the Jewish fund-raising machine.

Meanwhile, Jewish political activists are looking into how special-interest politics would fare under a new system.

Pro-Israel political action committees, which give money directly to candidates, generally oppose campaign finance reform.

But Friedkin, who has concentrated his giving on congressional races, believes Jewish interests would not suffer under a changed system.

"Campaign finance reform is not bad for the Jews," Friedkin said.

"Everybody will just spend less money," he said.

But until Congress and the president enact campaign finance reform — if they ever do — Jews have vowed to remain a major financial force in both parties.