Vice presidential hopeful: Democrats kosher cash cow

The dinner was $25,000 a plate, but after the last cups of coffee were poured, most diners agreed they got their money's worth.

The real main course was Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the Democratic vice presidential candidate. The take at the Baltimore fund-raiser and cocktail reception two weeks ago: $975,000, almost double what sponsors originally anticipated.

That scene has been repeated all over the country. Lieberman has turned into a kosher cash cow for the Democrats, bringing in millions of dollars to fuel the Gore-Lieberman ticket. Lieberman has quickly established himself as a fund-raiser second only to this era's long-reigning champion, President Bill Clinton.

And Lieberman's breakthrough candidacy — he is the first Jew on a major party ticket — has turned thousands of Jews into enthusiastic fund-raisers. Some are just proud of his achievement; others are vying for access to a man who has become the most important Jew in America.

At a Silicon Valley fund-raiser early last month, the take was $3.2 million, a record for a vice presidential candidate; the audience was a mix of high-tech executives and Jewish leaders.

The same day, Lieberman was the main reason the Democratic National Committee was able to raise $500,000 at a Seattle lunch event. A fund-raising brunch in Washington just before Yom Kippur netted $450,000. Lieberman appeared there with his wife, Hadassah — herself a formidable fund-raiser who has been particularly successful before Jewish audiences.

Shortly after his nomination, 100 prominent Jews in Washington got together and promised to raise $250,000 each from friends and associates. Many participants were new to the fund-raising game, attracted by Lieberman's breakthrough status and their contacts with him at a Washington synagogue. In some cases, their pledges have led to ferocious competition as they strive to raise the money.

"In a lot of cases they're stumbling over each other, trying to raise money from the same people," said a major Democratic fund-raiser. "Some are looking to get something in return — access, appointments. But mostly they are involved because people are just very excited about this candidacy."

"Joe Lieberman has always been one of the top fund-raisers in the Senate," said Howard Friedman, a Baltimore executive and one of the hosts of the successful Baltimore fund-raiser. "He's warm, he's friendly and he makes you see him as a real person, not just a politician asking for money," he said. "The only person you can compare him to is Bill Clinton. When you're with Clinton, he makes you feel like you're the most important person in the world. Lieberman has some of that charisma. He really knows what to say to people."

"Much of the money he's raising in the Jewish community is new money," he said. "Half of the money given at our event came from people who have never written major checks to any political campaign."

Rosalie Zalis, vice president of a Los Angeles investment house, provided a different kind of new money. Six months ago, she was a leading supporter of Arizona Sen. John McCain, an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination. Zalis backed Ronald Reagan in both of his presidential runs and served as former Gov. Pete Wilson's policy adviser. She said she never gave to a Democratic ticket — until now. Recently she gave $1,000 to the Gore-Lieberman campaign.

The reason? Lieberman.

"Many Jews who are conservative were very excited about Lieberman's candidacy, especially at first," she said. "We were so proud — and are so proud — that the first Jew on a ticket is somebody with such great integrity, a great public servant."

That feeling of pride, she said, has led many Jews who normally give to Republicans to open their wallets for the Gore-Lieberman campaign — despite ongoing qualms about the Democratic platform and about Al Gore.