Ron Klein has served as chairman of the Jewish Democratic Council of America since its founding in 2017 and is also a lobbyist for Holland & Knight. He represented Florida’s 22nd District in the House from 2007 to 2011 and served in the Florida Legislature from 1992 to 2007. Klein spoke with Alex Clearfield about the midterms, 2020, and how the group plans to build its operations.
What is JDCA’s mission?
Our purpose is to support candidates who are supportive of the Jewish community’s agenda, which I would say in general on a domestic level is quality education, access to health care, reasonable gun laws. The Jewish community has a long history on immigration and a belief in reasonable immigration policies. … We’re also concerned about anti-Semitism, something that’s reared its head in the past year or so. The flip side is Israel, which in many cases is a litmus test for the Jewish community’s support of a candidate. … We define that as supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, a two-state solution, the Qualitative Military Edge, but you don’t necessarily have to agree with everything that Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu says or does.
What’s JDCA’s main mode of activating Jewish voters?
In general, what motivates people are specific issues. For example, I live in South Florida; the Parkland shooting was in my old congressional district. Local people care about that. …There’s a term in the Bible called tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” and it’s a very fundamental concept that the Jewish community believes in.
Among candidates JDCA endorsed, who are some you are particularly excited about?
Elissa Slotkin from Michigan—I’m very excited about women veterans like her. She’s very sharp, trained well, and comes to Congress with experience in the military and Middle East policy. … Harley Rouda, who beat California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, is an interesting guy. I served with Rohrabacher on the Foreign Affairs Committee, but he was on the wrong side of so many things our community is interested in, from Russia to associating with Holocaust deniers.
An issue where Jewish voters tend to be united is gun control. With split power in Washington, how are you looking to advance the ball?
Some people ask, “Why does the Jewish community feel that way?” I think there’s a strong belief in duty of the government to protect. A lot of the Jewish community comes from urban areas, where you can call the police and presumably they’ll preserve order and protect you. If you’re in a rural area, Republican or Democrat, you have a different experience. … As a matter of protecting human life, we cannot understand how our government can be so nonresponsive. We think the rest of the world looks at us as a very violent place. The House can push forward something and put pressure on the president and the Senate for doing something logical.
Do you see JDCA positioning itself as a counterpart to the Republican Jewish Coalition?
We don’t consider ourselves a counterpart. We meld the values and philanthropies of the Jewish communities with the political system. No one else does that on the Democratic side. We can educate new members of Congress on what we believe in; we want them to view us as the go-to place for understanding what the Jewish community is thinking. The RJC is all about Israel, and by and large that’s because the Jewish community tends to side with Democrats on domestic issues. … We will not make Israel a partisan football. It’s important for those of us who support Israel to be bipartisan about it. But we have a lot more to talk about on the Democrats’ side.
Looking forward to 2020, delegate-rich states like California, New York, and Florida have high Jewish populations. What is JDCA looking for in a 2020 contender?
Even before the midterms we’ve had a number of these potential candidates talk to us. As they’re building their platforms and talking points on Middle East policy, they want to make sure they’re considering what we have to say. We expect those to continue and get more developed over time. … Jews are only 2 percent of the population, but we have a lot of votes in places where it matters.
How will JDCA build its capacity for the next cycle?
We’re going to build out the organization in the states. We plan on going into 15 or 20 states that matter, like Colorado, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida. We want to build a grassroots organization and have a chair in each of the states who will be part of our national Cabinet. It will probably include more fundraising to build up our central office in Washington. … We’ll have a presence on Capitol Hill. We see 2019 as a big building year.