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Pro-Israel Democratic candidates at odds with L.A.’s Democrats for Israel

by Jonah Lowenfeld

May 29, 2014 | 6:28 am

This mailer, paid for by Congressional candidate Wendy Greuel and attacking State Sen. Ted Lieu, appeared to some pro-Israel activists to fault Lieu for traveling to Israel. Greuel campaign's manager said such complaints were inaccurate.

This entry has been updated since it was first posted. See below for updates. 

In the race to succeed Rep. Henry Waxman in the 33rd Congressional District, the Los Angeles chapter of Democrats for Israel (DFI-LA) gave its highest rating to State Sen. Ted Lieu. But with many of the group's leaders either publicly and financially supporting Lieu or working for his campaign, the group's endorsement -- as well as its recent criticism of one competing pro-Israel Democrat in the race and its snub of another -- have led some to wonder whether this group is too tied to one candidate in this race to accurately assess the other pro-Israel Democrats.

Last week, Wendy Greuel’s campaign sent out a postcard to voters in which she assailed Lieu for traveling to “Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East on junkets paid for by lobbyists, foreign governments and special interests." To Howard Welinsky  -- a leader in the local Democratic party, chairman of DFI-LA , and a strong supporter of Lieu’s – the mention of a trip to the “Middle East” seemed like a clear attack by Greuel against Lieu for having traveled to Israel on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, in 2007.

“We at DFI-LA are disturbed by such criticism of trips that Ted has said were so transformative,” Welinsky told the Journal. “Is the Jewish Federation a lobbyist, a foreign government or a special interest? Pieces like this will make it harder to attract elected officials to travel to Israel.”

With student leaders at UCLA being targeted for having traveled to Israel on trips sponsored by American Jewish organizations, it’s perhaps understandable that Israel-supporters are feeling defensive. But was Greuel – who earned a rating of “Support” from DFI-LA – really attacking Lieu for visiting Israel?

“It couldn’t be further from the truth,” Sean Clegg, Greuel’s chief campaign consultant, told the Journal on Wednesday evening. The trip to the Middle East to which the mailer referred was to Turkey and Azerbaijan, in 2011, Clegg said. The Azerbaijani government subsidized Lieu’s travels, Clegg said, to the tune of more than $3,000, paying for five days in a hotel, as well as ground transportation, meals, and “cultural activities.”

“There’s no trip to Israel referenced,” Clegg said, adding that for Welinsky, a strong supporter of Ted Lieu, to critique Greuel for something she never said, amounted to a disingenuous attempt to cover up for Lieu’s history of using special interest money and campaign funds “to trot the globe.”

“Those campaign funds aren’t supposed to be used for anything other than a legitimate political purpose,” Clegg said.

For many years, Greuel has had no trouble finding fans in L.A.’s Jewish and pro-Israel community. Welinsky himself supported her in every one of her bids for public office. This time around, though, Welinsky has given Lieu the maximum allowable campaign contribution and has allowed himself to be featured in a campaign advertisement praising Lieu’s support for Israel.

Welinsky isn’t the only DFI-LA leader supporting Lieu personally; former DFI-LA President Andrew Lachman is working for the campaign and the group’s current vice president, Michael Kapp, is also supporting Lieu. The group also honored Lieu at one of its past fundraisers.

And Welinsky – who was alerted to Greuel's anti-Lieu mailer by a friend who lives in the district – said he found Clegg’s explanation insufficient.

“How does anybody know that [the mailer is not referring to a trip to Israel]?” Welinsky said. “The ‘Middle East’ is in there. They didn’t get into specific countries. They identified continents.”

That ambiguity, Welinsky said, was harmful to the Jewish state. “I have a 25-year history of pro-Israel activism,” he said. “I think I know what is harmful for the interest of people who believe in supporting Israel.”

DFI-LA was founded in 1990 as a way to build support for Israel in the Democratic party in order to push back against some resolutions that were being introduced at various levels. The group has an email list of about 400 people, according to Lachman. The group holds a few events throughout the year, and also conducts a vetting process by which to assess the pro-Israel credentials of Democratic candidates running for office.

This year, that process led the group into a disagreement with another pro-Israel Democratic candidate running in the 33rd district, Matt Miller. While Lieu received a “Strong support” rating (thanks to his having co-sponsored a bill in 2007 that divested California pension fund money from Iran’s energy sectors) and Greuel received a rating of “Support,” Miller’s name was nowhere on DFI-LA’s list. Indeed, Miller and his campaign manager had not heard about DFI-LA until a reporter from the Journal contacted them in mid-May, more than a month after the group’s recommendations had been made public on their Web site in early April. 

"This is a little weird for me, because my whole life has been about being a Democrat for Israel,” Miller told the Journal in an email on May 28. “I hadn't heard that someone had trademarked the name until after [DFI-LA] - whoops - didn't send me their questionnaire!"

DFI-LA Vice President Michael Kapp oversaw this year’s endorsement process for the group, and he told the Journal that he sent Miller the questionnaire at the same time as he sent it to all the other candidates. Kapp circulated the DFI-LA questionnaire – it includes about a dozen questions – to Democratic candidates running for more than a dozen elected positions across the region. That Miller never responded wasn’t necessarily surprising, Kapp said; many candidates don’t.

“I know from personal experience staffing many campaigns, that if I’m interested in a particular club or organization’s endorsement then it’s my responsibility as the candidate or campaign to see that all of those are followed up upon,” Kapp told the Journal. “So really, the clubs, we do this -- it’s a volunteer thing. None of us ever get paid for what we do, so our obligation ends once we send out the questionnaire.”

Miller did reach out to DFI-LA, last week, and the group sent him a new copy of the questionnaire. According to Kapp, Miller hasn’t returned it. DFI-LA has taken out advertisements in the Journal announcing its recommendations for the June 3 primary. Even if Miller had returned the survey to DFI-LA immediately, it’s unclear if he could have done so quickly enough to be included on their list. Moreover, the guidelines for ratings on the group's Web site suggest that Miller may not have been able to garner any rating better than “Neutral,” given that, as a first-time candidate who has not held political office, Miller has not had a “History of Working with LA Jewish Community, Israel and DFI-LA.”

Nevertheless, Miller is seeking to win over Jewish and pro-Israel voters in the few days before the primary.

"As the only Jewish Democrat in the race, I hope voters will take the time to read my plan for a strong, secure Israel -- and to learn how our tradition of tikkun olam informs my approach to public policy,” Miller said. 

UPDATE May 29, 8:45 am: Kapp told the Journal that Miller might have been able to garner a higher rating from DFI-LA had he filled out the questionnaire. Some candidates with records of involvement in their local synagogues, for instance, have been awarded DFI-LA's  "Support" rating, Kapp said.

UPDATE May 29, 10:00 am: A spokesperson from the Miller campaign said that they had "no record of being contacted by DFI-LA," nor did anyone from DFI-LA respond to the campaign's request "to tell us specifically to what email and snail mail addresses they had sent the questionnaire."

"Every other club or group that reached out to the campaign had no trouble making contact," the Miller spokesperson added. 

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