In a rapid, confidential near-whisper, Jeff Ballabon was offering his counterintuitive take on former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"If you go to his house today, he has a mezuzah on the door," Ballabon said. And when they went to a Baltimore Orioles baseball game together, he recalled, Ashcroft knew that combining hot dogs and ice cream wouldn't be kosher.
"Ashcroft isn't an evangelical," Ballabon explained. "He's not a fundamentalist."
If you're looking for a New Yorker with deep ties to the Christian right -- you know, the folks running America -- Ballabon is your man. Which is odd, first of all, because he's not Christian but an ultra-Orthodox Jew from Long Island. And, second, because he's spent most of his career as the lobbyist for New York media companies, including Court TV and Primedia.
But Ballabon is also the man whom Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum called when he was headed out to the Orthodox Jewish enclave of Borough Park during the Republican National Convention last year. The senator's journey took place on the same day that Ballabon helped organize a meeting between White House officials and Orthodox leaders.
Ballabon's unlikely relationships have put him in touch with other unlikely allies. His friend, Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, introduced him to Gov. George W. Bush in 1999. He's close to Ashcroft and to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). And he is "very well-known at the highest levels of the White House," said a Bush administration official, who returned a call to talk about Ballabon on short notice, skipping standard press office rigmarole.
Ballabon is a bulky man whose face, under his black velvet yarmulke, looks younger than his 42 years. He has maintained a low public profile, but he is among the few New Yorkers with close ties to the nation's leadership.
His unique position at the intersection of these worlds -- Orthodox Jews, the Christian right and the New York media scene -- is the product of an unusual journey from ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to Yale Law School and Capitol Hill, but also of the changes reshaping American Jewish politics.
President Bush's backers bragged that he would turn around the Democrats' success among Jews last November. But as the New Republic's Peter Beinart wrote days before that election, Bush did something different. He "ended" the notion of a "Jewish vote" and split Jews along the same lines that divide the rest of America: religious vs. secular, devout vs. nonobservant.
Secular Jews lined up with the Democratic Party's secular values, while Orthodox Jews -- attracted by everything from moral strictures to government money for openly religious programs -- swung toward Bush.
There are no reliable nationwide figures on the Orthodox vote, but evidence from some New York-area counties is telling. The village of New Square, an Orthodox enclave in Rockland County, went for Al Gore in 2000. Last year, Bush won the village, 1,530 votes to 16. Less dramatic but still striking, turnarounds were visible across Rockland County and in Lakewood, N.J., another community with many Orthodox Jews.
Conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews "are just a natural alliance," said Barbara Ledeen, an aide to Santorum at the Senate Republican Conference. "Jeff works in that vineyard."
Ballabon spent the climactic weeks of last year's election pushing the Republican cause in crucial states like Florida and Pennsylvania. According to people familiar with the campaign, he advised the White House on how to reach each of the dozens of distinct Orthodox communities -- Syrian and Hungarian, Chasidic and Haredi.
His work on the campaign was part of a broader effort that has made him a key player in Jewish and Republican politics, though little known outside them. He's been the driving force behind the Jewish College Republicans, a group that has caught on fast. (During a recent meal at a kosher burger joint, as Ballabon downed sushi in an attempt to lose the weight he gained on the campaign, a young woman at the next table chimed in admiringly that she was a new member of the college Republican group.)
He's in the process of starting a think tank, the Center for Jewish Values, to push his agenda.
Ballabon's political strength comes from his willingness to depart from the strenuously nonpartisan stance of major Jewish organizations. For one thing, they're dominated by non-Orthodox Jews. And for another, many, like the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, take the position that the policies of both parties are good for Israel, and that support for whatever the current Israeli government is doing is the only political test.
"It's baloney to say that Bush vs. [John] Kerry is win-win for Israel," Ballabon said. "That's like saying on the issue of abortion, 'We like the candidates that are pro-women.'"
Needless to say, Ballabon prefers Bush's position on Israel, though he's "troubled" by the administration's pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to remove settlements from the West Bank.
Ballabon talks a good deal about Israel and has allies in the settler movement. Not long ago, he hosted a fundraiser for a Hebron settlers' group, and at another recent gathering he introduced, with a wink, a settler friend as "a minor terrorist."
But Israel is more an example of his broader political stance than the heart of it. The point, he argues, is a willingness to align with natural allies on the right on issues from Israel to school vouchers, and to put overwhelming fears of Christian anti-Semitism aside.
Ballabon argues that the Democrats have inflamed Jewish fears to keep Jews in the party, and that the support Christian conservatives offer on Israel and on issues of faith should be taken at face value.
"We need to have clarity about who our friends are, as much as we need to have clarity about who our enemies are," he said.
Ballabon, the son of a board of education supervisor and an economics professor from Queens, has always lived in two worlds. A Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jew from the scholarly Lithuanian tradition (as opposed to Â the more visible Chasidic groups, which place less emphasis on education and are typically poorer), he's a yeshiva boy first.
But after studying at a prestigious Baltimore yeshiva and then spending three semesters at Yeshiva University, he decided to take the LSAT, the law-school entrance exam, on which he got a perfect score. And the next thing he knew, he was on the very foreign soil of Yale Law School.
There, friends recalled him as brilliant and not particularly hard-working. One close friend, Mark Costello, recalled shooting pool with him at 3 a.m. before an exam. But Ballabon also maintained his faith, and Costello said that he once found his friend exhausted after being unable to turn out the lights in his dorm room on the Sabbath.
Ballabon also found his religion challenged frequently.
"Some guy said, 'You're an Orthodox Jew -- you must hate homosexuals,'" he recalled. "I said, 'What a bizarre thing to say. Do you think I hate people who eat cheeseburgers?'"
Ballabon did a stint at the law firm of Sherman and Sterling after law school, then used a Yale connection -- Sen. John Danforth's daughter was a law school friend -- to move to Capitol Hill. His time there made him a political conservative. He believed Danforth was unfairly attacked for backing the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. And he opposed Democratic resistance to requiring welfare recipients to work.
When Danforth announced his retirement, Ballabon jumped to the private sector, landing a job as the lobbyist for Court TV. It was, in some ways, a lucky continuation of a life on Capitol Hill unusually free of sleaze. Danforth, an Episcopal priest, had been known as "Saint Jack," and Court TV's lobbying was more about persuading state legislators and judges than it was about delivering piles of checks to Capitol Hill.
"He was very effective," said Steve Brill, the founder of Court TV. "It's sort of a dream lobbyist job, because you're really lobbying for money. It's all out in the open."
Ballabon then took a lobbying job at Channel One, the for-profit educational television venture that was trying to get into the nation's classrooms. Ballabon defused an attack on the station led by conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly, who thought Channel One was pushing liberal values, and by liberals, who objected to the idea of children seeing Channel One's commercials.
He also made friends on both sides of the political divide, including Cindy Darrison, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's campaign manager, an Orthodox Jew who, like many, appeared a bit amused by Ballabon's many apparent contradictions.
"He may think that women should be at home barefoot and pregnant, but when it comes to interacting with us, he encourages us to move forward and do what we want to do," she said.
Ballabon lives a traditional family life on Long Island with his wife and five children, and observes religious strictures that seem exotic even to other Jews: He won't celebrate Halloween, for example, and insists on explaining his card tricks because of rules against magic.
His piety may have won him friends among conservative Christians, but it was his decision to get behind Bush early that brought him to his current level of influence. His commitment began when Reed invited him to Austin, Texas, to meet the future president early in 1999, and extended to his organizing and raising at least $100,000 for the Bush campaign last year.
"I think he saw the same thing I saw," Reed said of Ballabon. "He saw a gleam of what this president was capable of."
Still, Reed must know that Ballabon is walking on dangerous ground, acting as both a political fixer and a purveyor of values, not to mention as a Jew in Christian Republican circles. Reed, who created a political channel for evangelical Christians similar to what Ballabon hopes to create for Orthodox Jews, is now a lobbyist in the midst of an ugly investigation into Indian gambling. (Reed made millions off the deals in question, although he hasn't been personally implicated in anything criminal.)
But it's the kind of complex terrain Ballabon has navigated so long, and so strikingly well, that Costello, his law school friend, made him a character in a best-selling crime novel, "Bag Men" (Harvest, 2003).
Costello noted that there's a bit of Ballabon in the character of Shecky Bliss, a rare Jewish cop on the largely Irish Boston police force. The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Bliss is steady, private and trustworthy; he won't participate in the endemic corruption, but he isn't a rat, either.
Though Bliss is the most honest character in the novel, he never quite fits in. His strange name draws attention, and some of the cops never trust him. And when one of the officers goes crazy, it's Bliss who gets shot in, of all places, his nose.
Ben Smith is a staff writer for The New York Observer where this article originnally appeared.