The Convention Comes to Town

The story goes that a young man gets an entry-level job with the Democratic National Committee in the nation’s capital and for his first assignment is told by his boss to buy Christmas decorations for the upcoming office party.”I’m not sure whether I’m the right person,” protests the young man. “You see, I’m Jewish.”

“So is everybody else,” says the boss. “Get the decorations.”Slightly exaggerated, of course. When the Democrats meet for their national convention Aug. 14-17 at the Staples Center, best guesstimates are that around 10 percent of the delegates will be Jewish, but the curve rises sharply among party leaders, and even more steeply among big financial contributors.

Besides offering party politics and political parties, the convention will serve the useful purpose of bringing together many of America’s most influential Jews for the first time since the unsuccessful Camp David negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. “They’ll have plenty to talk about,” says well-connected activist Donna Bojarsky.

The chain starts with venture capitalist Eli Broad and music mogul David Geffen, two members of the three-man team that brought the Democratic convention to Los Angeles.

Co-chairs of the convention are California’s two Jewish senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Guiding much of the proceedings will be Democratic Party chairman Edward Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia.

Among Al Gore’s closest advisors is Leon Fuerth, the presumptive nominee’s longtime national security aide, who is considered a sure bet to fill the post if Gore becomes president.

Influential foreign policy advisors are Los Angeles attorney Mel Levine and Marc Ginsburg, who co-chair Gore’s Middle East advisory committee, and Joan Spero, an expert on international economic policy. Veteran publicist Steve Rabinowitz is a Gore consultant.

Key campaign strategists at the Democratic National Committee in Washington and Gore headquarters in Nashville include general election campaign chairman John Giesser, Josh Wachs, Laurie Moskowitz, Eric Kleinfeld, Debbie Mohile and research director David Ginsberg.Contributing or raising the really big bucks on the West Coast are the DreamWorks trio of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Geffen, ex-MCA chief Lew Wasserman, TV mogul Haim Saban and Westwood One founder Norman Pattiz. On the East Coast, some other heavy hitters are David Steiner of New Jersey, New Yorkers John Tisch and Steve Ratner, and Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress.

Patrolling the Jewish beat for the party is the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), whose executive director, Ira Forman, is sanguine that 75 to 80 percent of Jewish voters will mark their ballots for Gore in November.The council’s deputy executive director, David Harris, sees a Jewish edge for the party on three main issues: Israel (“George W. has no record on Israel, and Dick Cheney has a poor record,” he says), church-state separation, and reproductive rights.

Closer to election time, NJDC plans to mail up to 500,000 voter guides to Jewish households, targeting some 35 districts with competitive House and Senate races.

Jewish activists were also strongly involved in last week’s deliberations of the platform committee in Cleveland, among them Howard Welinsky, chairman of Democrats for Israel. His amendment to the Middle East plank, warning against “a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood,” was adopted.

Parties are a Los Angeles specialty, and Jewish hosts aim to hold their own. The largest blowout will be on Sunday, Aug. 13, the day before the convention opens, when more than 1,000 people will celebrate at Sony Pictures Studios.

In a remarkable display of Jewish unity, the affair will be co-hosted by the NJDC, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, United Jewish Communities, representing all Jewish federations in the United States, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“This is the first time we’ve had such across-the-board sponsorship,” says AIPAC spokesman Ken Bricker. “It’s a great way to express Jewish unity on Israel.”

AIPAC will hold other events between Aug. 12 and 16: a private party honoring Los Angeles activist Ruth Singer; a reception for Democratic candidates running for open House seats; a luncheon with the Black Congressional Caucus; a breakfast with the Democratic Leadership Council; a reception for Leon Fuerth, Gore’s national security advisor; a luncheon for Democratic governors; a break-fast with the Hispanic Congres-sional Caucus; and a luncheon with U.S. senators.

In addition, the NJDC will host receptions for Democratic Party chief Edward Rendell and for young leaders, while the American Jewish Committee plans events for Congressional leaders and for heads of ethnic and religious groups. In a tangential event, Dr. Steven Teitelbaum will hold a fundraiser for First Lady Hillary Clinton on Aug. 13 to aid her U.S. Senate race in New York state. Contributions are $1,000 per person. For information, phone Amy Hayes at (917) 613-6419

Speaking of really big parties, the City of Los Angeles, not always treated kindly by the East Coast press, will throw a $1.5 million affair for an expected 15,000 thirsty members of the world media.

The presence of this massive media phalanx, all looking for action as relief from the talking heads at the convention podium, has attracted a variety of protest groups and fringe parties.

Overlapping the Democratic Convention will be the following announced gatherings: People’s Convention (for progressive groups), Reform Party Convention, Mothers’ Convention (welfare reform), North American Anarchist Convention, Homeless Convention, and Youth Convention.Promising the most fun is the Shadow Convention, conceived by feisty columnist Arianna Huffington, which is scheduling interludes for satire and humor at its daily sessions.

The serious part of the agenda, spotlighting “the corrupting influence of money in politics, poverty and growing inequalities between poor and rich, and the failed war on drugs,” is attracting a considerable contingent of liberal Jews.

Stanley Sheinbaum, a longtime Democratic stalwart and financial angel, will bypass his old comrades in favor of the Shadow Convention.

So will progressive activist Rita Lowenthal, who is incensed at the jailing, rather than medical treatment, of nonviolent drug users, and Ralph Fertig, a freedom rider of the 1950s, who is particularly concerned about the widening gap between rich and poor. He will also march in a demonstration drawing attention to the plight of Kurds in the Middle East.

The Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, the Sholem Community and the Progressive Jewish Alliance will participate in a rally in the garment district to protest worker exploitation in sweatshops, an issue that is drawing heavy Jewish support.

Police and public officials are predicting that some 50,000 protesters will descend on downtown Los Angeles. Spokesmen for the protest movements say these estimates are vastly exaggerated, mainly because organized labor, which provided most of the bodies for the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, is staying on the sidelines in Los Angeles.

The loose coordinating body for the convention protests is D2KLA, whose main march on Aug. 14 will proceed under the slogan “Human Need, Not Corporate Greed,” says spokesperson Margaret Prescod.

Another major protest force will be the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which has been training its adherents in civil disobedience tactics and nonviolent resistance.

Prescod and Ruckus program director Han Chan are in close agreement that between 10 to 20 percent of their adherents are Jewish, with a somewhat higher percentage in the leadership ranks.

That’s well below Jewish participation in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protest movements of the 1950s and ’60s, which frequently ran as high as 30 to 40 percent and considerably higher among the leadership of such organizations as the radical Students for a Democratic Society.

“I think the difference is not that there are fewer Jewish protesters than in the past, but proportionately they are less significant because of the upsurge of other activists, mainly Latinos and Asian-Americans, who were largely absent in the 1960s,” says James Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, the legal support group for the Los Angeles protesters.

Tom Hayden, a leader of the street protests that almost paralyzed the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and now a California state senator, detects another difference between Jewish activists then and now.

Hayden, who is of Irish descent, believes that “the Jewish kids active in the 1960s, though they may have been alienated from their parents, were consciously Jewish in their approach to politics, citing Scripture and Jewish social tradition to explain their activism. This kind of underpinning didn’t surface during this year’s Seattle protests, and I see little of it now.”Finally, the Washington-based Arab American Institute will host its traditional public reception on the evening of Aug. 15 at the Figueroa Hotel. The event, this year themed “Meet Us at the Casbah,” generally downplays politics and attracts Jewish, Israeli and other connoisseurs of Middle Eastern cuisine.