Romney’s Jewish Surge: Jeff Ballabon Returns to Rallying Orthodox Jewish Republicans (INTERVIEW)
Mitt Romney is sweating.
Polls show the election will be very close, and he must carry either Ohio or Florida to rack up enough Electoral College votes to win.
With such narrow margins of victory, Jewish votes could determine the outcome in some swing states. That’s why the Romney campaign is sending in reinforcements. A new wave of Jewish VIPs have been hitting the political front-lines for Romney.
Jeff Ballabon is one of them. His specialty is mobilizing fellow Orthodox Jews to support Republican candidates.
That’s what makes Ballabon a smart pick. The political strategist was the architect of George W. Bush’s unprecedented outreach to Orthodox Jews. That role propelled him during the Bush years onto The Forward’s list of the 50 most influential Jews. Ballabon subsequently put politics on hold to head up public relations for the CBS News division, making him the highest-ranking Orthodox executive in television news. After leaving that post for a CEO position in business, he has begun to get political again.
Ballabon is back. But to him, his activism is more than a campaign. He’s on a personal mission to expand and empower the Jewish Orthodox base within the GOP. And he aims to use politics to unify instead of divide the Jewish world.
Ballabon’s mission actually began over decade ago — with an unlikely meeting.
Austin, Texas is a long way to go for political match-making. Unless, that is, you’re meeting the man who could become leader of the free world.
The year was 1999. Texas Governor George W. Bush was planning a run for the White House. The political matchmaker was Ralph Reed, the conservative Christian political leader. He knew that Bush needed help reaching out to the American Jewish community.
Ballabon was the ideal candidate to help. He’s active in the Jewish world. As a media company lobbyist and former US Senate aide, Ballabon is politically savvy. Moreover, he’s a Republican – and a conservative. And even better, he’s a man of deep religious faith. As a bonus, Ballabon and Bush were both former Yalies.
Reed and Ballabon flew into Austin to find out if the match had chemistry. After arriving at the governor’s mansion they were led into the dining room. Governor Bush was hosting a luncheon but he immediately noticed the yarmulke-wearing Ballabon.
“As soon as Governor Bush finished speaking, to my astonishment, he made a beeline straight to me. I was by far the least important person in that room, but he stepped right in and stood face to face with me, very close,” recalls Ballabon. Bush spoke privately to Ballabon about his concern for Israel and the Jewish people. “He had tremendous intensity in his voice and urgency in his eyes,” remembers Ballabon. “It was clear that he had a religious and moral view of the world in which the Jewish people played a central role.”
It was love at first sight.
Ballabon became the Bush Administration’s unofficial liaison to Orthodox Jews and a Jewish political resource. “Republicans needed to understand which Jewish communities are fertile grounds for support and which are not,” he says.
Ballabon wanted GOP leaders and the media to understand that the Jewish vote is not monolithic. “Jews don’t vote only on Israel. Jews do vote on survival,” he points out.
For the GOP, Orthodox conservatives were a curious niche. They are a minority (Jewish) of a minority (Jewish Republican) of a minority (Jewish Orthodox Republican).
Ballabon took on a trailblazing role in the evolution of Orthodox political power. He and a small group of others, created a distinct political identity for Orthodox Jews within the Republican Party.
“The Orthodox community has a unique set of values that differ from Jewish voters at large. The GOP learned what matters to us, how to talk to us, what Orthodox Jews vote on,” he says.
Over time, the GOP formed a consciousness about the Orthodox Jewish political identity. At the same time, the Orthodox community, due in part to Ballabon’s messaging, took notice of the differences between the parties on moral issues and Middle East issues. This mutual awakening was clearly seen, Ballabon asserts, in the election of Republican Bob Turner to the US Congress. Orthodox Jewish voters played a pivotal role in the upset victory.
Bush & the Jews
As president, Bush more than fulfilled Ballabon’s expectations. He gave strong support to Israel, reached out to American Jewish leaders, and prevented the US from participating in the anti-Semitic Durban Conference.
Ballabon reveals that before meeting with foreign leaders, Bush would request special reports from the State Department about Jewish life in those countries. “He judged the leaders by how they treated Jews,” says Ballabon. “Foreign leaders didn’t like it but the president made dealing with anti-Semitism a condition of the relationship.”
Bush’s respect for Judaism also led him to start the annual White House Chanukah party. As Bush and his staff became closer to Orthodox Jewish leaders, the event became increasingly Orthodox.
“The first year, it was hit and miss for kosher food,” says Ballabon. “The second year, they made a separate kosher section. The third year everything was kosher. By the fourth year, the White House staff was concerned about the mitzvah of kol ishah so they hired an all-male a capella group. And I’ll never forget the US Marine Band playing ‘I Have a Little Dreidel’ in the White House.”
Ballabon was involved with a less visible but even more important activity surrounding the parties. Bush wanted to share thoughts and wisdom with a small group of rabbis before the party each year. While there were conflicting positions over who should be invited, Ballabon made sure the president’s meeting included leading Orthodox rabbis and yeshiva heads, such as Rabbi Aharon Feldman and the late Rabbi Naftali Neuberger, of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel (Ballabon’s alma mater).
Some rabbis didn’t plan to come because they thought it was just a photo op. “I explained that it was the president’s desire to actually hear substantive insights from Torah leaders. I wanted them to appreciate President Bush, and I wanted the president to have a glimpse of our Torah leadership,” recalls Ballabon. “They did end up coming and all agreed that the meetings had a lifelong impact.”
However, the general Jewish public was not as impressed with Bush. Despite his outreach and pro-Israel policies, three out of four Jews did not support him.
Ballabon recalls walking in the White House and being pulled aside by the president’s liaison to conservative groups. “There’s something that’s bothering the president,” the aide revealed. “Why are so many Jewish groups hostile to Israel, and so many Christian groups friendly to Israel? And why are Jewish groups demonizing the president?”
Ballabon sees a sad irony. “Clinton was the most popular president among Jews but what he did was as bad if not worse than what Obama is doing. Clinton took a bunch of exiled terrorists and called them statesmen. He created global pressure to divide Jerusalem and actually create a Palestinian state—something even Jimmy Carter used to oppose. Obama and Europe are today just pursuing the Clinton strategy.”
Battle for Boro Park
The 2004 presidential election was Ballabon’s chance to show that the Orthodox community appreciated Bush’s efforts. He went to Florida to rally support and co-chaired major fundraisers for Bush in New York.
Ballabon also helped arrange a visit to Boro Park by Republican Senators Rick Santorum and Norm Coleman. It was a special opportunity. They schmoozed with Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, toured his Novominsker yeshivah and visited the Ohel Children’s Home facilities. The senators touted Bush’s faith-based grants to Jewish organizations. Boro Park leaders were impressed by the Republicans.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry took notice. He dispatched his brother Cameron, a convert to Reform Judaism, to persuade Brooklyn’s religious Jews to vote against Bush. “Kerry’s brother wanted to make it seem like President Bush was surrounded by Christian religious fanatics,” suggests Ballabon. “He tried to scare Orthodox Jews by announcing that Bush’s attorney general studies the Bible and prays every day. The Orthodox Jews laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s what we do too!”” It backfired.
The Jewish outreach ultimately yielded results. In the 2004 election, 24% of Jews voted for Bush, a 6-point increase over 2000. Compare this with the 11% of Jews who voted for his father in the presidential election in 1992. Orthodox support was even more successful. In the battleground states of Florida and Ohio, seven out of ten Orthodox Jews voted for Bush, according to a GOP poll.
“I believe President Bush is a humble patriot with a real passion for the country,” Ballabon says. “It was never about personal power, it was always about the country.”
Ballabon has a similar impression of Mitt Romney. “My sense of both Romney and Bush is that they are committed on a deep and passionate spiritual level to helping other people,” he says. “Stories are surfacing about Mitt Romney’s service to others in his personal life and his modesty about all of it.
“That’s an extraordinary concept that many don’t usually associate with politicians. We often view them as powerful celebrities, but when you encounter one who so clearly sees himself as a public servant, one who is essentially modest, it gives you great hope for America.”
Instead of Romney’s devout Mormonism being an obstacle, Ballabon considers it a way to relate. “Certain aspects of his life resonate with me as a Orthodox Jew. He lives in two different cultures that are often at odds with each other—his religious world versus secular society. He understands on a personal level what it’s like to be part of a minority religion, and therefore values freedom of religion. He knows first hand that a committed faith community can also be proud patriots and grateful citizens. All this gives me a sense of kinship and comfort about his leadership.”
Romney has been cultivating a relationship with Jewish voters since the primary. “The Jewish community has made contributions to American society that stand in amazing disproportion to its numbers,” Romney said when he formed the Jewish Americans for Romney Coalition in August. “I am genuinely honored to have so many of its leading thinkers, diplomats and political leaders support my campaign.”
During the GOP presidential primary, Ballabon aligned closely with another candidate, Texas Governor Rick Perry. Maybe that’s why Romney’s campaign didn’t draft Ballabon sooner.
He didn’t wait for Romney in order to move forward. For years, Ballabon has been building political alliances between Orthodox Jews and GOP conservative groups, particularly Christian evangelicals.
This summer, he agreed to lead the Jewish Task Force of the Faith & Freedom Coalition (FFC), a non-sectarian faith-based alliance started by Ralph Reed, the Christian leader who first introduced him to Bush. FFC’s ecumenical agenda involves protecting family values, limited government, education reform, strong national defense and support of Israel.
Evangelical Christians support Israel and Jews so enthusiastically that some Jews question their true motives.
“Look, in any opportunity to work on policy with people of other faiths you have to know with whom you are working and consult daas Torah [rabbinic opinion]. The Torah community has long worked with Catholic groups, for example, to achieve school choice. In my experience, most Christians supporting Israel don’t have a hidden agenda,” he says. “Most Christian groups that want to missionize Jews are open about it.”
“I’ve been in the trenches with Ralph Reed for more than 15 years now. I know how much he respects and admires our people and faith, and how committed he is to the safety of Jews in Eretz Yisrael [Israel],” he adds.
The primary source for Christian support of Jews and Israel, Ballabon explains, is the well-known Biblical verse. God’s promise to Abraham: “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.”
He points out that Christians also connect to the shared morality with religious Jews, and a shared enemy in radicalized Islam.
These perspectives drive Christian political support for Israel, but Ballabon emphasizes that political common ground goes beyond that one issue. “We also agree on the need for protection of family values, religious freedom, strong national security and private school choice.”
One of Ballabon’s Christian allies is Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a former presidential candidate. As a US Senator, Brownback spoke to the Knesset about the Jewish potential to inspire the world: “I pray for Israel…that you will be a holy nation, a nation of the righteous leading the world in righteousness. It is your duty and destiny. And when you do your duty, the rest of us will be blessed and able to do ours.”
Given how many Christian leaders respect Torah Jewry, Ballabon sees untapped potential for a new style of Orthodox political discourse.
“God, not Washington, decides matters of money and matters of life and death. Instead of focusing on merely what we can get from political leaders as though we are just another minority splitting up a pie, let’s recognize how respected Torah Judaism is. Let’s lead by demonstrating what it means to be the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Let’s ask ourselves first and foremost how we can be sanctify God’s name. I believe that approach is correct and will actually yield more results.”
Results also occur when Jews work in harmony. Politics can easily divide Jews, but Ballabon is using it to unify.
In June, Ballabon brought approximately 50 Jews to Washington, DC for FFC’s policy conference featuring Romney and other top GOP leaders. As a testament to his universal appeal, Ballabon was able to assemble a cross section of the Jewish world, including yeshivish, chasidic (Belz), modern Orthodox, Lubavitch, Syrian, Moroccan, Russian Jews, and even some politically conservative non-observant Jews.
“The different traditional Jewish groups usually don’t work together, but we are joined by so much more than what separates us,” says Ballabon. “What are the priority issues in all of our communities? The economy, jobs, defending Jews and morality issues. We all care about the same things.”
The differences in appearance and culture within the Jewish world developed as reactions to various host cultures, Ballabon suggests. “It’s all superficial. The deep parts that we all agree on—that’s the Jewish soul. We can unite around core Torah values, learning from each other and strengthening ourselves.”
Israel and Iran
The stakes are high in this election.
The next administration will determine how the dangerous Iranian nuclear threat is handled. It’s a race against the clock.
Israel is being pressured by Obama not to act now in the vague hope that the US will act later, after Israel’s red lines are crossed. “There’s no historical precedent to support the idea of the US intervening later,” Ballabon says.
Beyond Iran, Israel also faces an increasingly threatening regional security situation. Islamist control of Egypt and elsewhere is a new element of threat. Palestinian terrorist attacks continue.
“Obama is hostile to Israel and sympathetic to Israel’s enemies,” says Ballabon. “Look where he attended church for 20 years, a church led by the radical, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel Reverend Wright.”
It’s a myth, he says, that whoever wins the White House will make no difference for Israel. “It won’t always be a win/win for Israel. The parties differ in their approaches,” says Ballabon. “The GOP is much more supportive of Israel. And yet, because the Jewish so-called ‘pro-Israel’ groups still are comprised mostly of Democrats, they dumb down Israel policy to focus almost entirely on foreign aid. Because that’s just about the only thing that’s always bipartisan.”
The American election, Ballabon notes, will have a ripple effect on Israel’s elections and its future. If Romney wins, it’s easier for Netanyahu to win. He can work with Romney. In fact, both leaders know each other from working at the same Boston company 35 years ago. If Obama wins, Netanyahu’s political opponents can claim he should be replaced to improve the critical US-Israel relationship.
The two candidates also differ on domestic issues of concern to the Orthodox community. “Obama wants the federal government to be more and more involved in our lives. His administration is forcing religious nonprofits to do things that offend their sensitivities and limiting choice in healthcare,” Ballabon says.
“Obama not only supports the most permissive reproduction ‘rights,’ he actually opposed a law requiring medical care for babies born alive as the result of botched terminations,” he contends. “And of course, Obama is prepared to redefine marriage.” Romney supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and woman.
Romney wants to create a tuition tax credit to help parents pay for private school education, such as yeshivos [Jewish schools]. Obama is against it. Romney will need a Republican controlled Senate to overcome union opposition and pass such a bill.
On the economy, Ballabon says Obama has “failed miserably.” Romney, in contrast, has developed a five point plan for creating jobs and strengthening the economy. He also brings experience as a very successful business leader, his supporters say.
Even though God decides who wins elections, Jews have a responsibility to vote, according to Torah sources cited by Ballabon.
“God wants us to do our effort — hishtadlus. We have to behave as if what we do in this world makes a difference. What we strive for matters, and how we strive for it.”
[Sidenote] The Reality of Media Bias
Q. As senior vice president for communications at CBS News you were a media insider. Is liberal media bias real? How is it harming Mitt Romney?
A. I’m not commenting on CBS specifically, but my general observation about the media is that most journalists vote Democratic, and that comes through in their reporting—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. This is most often manifested in story selection rather than story slanting.
Q. Can you give us an example in presidential politics?
A. Obama’s victory in 2008 was largely attributable to the media. The image they created bore no resemblance to who Obama really is. There was almost no serious digging into Obama’s associations. Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign complained about it even more than the GOP.
Q. Did the Obama administration ever try to kill a story when you were at CBS?
A. There was tremendous pressure from the White House not to run the “Fast and Furious” story. It’s a major scandal. Obama’s Justice Department authorized selling weapons to Mexican drug cartels as part of a botched sting operation. Unfortunately, the cartels were able to use the weapons to kill law enforcement and innocent people. Various members of the media knew the story but they didn’t run it. I was proud when CBS broke the story.
Q. Where do you see media bias in the 2012 campaign?
A. The mainstream media are underplaying the colossal catastrophe regarding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya. There’s been a cover-up by the highest levels of the Obama administration and an attempt to divert attention from their mistakes, and instead blame a silly YouTube video mocking Islam. It should be a national crisis dominating the headlines. If not for being pushed by the conservative media, the story would have been lost. It is still being vastly underplayed.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Ami Magazine.
Ari Werth is a leading producer/writer of content examining issues facing the Jewish world. He is considered one of the new voices of American Jewry, especially regarding efforts to innovate Jewish outreach. He’s involved in outreach as chairman of the Aish Center advisory board and creator/curator of the YouTube TorahChannel. Ari’s writings appear in Ami Magazine, aish.com, algemeiner.com, and other leading Jewish publications. He’s also a frequent guest on the top Jewish radio talk shows. Email. Twitter.