Regional pro-Israel PAC to back more Republicans

Gearing up for the 1996 national elections, a Northern California pro-Israel political action committee already plans to back more Republican candidates than it did last fall.

Northern Californians for Good Government, a 14-year-old PAC that solely finances candidates in out-of-state congressional races, considers itself strictly non-partisan. In last year's general elections, however, the S.F.-based group supported 29 Democrats and three Republicans.

With dozens of Republican newcomers scoring unexpected victories last fall, only half of the PAC's recipients won. All three Republicans whom the PAC backed were winners, but only 13 Democrats prevailed.

"Normally, it's much, much better," the PAC's new chairman Mort Friedkin said of the group's track record.

In the 1989-90 election cycle, for example, more than 85 percent of the candidates supported by Northern Californians for Good Government won their races.

Friedkin, who became chairman of the PAC this month, said he expects the win-loss record to improve in the next election cycle.

The organization undoubtedly will support more Republicans, he said, because they will now make up a greater proportion of the incumbents. Northern Californians for Good Government has a history of primarily supporting incumbents because they can back up their Israel-friendly statements with pro-Israel voting records, he explained.

"We have to stick by our friends," said 46-year-old Friedkin, who recently stepped down after a two-year term as president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Northern Californians for Good Government wasn't alone in recognizing last fall's Democratic defeats as a wake-up call. Many national Jewish groups have been reassessing their previously comfortable relationship with a Congress controlled by Democrats for nearly 50 years.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition which supports Republican candidates, called the PAC's decision "smart politics."

"I think there is a real danger in the Jewish community of continuing to be perceived as a core constituency group of the Democratic Party when the Republicans are in power," Brooks said in a telephone interview from the coalition's office in Washington, D.C.

Although Northern Californian Jews have tended to vote for Democrats, Friedkin said he doesn't believe they will shy away from financially supporting pro-Israel Republican incumbents.

"If there's a Republican who has been good on the American-Israel relationship, I doubt a Jew will say: `You shouldn't support a person who's supported our cause,'" he said. "In single-issue PACs, you can't forget why you're there."

Ron Kaufman, a founder of the PAC who just stepped down from a 14-year stint on the executive committee, said contributors already know they must disregard everything except an incumbent's stand on Israel.

"We have to have blinders on," he said.

Foreign aid to Israel is of particular interest to the PAC when it chooses to support a candidate. Although foreign aid to many countries already has come under fire in the isolationist-leaning 104th Congress, bipartisan support for Israel's annual $3 billion package has remained strong so far.

Other issues come into play in the PAC's decisions, said executive directorAndrea Rouah Spiegel. Jewish candidates receive special consideration for funds, she said, and the PAC prefers to support candidates who are considered vulnerable in their races.

Under federal law, the PAC is allowed to give up to $5,000 to a candidate in the primary election and another $5,000 in the general election.

In last year's general elections, the PAC raised $81,000 and gave out$70,000.

Recipients who won included Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.), Rep. Jim Lightfoot (R-Iowa) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).

Losers included then-Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.), then-Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), then-Rep. Dick Swett (D-N.H.), and Joel Hyatt, an Ohio Democrat who was running for a Senate seat opened by the retirement of his father-in-law, Howard Metzenbaum.

In addition to supporting more Republicans, Friedkin plans to expand the PAC's ranks and better educate its members during his two-year tenure.

He wants to include more East Bay and Sacramento Jews, as well as more Jews in their 20s and 30s.

To do so, Friedkin will build on efforts already initiated in the past two years by previous chairman Larry Myers.

Myers began a program to bring in more Jews under age 35 by allowing them to become board with an annual donation of $300 instead of the usual $1,000 minimum. The board votes on which candidates to back and how much to give.

Friedkin is expanding this concept by allowing younger Jews to donate $35 instead of the usual $100 for a non-voting membership in the PAC. He also wantsto decrease some of the financial pressure by offering this young group special sessions with visiting candidates in which contributions aren't obligatory.

About 15 Jews under age 35 are now members, Rouah Spiegel said. Friedkin has set a high goal for himself, saying he wants to increase that number to 300.

"I sense there is this energy waiting and wanting to be channeled into constructive political action," he said.

Friedkin also hopes to increase members' knowledge about pro-Israel politics and politicians by offering more educational events.

"If we can accomplish those things, dayenu," he said.