This article first appeared in the Forward and is reprinted with permission.
Governor Howard Dean of Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 as a fiscal conservative and social liberal, is making a concerted effort to develop a national Jewish constituency for his candidacy.
In a wide-ranging telephone interview with the Forward, Dean, a physician, reflected at length on his "internationalist" foreign policy, his attachment to Judaism through his wife, who is Jewish, and on how having a Jewish family has informed his views on Israel.
Dean spoke with the Forward shortly after naming Steven Grossman, a former head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to a top campaign fundraising post. In addition, Dean said he is traveling to Israel for a week at the end of the month with the American Israel Educational Foundation, AIPAC's educational arm, to meet with Israeli officials and Arab leaders.
Dean also discussed his planned appearance at a December 9 fundraising dinner for Americans for Peace Now, where he will present an award to a friend, APN activist Patricia Barr.
Asked if his appearance at the Peace Now event should be read as a signal of his views on the Middle East, Dean said, "No, my view is closer to AIPAC's view." He said he was bestowing the award because the honoree and fellow Vermonter Barr "is a remarkable humanitarian who has served her state and me. I would not turn down an opportunity to honor her."
"At one time the Peace Now view was important but now Israel is under enormous pressure," he continued. "We have to stop terrorism before peace negotiations . . . I don't do things for political reasons. I'm very loyal to my friends. Nobody should read anything into my ideology."
Dean's outreach to Jewish supporters comes as the putative candidate, who has been politicking in New Hampshire, Iowa and other primary states for more than a year, is trying to establish national credibility for his dark-horse bid. The only governor presently running in the Democratic field, he represents a small, northeastern state and lacks name recognition. In fact, in a recent Quinnipiac University poll asking respondents to rate the Democratic field, Dean did not even garner enough support to register.
Named governor in 1991 after the sudden death of Governor Richard Snelling, Dean has mapped a centrist course in Vermont, tacking right on issues such as business and taxes but left on social policy. His signal achievement is in expanding health insurance to cover almost every Vermonter, and he has made healthcare policy the centerpiece of his presidential bid.
Dean described his foreign policy views as being "based on cooperation with other nations." "Unilateralism is a mistake," he said. One of his foreign policy goals "is to bring democracy and freedom to Muslim nations. We can only do that with cooperation. Half of the Muslim world would not support Osama bin Laden if Arab and Muslim regimes were not so oppressive."
Energy independence also ranks a big plank on his foreign policy platform. "The United States has to . . . take a much harder line on Iran and Saudi Arabia because they're funding terrorism," Dean said. "We need conservation and renewable energy to lessen our dependence on Mideast oil and to have a lever on the funders of terror."
Baptized a Catholic and brought up an Episcopalian, Dean, who described himself as "fairly religious," now practices Congregationalism, a liberal form of Protestantism. The governor, who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and in the Hamptons as the scion of a wealthy Wall Street family, is married to an internist, Dr. Judith Steinberg, with whom he practiced medicine for 10 years. He credits Steinberg's grandmother, who was born in Russia, with fostering his attachment to the Jewish state.
"I feel close to this family that I was lucky enough to marry into," he told the Forward. "Israel is an important part of what it means to be a Jew. It must never be overrun and eliminated." He added that he has similar feelings about other democracies such as Taiwan. He called his attachment to Israel "visceral."
Dean told the Forward his family is not observant and his son and daughter did not attend Jewish religious school or celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah. The family does observe Hanukkah and Passover, however, and enjoys reading the Haggada, he said. Dean then gamely recited a Hebrew blessing.
The family tried the Conservative synagogue in Burlington but the service there contained too much Hebrew, the governor said. More recently, they have gravitated to Burlington's Reform synagogue, Temple Sinai, although he acknowledged that they do not attend often. He said he is attracted to Judaism because, as in Congregationalism, "the temples themselves are responsible first to the congregation and there is no central authority."
James Glazier, the rabbi of Temple Sinai, said he could not gauge whether there was much support for Dean's presidential bid in his congregation, where Dean has spoken occasionally, although many members count Steinberg as their doctor. He said he had delivered an invocation at each of Dean's gubernatorial inaugurations but had not seen Dean in a while because "nobody in Vermont has seen him recently," a reference to Dean's frequent out-of-state campaigning. But he said Dean is "a good guy; he's got a good soul, and he means well . . . He's been the 'pediatrician governor,' taking care of issues for children."
"Ask him, will Jim Glazier be doing his [presidential] inauguration? I want to be on that podium," he said. "He's the only Dem out there with a degree of Yidishkayt."
Grossman, the former AIPAC and DNC official, said Dean would appeal to American Jews because Jews, in effect, like doctors: "He is a physician who built a track record on health care . . . The Jewish community will respond." Grossman said Jews would also approve of Dean's stance in support of civil unions for gay Vermonters because of the Jewish affinity for civil and human rights.
"In order for him to be totally credible to the Jewish community in issues, people will want to see a well-developed foreign policy on Israel and the Middle East and be supportive of Israel's effort to maintain its qualitative edge," Grossman said. "He will have to address this and no doubt will. Based on private conversations I am absolutely confident about where he is ideologically and substantively in bringing him to the American Jewish community."
Grossman said all Americans would relate to Dean because "he's not a career politician. He still sees himself as a citizen." He described Dean, who has a reputation around the Vermont statehouse for being thin-skinned, as "strong, blunt, likeable and decisive."
"No one's going to be elected president if people don't like him," Grossman said, demurring when asked if the remark was a jab at the Democratic frontrunner, former vice president Al Gore.
According to New York political consultant Henry Sheinkopf, Dean's naming of the Massachusetts-based Grossman to his campaign is smart politics, especially if the first primary of 2004, New Hampshire, shapes up as a strongly regional contest featuring Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
"It gives him more credibility nationally, it gives him more credibility regionally and it assists him in raising money," Sheinkopf said of the move. Dean's best hope is if the primary stays regional in focus, Sheinkopf said; otherwise he has minimal chances of emerging in a Democratic field that includes Gore, Senators John Edwards of North Carolina and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.