Mayor Pete’s Campaign: An RFK Message, A Swift and Nimble Campaign Operation, and Three Key New Jersey Players

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg talks about how 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has a strong message that is reminiscent of Robert F. Kennedy and a campaign that is operationally both swift and nimble in reacting to events and trends. He also says that Mayor Pete has connections to NJ that will only make his campaign stronger.

I was originally impressed by the quality of the message of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  It is a message of reconciliation and authenticity in America in a time of bitter polarization and fraudulent presentation.   

When one hears Mayor Pete, as he has come to be known, describing his feelings regarding the time period leading up to his self-revelation as a gay American, the listener cannot help but be impressed by his depth and strength of character, genuineness, and above all, fundamental decency.  It is his authentic call for national reconciliation that is so reminiscent of the appeal of Robert Kennedy in 1968.  And it is his fundamental decency that contrasts so sharply with the fundamental indecency of Donald Trump. 

Mayor Pete is running a campaign that emphasizes values above all.  This is totally in accord with the view of the late Democratic psephologist, Ben Wattenberg, expressed in his book, Values Matter Most.  To be sure, when asked his views on issues, Mayor Peter answers in a focused, comprehensive way, indicating his knowledge and mastery of the subject.  Nevertheless, for Mayor Pete, the key to establishing a bond with his voters is in terms of commonality and compatibility of values. 

Yet message alone cannot win a presidential nomination contest.  It is essential that a campaign operationally be both swift and nimble in reacting to events and trends. Recently, I had an experience with the Buttigieg candidacy that persuades me that this campaign has these two qualities in great abundance. 

Given my lifelong involvement with American Jewish community matters and the American-Israel alliance, I was highly impressed with the pro-Israel position of Mayor Pete, particularly in view of the growing criticism of Israel by Progressive Democrats, such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke.  Yet about a month ago, I became concerned when I learned that Mayor Pete had used the word “Pharisees” in a pejorative way in describing fundamentalist religious extremists.

The Pharisees were the Jews in the days of the Second Temple who followed the Rabbinic tradition of supplementing the written law of the Torah with the Oral Law passed down through the generations.  There were serious tensions between the Pharisees and the early Christians.  Accordingly, down through the generations, observant Jews have venerated the Pharisees, while Christians have by and large regarded Pharisees in less than a favorable light. 

Certainly, I do not have the capacity to resolve this ancient quarrel.  I did hear complaints from prominent members of the Jewish community about the fashion in which Buttigieg had used the word “Pharisee”, although I suspected that he was totally unaware of the different connotations of the word “Pharisee” in the Jewish and Christian communities.  I had a positive view of Mayor Pete, and I wanted to communicate to the campaign the controversy that might brew. 

I contacted Jennifer Holdsworth, whom I know well from having participated with her in New Jersey television political talk shows, and discussed the issue with her.  Jennifer is one of Mayor Pete’s most significant advisors, having chaired his previous campaign for Chair of the Democratic National Committee.    

I was astounded that within five minutes after I discussed this issue with Jennifer, she responded with an answer prepared by Lis Smith, the nationally renowned communications director of the campaign.  Specifically, Lis stated that other members of the Jewish community had contacted the campaign about the issue and that Mayor Pete would no longer be using the word “Pharisee” in the aforesaid fashion.  The campaign had demonstrated to me not only that it was swift and nimble in response – it was also sensitive as well. 

The ultimate extent of success of the Mayor Pete campaign will be a function of money, message, and organization.  To achieve in these three realms, Buttigieg must have topflight campaign professionals, major Wall Street fundraisers, and current and former elected officials to bring the message to Main Street.  In this vein, New Jersey will have three key players in the Buttigieg campaign: Campaign professional Jennifer Holdsworth, Wall Street fundraiser Orin Kramer, and former State Senator Ray Lesniak. 

Jennifer Holdsworth, a native New Jerseyan is the Willie Mays of campaign professionals.  Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player of all time, due to his high proficiency in the five areas of performance:  hitting, hitting with power, running, fielding, and throwing.  Jennifer Holdsworth is one of the top Democratic campaign professionals in the nation due to her remarkable topflight achievements in the campaign areas of issues, organization, fundraising, message, and strategy.  Her competency is well known in New Jersey, due to her successful leadership of the 2016 New Jersey Hillary Clinton campaign, Political Director and Deputy Executive Director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, and Director of the coordinated campaign to re-elect Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ).  She has even demonstrated topflight legal expertise, having served as a judicial law clerk. 

In early February, MWWPR, one of the world’s top independent public relations firms, announced that Jennifer has joined the firm as Senior Vice President of Issues Management and Corporate Affairs in the Washington, DC. office. Holdsworth will also serve as the firm’s Senior Political Strategist.  I have no doubt that the greater portion of her working time will be devoted to the Buttigieg campaign.   If Mayor Pete wins, she may possibly emerge as the Valerie Jarrett of the Buttigieg White House. 

There is no Wall Street Democratic fundraiser that can surpass Orin Kramer, the founder and partner in the hedge fund Boston Provident, LP. When the Buttigieg campaign succeeded in recruiting Orin, they made the best selection since the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan with the third pick in the 1984 NBA draft.  While he has been a leading fundraiser in virtually every New Jersey Democratic statewide campaign and presidential campaign, he is most renowned for his outstanding fundraising in both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.  

Yet Orin is remarkable for his achievements in government as well.  He served as an Associate Director of the Carter White House Domestic Policy Staff from 1977 to 1981 and as the Chair of the New Jersey Division of Investment from 2002 to 2010.  There are few people in American public life who can match Orin Kramer’s achievements in the business, governmental, and political realms. 

For four decades, there was virtually no member of the New Jersey State Assembly and Senate who could surpass Ray Lesniak in terms of both effective exercise of power and mastery of issues, particularly in economic development, the environment, criminal justice reform, animal welfare, and marriage equality.   His legislative accomplishments were a matter of national significance as well.  His successful effort both as a legislator and Supreme Court litigant resulted in the historic legalization of sports betting across America.  The first same sex marriage in the history of New Jersey took place in the Elizabeth home of Ray and Salena Lesniak in 2013. 

Yet Ray Lesniak is unique among present and past New Jersey legislators in view of his simultaneous service in the political campaign realm.  While serving in the State Senate, he served as both New Jersey Democratic State Chairman and New Jersey Chair for Clinton/Gore and Gore/Lieberman.  He was a highly successful fundraiser – just as Orin Kramer was known for his success in fundraising from corporate executives and Wall Street, Ray was distinguished by his proficiency in fundraising from Main Street sources.  Orin and Ray have cooperated well in fundraising before:  Ray recruited Orin as a fundraiser for the 1997 Jim McGreevey for Governor campaign.  While Kramer has been a Baron of Wall Street, Ray has been a Mogul of Main Street New Jersey. 

Ray’s wife, Salena, former Chair, New Jersey Civil Rights Commission, will be joining him in his fundraising and outreach efforts.  In undertaking his role, Ray defined his message as follows: “Mayor Pete is everything President Trump is not – sincere, authentic, learned, Afghanistan veteran, a man of faith with high moral standards – who leads by example, not by bombast, who will bring out the best in America while President Trump brings out the worse in America.” 

It is too early to predict with certainty the outcome of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination sweepstakes.  But with the talented trio of Holdsworth, Kramer, and Lesniak, it is easy to see how the campaign of Mayor Pete and New Jersey may be perfect together. 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. 

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2 responses to “Mayor Pete’s Campaign: An RFK Message, A Swift and Nimble Campaign Operation, and Three Key New Jersey Players”

  1. Pete is a genius and humanist who understands the intersection of philosophy and government. He is a benevolent and wise leader who beckons the citizenry to thought and activism. He speaks to people as if speaking to a smart friend. He thinks things through in a complex, nuanced and positive way. If a president is like the conductor of an orchestra – hand Pete the baton!

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