Two months after accepting an endorsement from J Street's political action committee, a local Democratic congressional candidate is disassociating himself from the upstart lobbying group.
Doug Pike -- a former editorial writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer who is now seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6) -- asked J Street officials this week to remove him from its list of 41 endorsed candidates, and said he's planning to return some $6,000 donated via the group.
Pike explained that when he first sought J Street's endorsement back in September, he had underestimated his policy differences with the group.
For instance, Pike said, he was "troubled" by J Street's recent stance that Israel halt construction in eastern Jerusalem. J Street has largely sided with the U.S. government in its latest diplomatic flare-up with the Jewish state over plans to build new housing in an eastern Jerusalem neighborhood.
"Belatedly, I got a clearer sense of the important points where J Street looks at things differently than I look at things," Pike said in an interview. "Also, people simply assumed when they heard that I was endorsed by J street that I agreed with them on everything. The endorsement was an impediment to my being able to explain my convictions about Israel's security."
The announcement comes as Pike is locked in a heated primary battle against Manan Trivedi, a physician and Iraq-war veteran from Berks County who has recently gained momentum, and been endorsed by the Democratic committees in both Chester and Montgomery counties.
The race has high stakes, as Gerlach's seat has long been a high priority target for Democrats, and party insiders are saying that Trivedi stands a better chance of getting the job done.
It's unclear what impact, if any, Pike's reversal will have on the outcome of the May 18 primary or his ability to attract Jewish support. But with Pike now seeing the endorsement as more of a liability than a help, the reversal raises questions about the influence of J Street and its ability to raise cash and support candidates who favor its more proactive approach to the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict.
It's just the latest twist on an ongoing debate about whether J Street, which has expanded its grass-roots efforts to the Philadelphia area, should be considered a mainstream Jewish organization, under the pro-Israel tent.
For its part, J Street took a swipe at Pike in response to the news. "We wish Doug Pike well, but are pleased to see him return the funds provided to his campaign, as it is our purpose only to support politicians with the courage of their convictions," J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement.
"We are as little interested in providing support for someone who would walk away from what they believe under pressure as they may be in having our support," added Ben-Ami, who declined requests for an interview.
Agrees With Prime Minister
Pike, who traveled to Israel in November -- in part to visit a cousin who decades ago converted to Judaism and made aliyah -- said his positions have been clear from the start.
"The United States should encourage a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but ultimately, this must come from negotiations between the two sides," Pike wrote in a column addressing his decision. "I agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu: Negotiations should begin as soon as possible without preconditions."
The son of Otis Pike, a former New York congressman, Pike plans to return $6,375 -- $1,000 was a direct contribution from J Street's PAC, and the rest was donated by 10 individuals via the PAC.
Right now, he has significantly more money than his opponent. As of Dec. 31, Pike had $1.1 million in his war chest, compared to Trivedi's $123,381. But if Pike does beat his rival -- and the race is considered close -- he'll need more to wage a credible assault on Gerlach.
The GOP lawmaker is a vocal opponent of most of President Barack Obama's domestic agenda, most recently voting against health care reform.
But according to one pro-Israel fundraiser who did not wish to be named, a number of potential contributors walked away from Pike after the J Street endorsement became known, and after Gerlach -- considered a strong Israel backer -- decided not to run for governor.
More publicly, last week State. Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153) rescinded his endorsement of Pike, citing concerns about Pike's approach to Israel, according towww.pa2010.com .
Marcel Groen, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic committee, which has thrown its weight behind Trivedi, said that Pike's reversal should have little impact on the primary since relatively few voters are so heavily invested in the question of whether J Street is a legitimate political voice for American Jewry.
Richard Schiffrin, a Democratic fundraiser backing Pike, stated that the candidate's positions on Israel were well within the mainstream.
Trivedi -- who is expecting to attend his first Passover seder next week at the home of supporter David Dormont -- declined to comment directly on Pike's endorsements. Trivedi said that, as an Indian-American, he can relate to Jews with relatives in Israel who live under the constant threat of terrorism. He has expressed interest in visiting there after the primary.
Gerlach's campaign had no hesitation about responding to the J Street incident.
"Pike's campaign for Congress is like the old Seinfeld sitcom; it's a campaign about nothing," said Gerlach spokesman Mark Campbell. "Pike's problem is that he staked out flaming liberal positions on the far left, and someone has finally told him he can't win by being a flaming liberal."
For his part, Pike rejected the assertion that he's changed his position: "I intend to better communicate my commitment to Israel as a candidate, and to demonstrate it by my words and deeds as a member of the next Congress."