This week on Deconstructed, host Ryan Grim revisits his reporting on how the Democratic Majority for Israel, Mainstream Democrats PAC, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee spent so much money on the politics of Israel that the question of Israel-Palestine now dominates Democratic primaries.
Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.
Today we’re bringing you something a little bit different — an audio version of a recent story I wrote for The Intercept.
The story is ostensibly about the role played by an unusual coalition of big money groups: AIPAC, Democratic Majority for Israel, a Super PAC backed by LinkedIn-billionaire Reid Hoffman, and another Super PAC funded by the now-indicted Sam bank and freed. What brought them all together, though, was the goal of beating progressive Democratic candidates in Democratic primaries.
In the story, Mark Mellman, the head of the DMFI, justifies his strategy explicitly on the basis of his pro-Israel politics, telling me that the left in the United States is too critical of Israel, and that the Israeli right uses the American left to fearmonger their way into power. So he’s trying to beat the Israeli right by first beating the American left.
The money behind these organizations, of course, has other reasons to oppose the wing of the Democratic party that wants higher taxes on billionaires and wealth to be redistributed downward. Mellman’s explanation, though, takes on a different flavor now with the extreme-right in power in Israel. (Check out our episode from January 6, titled “Israel’s Rightward Turn” for more background on that.)
I wanted to do an audio version of this story, because it’s increasingly hard for people to read super long features and investigations on a phone or a laptop, and they don’t easily slot into a Kindle. So this is something of an experiment. And if you like it, or you don’t like it, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com to let us know what you thought of this format. And if you really, really liked it, go and leave a review at Apple podcasts or somewhere like that.
I also wanted to put out a new version of this story because while it’s about last year’s Democratic primary, and it uses one primary campaign in particular as the vehicle to tell the story, it’s about much more than that — and is particularly relevant as we head into the next election cycle. And with Israel’s increasingly rightward shift, it raises questions about whether Democrats should be allowing outside spending to so fundamentally shape the process Democratic voters used to choose their candidates, and by extension, decide what kind of party they want representing them in Washington.
The story centers around a young Democratic House candidate named Maxwell Alejandro Frost. In November, Frost was elected to his first term representing Florida’s 10th Congressional District.
I’ve heard some readers describe this story as a takedown of Max Frost, and people are entitled to read it however they want, but my own humble opinion is that that misses the broader picture. As you listen to this story, consider what would have happened if Frost had made different decisions along the way, perhaps decisions that many of the listeners would have preferred he made: Would he then have been elected to Congress?
Alright, but from there, we can say: Well, it’s better not to be elected than to compromise one’s principles. That’s a fair ethical standard.
But if we allow a system to prevail that requires a candidate to make those compromises just to be considered for office, we guarantee we’ll only get compromised candidates; if we allow a system where the choices are either to lose nobly or to win on the terms of multimillion-dollar Super PACs, we’re the ones who lose. Democrats have it in their power to set rules around outside spending in primaries but have simply chosen not to do so. This is a story on the consequences of that choice.
All right. Here it is.
RG: As Maram Al-Dada, a 34-year-old aviation engineer in Orlando, Florida, prepared to speak at a rally in May 2021, he couldn’t help but think of his family. One particular moment from his childhood in Gaza was seared into his memory. His grandmother would often walk him as a boy to the border fence and point to the property on the other side that had been the family’s home until 1967 when the community was evacuated amid the Six-Day War. On the seventh day, the family hadn’t been allowed to return, but his grandparents would sneak out at night to tend to their crops, making sure things would be in good shape for the family when they eventually did make it back. They’d be shot at by Israeli troops and sneak back. But soon the fencing went up, leaving only the pointing to be done.
Then one day in the early 1990s, about 25 years after the family had been forced from their home, a lighter-skinned man speaking broken Arabic came to their southern Gaza village of Bani Suheila looking for Al-Dada’s grandmother. His grandparents still held the deed — or the paper, at least — but the man was now living on their property. Al-Dada still doesn’t understand why the man came to see his grandmother, or what he wanted, but vividly remembers an intensely demeaning experience.
Now there was more fighting, and Al-Dada and his fellow Floridians — he’d moved to the Sunshine State in 2011 — were there to protest Israeli evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem, and airstrikes on the Gaza strip during Ramadan, 2021. They were the latest violent attacks in what had become known as the Gaza War.
Al-Dada hadn’t been back in years. In 2008, as his grandfather was dying, he tried to visit through the border with Egypt but was denied. A crossing from Israel for a Palestinian is effectively impossible, given travel restrictions that apply only to Palestinians. His grandfather died, and a follow-up attempt to gain humanitarian entrance for the funeral was rejected, and he hasn’t been to Gaza since.
Al-Dada saw those at the rally as another type of family. After he’d gotten to the U.S., he joined the Florida Palestine Network, a thriving grassroots organization that included many Palestinian emigrés and non-Palestinian kindred spirits. One of the most active young men in that group stood next to Al-Dada: Maxwell Alejandro Frost, who, for all appearances, was a true believer in the cause. “Free, free Palestine!” he and Al-Dada chanted as they both got ready to address the crowd.
When it was his turn to speak, Frost told those gathered:
Maxwell Alejandro Frost: We have to demand that our leaders see the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable [cheers in the background] and use that vision to make every goddamn decision they ever make. Thank you! [Cheers and applause.]
RG: Following the rally, Frost, then 24, posted a photo on Instagram, with the caption, “Orlando is in solidarity with all facing oppression across the globe. From Palestine to Colombia, we denounce it all.” He added a thank you to his friend, Rasha Mubarak, another Palestinian American, for leading the organizing of the rally. “Much love,” he said. The most committed activists were all part of a group chat, where several dozen of them, including Mubarak, Al-Dada, and Frost, all celebrated the successful event.
It was also the start of something bigger. In the weeks leading up to the rally, rumors had swirled around Orlando political circles that Val Demings, the local congresswoman and former sheriff, was being courted by party leaders in Washington to run for Senate and would soon take the plunge. Frost reached out to Mubarak, who he had met amid the street protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and asked her to be part of his kitchen cabinet, an informal circle of advisers who make up the early infrastructure of a campaign.
MAF: Rasha connected me with a few different politicos, people here in Florida, and stuff like that. And then she was a member of the kitchen cabinet.
RG: Mubarak laid out his path to victory.
Rasha Mubarak: It was: OK, so we’re going to run a really progressive race, that’s inclusive of Palestinian human rights, right? Understanding that this is a Black seat and the other candidates will be a split vote.
RG: Frost is Afro-Latino so they thought he would have a shot, even if he wasn’t a shoo-in.
RM: If he’s able to be the progressive, bold candidate, people are gonna believe in that. And he’s gonna bring out a different base than other voters.
RG: Just being the “first Gen Z candidate” for Congress wouldn’t be enough. She said: “Being the first is historic, but changing history via policy is entirely different. Being the first Gen Z is only surface-level and what we need as his residents are deeper: a congressional leader in the state of Florida that aligns with the notion that everyone deserves to move with freedom, experience liberation, and live equitable lives. A congressional leader that did not leave any community behind. We do not have that in Florida,” she said.
A week after the rally, Demings made it official. Mubarak began connecting Frost with donors around the country and activist groups in the district. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Central Florida, Mubarak’s Palestinian family hailed largely from the West Bank and Jerusalem. A national political consultant and organizer, she’d become a prominent figure in Orlando politics. Frost also brought on Rania Batrice, a progressive Palestinian American consultant, to do his media strategy. Word spread that Frost, an anti-gun violence advocate connected to the Parkland survivors, was the genuine progressive in what was, as hoped for, becoming a crowded field. In August 2021, he officially launched his campaign.
While bombs were raining down on Gaza that May, another air war was playing out in Cleveland, Ohio, that would not just profoundly shape the Orlando election but bend the arc of the Democratic Party in a new direction.
In a special election to replace Rep. Marcia Fudge in the House after Fudge was named Housing and Urban Development secretary, Nina Turner, a former state senator and surrogate for both of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, was polling some 30 points ahead of the field. Amid the Gaza War, she retweeted a Jewish advocacy group, IfNotNow, that is the bane of right-wing “pro-Israel” groups.
Jewish Insider flagged the post in an article, noting the divergence on the issue between Turner and her leading opponent, Cuyahoga County Chair Shontel Brown. “Advocacy groups such as Pro-Israel America and Democratic Majority for Israel,” reported Jewish Insider, “have also thrown their support behind Brown, who has had to contend with Turner’s substantial war chest with less than three months remaining until the August 3 primary, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission.”
Brown would not have to contend with that disadvantage for long. Two groups — Democratic Majority For Israel, known as DMFI, and Mainstream Democrats PAC — began spending millions, pummeling Turner on the airwaves.
Advertisement Voiceover: Unified Democrats? Turner said no. Support Clinton over Trump? Not Nina Turner. Help Biden defeat Trump? Turner refused. Instead, Turner said voting for Biden was like eating [censored].
RG: The two were effectively the same organization, operating out of the same office and employing the same consultants, though Mainstream Democrats claimed a broader mission. Strategic and targeting decisions for both were made by pollster Mark Mellman, according to Dmitri Mehlhorn, a Democratic operative and Silicon Valley executive who serves as the political adviser to LinkedIn billionaire Reid Hoffman, who funds the Mainstream Democrats PAC. DMFI has also funneled at least $500,000 to Mainstream Democrats PAC.
“Our money is going to the Mainstream Democrat coalition, which we trust to identify the candidates who are most likely to convey to Americans broadly, an image of Democrats that is then electable,” Mehlhorn told me, saying he relies on the consultants linked to DMFI to make those choices. “I trust them. I think Brian Goldsmith, Mark Mellman, they tend to know that stuff.”
While DMFI is ostensibly organized around the politics of Israel, in practice, it has become a weapon wielded by the party’s centrist faction against its progressive wing. In fact, DMFI, Mainstream Democrats PAC, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have spent so much money that the question of Israel-Palestine now dominates Democratic primaries.
Across the country, progressive candidates, who a cycle earlier had been loudly vying for national attention with bold ideas to attract small donors, were instead keeping their heads down, hoping to stay under the radar of DMFI and AIPAC.
When Justice Democrats, in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ first presidential campaign, began its effort to pull the party to the left by competing in Democratic primaries, the issue of Israel-Palestine was not central to its strategy. But its candidates tended to be progressive across the board, rather than what had previously been the standard, known as PEP, for “progressive except for Palestine.” The insurgency inside the Democratic Party has since produced a counter-insurgency, funded heavily by hedge fund executives, private equity barons, professional sports team owners, and other billionaires and multimillionaires, many of them organized under a “pro-Israel” banner.
“It’s been a radical transformation in the politics of Israel-Palestine and the politics of Democratic primaries,” said Logan Bayroff, director of communications for J Street, which describes itself as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization. Last cycle, Bayroff helped run J Street Action Fund, an outside spending group designed specifically to counter the influence of DMFI and AIPAC. It spent less than 10 percent of the amount its rivals were able to put in the field.
Mehlhorn was explicit about his purpose:
Dmitri Mehlhorn: I mean, Nina Turner’s district is a classic case study where the vast majority of voters in that district are Marcia Fudge voters, they’re pretty happy with the Democratic Party. And Nina Turner’s record on the Democratic Party is [that] she’s a strong critic. And so this group put in money to make sure that voters knew what she felt about the Democratic Party. And from my perspective, that just makes it easier for me to try to do things like give Tim Ryan a chance of winning [a Senate seat] in a state like Ohio — not a big chance, but at least a chance. And he’s not having to deal with the latest bomb thrown by Nina. So anyway, that’s the theory behind our support for Mainstream Democrats.
RG: Mark Mellman, in an interview with HuffPost, acknowledged that his goals extended beyond the politics of Israel and Palestine. “The anti-Biden folks and the anti-Israel folks look to her” — that’s Nina Turner — “as a leader,” Mellman said. “So she really is a threat to both of our goals.”
Turner said she was told she had to distance herself from members of the Squad, particularly Muslim Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, or face an onslaught. Here’s Nina Turner speaking earlier in a Deconstructed interview:
Nina Turner: I was told by a prominent Jewish businessman that ‘We’re coming at you with everything we got, you need to disavow the Squad.’ If I didn’t do it, they were coming for me. And that also the Palestinian community didn’t have rights that were more important than the state of Israel.
I even have emails right now, to this day, of local — primarily business — leaders in the Jewish community where they were encouraging Republicans to vote in this primary and were saying things like: We must support Shontel Brown, in no way can we let Nina Turner win this race.
RG: Turner then shared those emails with me: “This is a very important election for our community!” wrote one Turner opponent in an email to neighbors. “Shontel’s main opponent, Nina Turner, was the honorary co-chair of the Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, as well as the leader of ‘Our Revolution,’ the post-2016 organization of Sanders enthusiasts. She has raised money proclaiming her desire to join ‘the Squad’ and has been endorsed by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (see Turner fundraising emails attached below),” the email read.
Another neighbor forwarded the email on to still more folks, adding, “Many of us wouldn’t bother with this primary election but this one is really important and electing Shontel Brown is a must. Whether a R or a D you can elect to vote in the D primary.”
On August 3, 2021, Turner lost to Brown 50 percent to 45 percent, falling short by roughly 4,000 votes. The deluge of money — DMFI had dropped more than $2 million — following the Gaza attacks tilted the race, Turner told me later.
NT: Clearly Ryan, had that race been in May —
NT: — you would be interviewing Congresswoman Nina Turner, that’s irrefutable.
NT: [On election night.] I am going to work hard to ensure that something like this never happens to a progressive candidate again [cheers and applause] —
RG: — she said on election night —
NT: See, we didn’t lose this race. Evil money manipulated and maligned this election.
RG: The characterization of the funding as “evil,” mixed with the notion of manipulation, brought out fresh charges of antisemitism.
The race in Orlando largely stayed off the national radar through the rest of 2021, since the primary wouldn’t be held until August 2022. As the year closed out, Mubarak set about posting her end-of-year Instagram shoutouts and wanted to highlight the work they’d all done the past May in opposing the Gaza War. She went to dig out Frost’s old post, which had singled Mubarak out for her organizing that day and discovered it had been taken off his feed. Mubarak called Frost out on it; she said he explained that a social media staffer had scoured his accounts and archived some posts and that it must’ve been caught up in the sweep. He’d put it back up, he said.
But the reference to Mubarak was removed and a subtle but meaningful edit was made to the caption: Gone were references to “all facing oppression across the globe” and the pledge that “we denounce it all.”
The post now reads simply: “Orlando stands in solidarity from Palestine to Colombia!” When Mubarak flagged the change and her omission, she said, he explained that “local endorsers have a problem with your advocacy.”
Frost told another ally that his goal was to avoid getting crushed by DMFI. He said: “We’re just trying to see if we can keep them out, and maybe if they come in, they won’t spend anything,” the ally recalled him speculating.
Frost told me that he wasn’t really aware of the influence of outside spending at that point in his campaign:
MAF: I honestly didn’t know much about outside spending. I didn’t really learn about the outside money that played into [Turner’s] race until months after —
MAF: — to be honest. So even as it was going on, I mean I saw the results come in, I looked at my phone, I remember I was like, sitting in my kitchen and I was just like: Damn — you know?
MAF: — we lost. I remember being surprised, and being upset, and then kind of saying: I need to win, we need more progressives in Congress. So I hadn’t really connected those dots, to be honest, and wasn’t really fully aware of, kind of, the role of outside money in general.
RG: Campaign sources, however, say the issue was front and center, with questions about what type of positioning might keep the outside money out. When allies in the free Palestine movement warned him that DMFI and AIPAC wouldn’t let up, even after he was elected, whether he capitulated or not, they recall Frost saying, “I’ll figure that out when I get there.”
On January 31, kickstarting the primary season, Jewish Insider published a list of 15 DMFI House endorsements. Among them was Randolph Bracy, a local state senator who was considered one of the most competitive moderates in Frost’s race. Mubarak texted Frost the news. “Didn’t think they would hop in so early,” Frost replied. “They hate progressives lol.”
The names on DMFI’s endorsement list, and the names left off, tell a story of the group’s commitment to fighting back against the party’s left flank in Democratic primaries and an increasingly extremist view of what being pro-Israel meant.
“In Michigan and Illinois, Reps. Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Sean Casten (D-IL) are, with support from DMFI, waging respective battles against progressive Reps. Andy Levin (D-MI) and Marie Newman (D-IL), who have frequently clashed with the pro-Israel establishment over their criticism of the Jewish state,” the Jewish Insider piece read.
Levin was an incumbent member of Congress and a scion of a powerhouse Michigan family that included Carl Levin, his uncle and a former lion of the Senate, and former House Ways and Means Chair Sander Levin, his father. Levin had been redistricted into a primary against another incumbent Democrat, Stevens, who became conspicuously outspoken about her unwavering support for Israel, becoming one of just 18 Democrats casting public doubt on the wisdom of President Joe Biden reentering the Iran nuclear deal. To include Levin among an anti-Israel cohort stretched the definition to a breaking point. Here’s how Jewish Insider put it: “While Levin, a former synagogue president, describes himself as a Zionist and opposes BDS, the Michigan political scion has frequently clashed with the pro-Israel establishment over his criticism of the Israeli government, including the recent introduction of legislation that would, among other things, condemn Israeli settlements while placing restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel.”
The attack on Levin helped define what DMFI meant by pro-Israel, and it included support for expanding settlements and ruled out criticism of the Israeli government. That Levin couldn’t be written off as antisemitic made him that much more of a threat. That he was willing to defend his colleagues like Omar and Tlaib was intolerable. Accusing Tlaib of antisemitism is made difficult if a former synagogue president has her back. AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr, asked by the Washington Post in a rare interview why Levin was targeted, said, “It was Congressman Levin’s willingness to defend and endorse some of the largest and most vocal detractors of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The list also included Summer Lee. In 2018, as an unapologetic democratic socialist, she unseated a member of a powerhouse Pittsburgh political family in a state House race. Her win made national news. Now she was running for an open congressional seat with the backing of Justice Democrats, and, Jewish Insider noted, was a member of “the Democratic Socialists of America, which formally endorsed the BDS movement in 2017.” BDS — which is modeled after the effort to boycott South Africa’s apartheid government and stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions — was launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society groups in response to Israel’s construction of a wall that cut deep into occupied Palestinian territory.
DMFI came out early for her opponent, attorney Steve Irwin. “There’s a context here that I think we ought to take cognizance of, which is to say that we have had some organized groups out there that have said they are attempting to execute, in their words, a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party,” Mellman told Jewish Insider, referring to the organization Justice Democrats, which cultivates progressive congressional candidates to primary moderate Democrats, but expanded his discussion to include DSA.
Freshman Rep. Marie Newman had also been backed by Justice Democrats in her campaign to unseat a conservative Democrat the previous cycle. Mellman said, “A number of those groups have moved anti-Israelism from a peripheral part of their issue agenda to a central part of their issue agenda. Their strategy is to go into deep-blue districts that the party doesn’t care about because it’s going to be a Democrat no matter who wins.”
Lee heard early on that her campaign was going to have an “Israel problem,” she told me.
Summer Lee: We heard people in the establishment talk about it. You know: Summer’s gotta have an Israel problem, right? That was kind of the first —
SL: — thing that we heard from folks, that she’s gonna have an Israel problem. It’s an issue that we knew was going to come up. And I think it’s really funny because, for me, as a Black woman who is a progressive, Israel is not, at the state level, it’s not an issue that we ever had to talk about.
RG: Lee’s point echoes a similar one made by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, in 2018 when she was getting knocked around in the press for flubbing an answer on the Israel-Palestine question.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I come from the South Bronx, I come from a Puerto Rican background. And Middle Eastern politics is not exactly what was at my kitchen table every night.
RG: But, during the Gaza War in 2021, Lee had once posted support for the Palestinian plight.
SL: It was really one tweet that kind of caught the attention of folks. And it was kind of used as: Here, this is it, we got you. And it was really a tweet talking about Black Lives Matter and talking about how, as an oppressed person, I view and perceive the topic. Because the reality is — and that’s with a lot of Black and brown progressives — we view even topics that don’t seem connected, we still view them through the injustice that we face as Black folks here, and the politics that we see and experience here, and are able to make connections to that, and bring up connections to that, and we try to do that in a very good-faith way.
RG: Her tweet read: Trayvon, a kid, was walking in his own neighborhood, going home.
George didn’t like the way he looked and assualted [sic] him.
Trayvon fought back with his fists.
George drew a gun and killed him.
American government: “George had a right to defend himself.”
She goes on: “When I hear American pols use the refrain “Israel has the right to defend itself” in response to undeniable atrocities on a marginalized pop, I can’t help but think of how the west has always justified indiscriminate& disproportionate force &power on weakened & marginalized ppl,” she tweeted.
The comment was shocking to some in Pittsburgh. Charles Saul, a member of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle’s board of trustees, was later quoted by the paper saying he was concerned about Lee because “she’s endorsed by some people I believe are antisemites, like Rashida Tlaib.”
He also said: “Another thing that worried me was her equating the suffering of the Gazans and Palestinians to the suffering of African Americans. That’s one of these intersectional things. If that’s her take on the Middle East, that’s very dangerous,” he said.
Lee had no doubt she would be hit, she just didn’t know when or how hard.
SL: There was no world in which, I’m being very honest, there was no world in which I did not think this wasn’t gonna happen.
SL: I knew this was going to happen from the moment I saw the ways in which the four Black and brown women who came in in 2018, which is the same year that I came into the state House, watching the way that they had to navigate the issue, knowing the way that they had to navigate money and politics, then seeing Nina Turner, it was a very clear trend to me.
So we honestly knew on day one — and before, so on day zero — it was something that we were thinking about, having to think about: How do we navigate it, when will it come? The question was always: When does it come in?
But I didn’t think that I would have the privilege of avoiding it. [Laughs.]
RG: Tweet or no tweet, Lee is convinced that she would have been targeted regardless, because the issue of Israel-Palestine is a cover for a broader assault on the progressive wing of the party.
SL: There’s a difference between having controversial views. There’s a difference between having problematic views. But what this does is it says you can’t have any views, right? This is a way to chill and to keep the progressive movement from growing as a whole. This is a way to temper a movement that centers, particularly, Black and brown women who are progressives, and stops them from building power.
RG: Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, denied the group targeted progressives specifically, saying: “The sole factor for supporting Democratic and Republican candidates is their support for strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Indeed, our PACs have supported scores of pro-Israel progressive candidates, including over half of the Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus and almost half of the Progressive Caucus. Our political involvement has shown that it is entirely consistent with progressive values to support America’s alliance with our democratic ally, Israel.”
Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, another Braddock resident was looking for a way to dodge DMFI’s fire. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman was locked in what threatened to be a tight race with Rep. Conor Lamb for a Senate nomination, and Lamb’s campaign was openly pleading for Super PAC support to put him over the top.
Early in the year, Jewish Insider reported, Mellman had reached out to Fetterman with questions about his position on Israel. Democratic activist Brett Goldman told Jewish Insider, “He’s never come out and said that he’s not a supporter of Israel, but the perception is that he aligns with the Squad more than anything else.”
Mellman said the campaign responded to his inquiry and “came with an interest in learning about the issues.” Following the meeting, the Fetterman campaign reached back out to Mellman. “Then they sent us a position paper, which we thought was very strong,” Mellman said.
But it wasn’t quite strong enough. Jewish Insider reported that DMFI emailed back some comments on the paper, which “Fetterman was receptive to addressing in a second draft.”
In April, Fetterman agreed to do an interview with Jewish Insider. Fetterman said: “I want to go out of my way to make sure that it’s absolutely clear that the views that I hold in no way go along the lines of some of the more fringe or extreme wings of our party,” he said. “I would also respectfully say that I’m not really a progressive in that sense.”
Fetterman, unprompted, stressed there should be zero conditions on military aid to Israel, that BDS is wrong, and so on, and so forth. Fetterman said: “Let me just say this, even if I’m asked or not, I was dismayed by the Iron Dome vote.” DMFI and AIPAC stayed out of the race.
As the campaign wore on, progressive forces consolidated around Frost. It was a meaningful achievement since the left is often hobbled by multiple progressive candidates splitting the vote and allowing a centrist candidate to slip through. (Levi Strauss heir Dan Goldman winning a Manhattan primary with less than 30 percent of the vote is just the latest example.)
The field initially included not just Frost, but also populist firebrand former Rep. Alan Grayson and Aramis Ayala, a popular former progressive prosecutor in Orange County, Florida, who had repeatedly clashed with state Republicans. Grayson had a dedicated but diminished base in the district, but Frost, in significant part thanks to the alliance with movement organizers in the district that Mubarak helped him build, began emerging as the leading progressive. A truce was brokered, with Ayala dropping out of the race in early March and winning the nomination for state attorney general instead.
Consolidating support was key but so was fending off DMFI. The critical question was whether they or AIPAC would put money against him. “It was a conversation from the jump, honestly, because DMFI endorsed Bracy so early,” recalled Mubarak. “Every progressive under the sun who has even a little sympathy for Palestine, [the question of DMFI] comes up, because they just dump so much money.”
Frost, according to people on his campaign, made it his mission to keep them at bay or find a way to neutralize them. But he had a balance to strike: Until March, Ayala was still in the race, so he needed to keep the full support of the progressive wing of the party without inviting a multimillion-dollar onslaught.
The answer came in the form of Ritchie Torres. A Bronx congressman in his first term and also Afro-Latino, Torres had made a name for himself in three overlapping areas. He was at war with the progressive wing, an outspoken ally of right-wing pro-Israel groups, and a cryptocurrency evangelist.
In a private meeting with DMFI after winning his 2020 primary, audio of which was leaked to me, Torres said this: “In New York City we’ve seen the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is explicitly pro-BDS. The Democratic Socialist left endorsed in about 11 races and won every single one except mine. So it’s proven to be effective at winning elections and I worry about the normalization of anti-Semitism within progressive politics.
Torres went on to say that his own identity as a gay man influenced how he approached the question of Israel:
Ritchie Torres: If the message to those who are both progressive and pro-Israel, especially people of Jewish descent, is that in order for you to be part of the progressive community you have to renounce your identity and your history and your ties to your own homeland — and you have to be in the closet — that to me is profoundly evil. That’s a perversion of progressivism.
RG: A DMFI board member said:
DMFI Board Member: It was so beautiful and almost not otherworldly, but amazing the way you speak with such honesty and conviction about Israel. … I just wish we could clone you so there were a million Ritchies running around talking about Israel.
RG: Another DMFI member on the call asked how a progressive, pro-Israel Squad could be built, and Torres told them it was all about building infrastructure and support for progressive candidates willing to side with Israel.
When the January list of races DMFI was building infrastructure around came out, the progressive campaign ecosystem breathed a sigh of relief that Austin, Texas, was not on it. Progressives were backing a would-be Squad member in the form of 33-year-old City Council Member Gregorio Casar.
Frost said he watched Casar’s race:
MAF: We watched all the races. We were keeping up to date on everything that was going on across the country as far as voting trends, especially looking at the youth vote, different stuff like that, that we thought might give us some trend information to help us in our race.
RG: Casar’s absence on the list, it turned out, came after a letter he had sent that month to a local rabbi laying out his position on Israel: He was opposed to BDS, he promised; supportive of a two-state solution; and in support of military aid to Israel. He also wrote, “The humanitarian crisis in Gaza and indefinite occupation in the West Bank are untenable for Israelis, Palestinians, and our collective conscience,” and added that he was against “unchecked settlement expansion.” Casar’s letter to the rabbi was published by Jewish Insider the day after DMFI’s endorsement list was unveiled.
Gregorio Casar: Ultimately the letter was in response to a lot of people continuing to insinuate that progressives are, cynical actors and insinuate that progressives are antisemitic.
GC: That is just not true, you know? And in particular, I also mean really progressive members of Congress, who fight for Palestinian rights, I do not believe are antisemitic.
GC: But I have a certain policy position, which is, I do not believe we should be writing a blank check on military aid, I think that we should provide some amount of aid, but we should also make sure we’re not funding human rights violations anywhere in the world. That’s just kind of a summary position I’ve taken the whole time.
RG: He decided to put that position down on paper.
CC: I said, Let’s just write this down, so that Rabbi Freedman can share this with people. And that means that there’s a very decent chance it’ll become public. I did not share it with JI, but I’m not — I don’t hold it against journalists —
CC: — to get hold of things —
RG: That’s what we do.
CC: — however you guys do it.
RG: His colleagues in DSA were shocked and began the process of rescinding their endorsements. To avoid a nasty fight, Casar voluntarily rescinded his request for DSA backing. The Austin chapter said in a statement: “We have a long history of working with Greg Casar on health care, paid sick time, police budgets, homelessness, housing justice, union rights, and more. We will continue to discuss this issue within our chapter and many individual members will continue to support the campaign, but we will no longer be working on this campaign as an organization.”
Justice Democrats, which does not have an Israel-Palestine litmus test, despite the protestations of DMFI, continued to back him, spending just over $100,000 in support.
An infrastructure around Democratic candidates who sided with Israel was, more or less, already the stated vision of DMFI.
In late January 2019, in the wake of the election of the first two Muslim women to Congress, Omar and Tlaib, Mellman announced the formation of a new hybrid Super PAC, saying in a statement that he would stand up for Israel inside the “progressive movement.”
Mellman had been the leading pollster for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 and was also a longtime AIPAC strategist. DMFI was an effort to do something of a rebrand for AIPAC within Democratic circles. AIPAC itself had become a toxic brand inside the Democratic Party after the organization worked to torpedo Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal. Mellman’s firm, the Mellman Group, had consulted for AIPAC’s dark-money group, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. The Mellman Group was also the second-largest contractor for AIPAC’s educational arm — the American Israel Education Fund, which organized congressional trips to Israel — in the year it fought the Iran deal. The biggest contractor that year was a travel business then owned by Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul and Republican mega-donor.
DMFI would also be able to deploy tactics AIPAC wasn’t yet ready for. Before Citizens United, AIPAC had grown its power not simply with the wealth of a handful of mega-donors, but through genuine and sustained grassroots organizing. Synagogue to synagogue, from the 1980s onward, AIPAC organized powerful local support for politicians who voiced unqualified support for Israel and ran high-profile campaigns against those who deviated. AIPAC’s informal slogan was that it didn’t have enemies in Congress, but had “friends and potential friends.”
David Ochs, founder of HaLev, which helps send young people to AIPAC’s annual conference, described in 2016 how AIPAC and its donors organize fundraisers outside the official umbrella of the organization so that the money doesn’t show up on disclosures as coming specifically from AIPAC: “In New York, with [hedge fund titan] Jeff Talpins, we don’t ask a goddamn thing about the fucking Palestinians. You know why? ’Cause it’s a tiny issue. It’s a small, insignificant issue. The big issue is Iran. We want everything focused on Iran,” Ochs said. “What happens is Jeff meets with the congressman in the back room, tells them exactly what his goals are — and by the way, Jeff Talpins is worth $250 million — basically they hand him an envelope with 20 credit cards, and say, ‘You can swipe each of these credit cards for $1,000 each.’”
Much like the National Rifle Association, its strength was in numbers and a narrow focus on a particular issue. After Citizens United, DMFI could skip the grassroots organizing component and go straight to big-money efforts directed through Super PACs. At least 11 of DMFI’s 14 board members had links to AIPAC; DMFI’s founding chair, Wall Street banker Todd Richman, also sat on AIPAC’s national council.
Mellman told me that his work against the party’s left was meant to undermine the Israeli right. “I have substantial direct experience in Israeli politics, having helped bring down Netanyahu,” he told me in an email, referring to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mellman had worked as a key election consultant for Yair Lapid’s political campaign, serving as a paid adviser, consulting with him in Washington, and meeting with his deputy minister of foreign affairs. Lapid’s center-right political party, Yesh Atid, would surge under Mellman’s guidance, making Lapid prime minister of Israel.
Mellman told me: “The simple fact of Israeli politics is that the right uses attacks from the U.S. and Europe to its great and consistent benefit. That’s correct, anti-Israel forces in the U.S. do vastly more to help the right than to hurt it,” he said. “They enable Bibi to run as the guy who will stand up to the U.S. and the world to protect his country. That has been a key element of most of his campaigns. …The anti-Israel far left has propped up the Israeli right and done tremendous damage to the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Dmitri Mehlhorn made a similar argument about Mainstream Democrats PAC’s interventions against progressives: that they were actually targeting the left to beat the right.
DM: If you look at America as a whole, and you want the fascists not to take power, what you need to do is trade a little bit of your enthusiasm in urban districts — enthusiasm that does not generally translate into meaningful votes, because a lot of those people don’t vote, and if they do, they [are] often in a safe district, [and] they often don’t vote. Transfer some of that enthusiasm and energy, just trade it, for people who are actual swing voters, who vote but make up their mind kind of at the last minute. It’s like, not a big part of the electorate, maybe 10 percent, maybe less now, as things get crazy.
But you’re going after the populist turnout, if you’re going for a populist, and you’re also handing a message that is going to motivate the shit out of the other side, because remember, they’re already amped to be motivated out of fear. … If Nina Turner would have won that [Ohio House] race, she would have been 20 percent of Sean Hannity’s chyrons out of the gate. You know, it just makes their job easier if some of what they’re saying is actually based in some fact of some sort.
RG: Mellman’s new organization was rolled out with a splashy New York Times profile and supportive comments from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (who leads the AIPAC-sponsored congressional trips), Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez, and Arizona’s freshman Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema. DMFI provided a forum for Lapid’s first call with an American Zionist organization after his election, during which he declared his intention to reinvigorate Israel’s ties to American political parties.
But in DMFI’s first cycle, it hit obstacles. The group’s first play for power, an effort to persuade Bernie Sanders to dismiss two Muslim advisers from his presidential campaign, was unsuccessful, as was DMFI’s later effort to hit him with TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. Next, would-be Squad member Jamaal Bowman of New York overcame more than $2 million in DMFI spending in 2020 to oust Rep. Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the most outspoken Israel hawks in Congress. That Bowman won in a landslide, and even carried heavily Jewish precincts, was a stinging defeat for DMFI and AIPAC, as Bowman had refused to back off his support of Palestinian human rights.
On May 13, 2021, around the same time Frost was rallying in Orlando, history was made on the floor of the House of Representatives, as Democrat after Democrat paraded for an hour to denounce Israel’s assault on Gaza.
Rep. Ilhan Omar: I feel the pain of every child who is forced to hide under their beds, and every parent who deals with that anguish.
AOC: This is our business because we are playing a role in it. And the United States must acknowledge its role in the injustice and human rights violations of Palestinians.
RG: Throughout the 2020 cycle, AIPAC had been content to let DMFI run the big-money operation in Democratic primaries. To encourage support for it, AIPAC donors were even allowed to count money given to DMFI as a credit toward their AIPAC contributions, which then won them higher-tier perks at conferences and other events. But the unprecedented display of progressive Democratic support for Palestinians amid the Gaza War on the House floor was triggering.
AIPAC’s Howard Kohr told the Washington Post: “We’re seeing much more vocal detractors of the U.S.-Israel relationship, who are having an impact on the discussion. And we need to respond.”
The problem, he said, was “the rise of a very vocal minority on the far left of the Democratic Party that is anti-Israel and seeks to weaken and diminish the relationship. Our view is that support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is both good policy and good politics. We wanted to defend our friends, and to send a message to detractors that there’s a group of individuals that will oppose them.”
That group of individuals began coming together in January 2022. AIPAC transferred $8.5 million to the Super PAC it set up called United Democracy Project. Private equity mogul and Republican donor Paul Singer kicked in $1 million, as did Republican Bernard Marcus, the former CEO of Home Depot. Dozens of other big donors, many of them also Republicans, kicked in big checks to give UDP a $30 million war chest. By the end of March, it had spent $80,000 on polling, as it targeted races and honed its messaging, according to disclosures.
In April, it dropped its first ads of the cycle, tag-teaming with DMFI to make sure Turner’s second run against Brown never got off the ground. That same month it launched its assault on Nida Allam, a Durham County commissioner and the first Muslim woman elected in North Carolina. She ran for office after three of her Muslim friends were murdered in the gruesome Chapel Hill hate crime that drew national attention. AIPAC spent millions to stop her rise, backing state Sen. Valerie Foushee in the May primary. Elsewhere in the state, AIPAC spent $2-million-plus against progressive Erica Smith in another open primary.
The United Democracy Project also began hammering away at Lee, who was running in an open primary to be held the same day as North Carolina’s. J Street’s new outside money group had been planning to raise and spend about $2 million to compete with DMFI, which they guessed would spend somewhere between $5 million and $10 million. That, said J Street’s Logan Bayroff, would at least be something of a fair fight, given that AIPAC and DMFI had to overcome the fact that what they were advocating for — unchecked, limitless support for the Israeli government, regardless of abuses — was unpopular in Democratic primaries.
“We’re always gonna expect the right to have more money, given that they’re operating off of the basis of big donors. But that’s a little bit more of a fair fight,” he said of the disparity between J Street and DMFI. “But now you add to what DMFI is doing — $30 million from AIPAC — that’s just in a whole other realm.”
Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, Indivisible, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, and the Sunrise Movement worked in coalition with J Street on a number of races that DMFI and AIPAC played in, and where they could muster enough money, the candidates had a shot.
Joe Dinkin, national campaigns director for the WFP said, “If you look at the races we lost, we were outspent by the bad guys 6, 8, 10 to 1. If you look at Summer’s race, it was more like 2-1.”
In a Chicago-area district, DMFI, AIPAC, and Mainstream Dems backed Gilbert Villegas against progressive Delia Ramirez. But DMFI put in only $157,000; Hoffman’s PAC chipped in $65,000; and the United Democracy Project didn’t run an independent expenditure. VoteVets, an organization that almost exclusively backs centrist veteran candidates against progressives when it comes to Democratic primaries, was the big spender, putting more than $950,000 in.
With support from WFP (which dumped more than $600,000 into the race), the CPC PAC (which put in $400,000), Emily’s List (which put in $262,000), Indivisible (which put in $240,000), J Street (which put in $45,000), and a slew of progressive members of Congress — Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley — Ramirez won by more than 40 points and is poised to become a Squad-adjacent member of Congress. All told, Ramirez had more outside support — $1.7 million — than did Villegas, at more than $1.2 million, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. (Villegas’s campaign, however, outraised Ramirez directly by about $400,000. In other words, it was a pretty fair fight.)
And in one case, where the PACs found themselves up against somebody with pockets as deep as theirs, they fell short. In Michigan, AIPAC spent more than $4 million against Shri Thanedar, an eccentric self-funder who didn’t know what party he wanted to join before he funded a bizarre run for governor in 2018, followed by a successful buying of a state House seat in 2020, then followed by his 2022 House bid. DMFI didn’t run an independent expenditure, but AIPAC’s effort was backed up by $1 million from Protect Our Future. Their candidate, state Sen. Adam Hollier, fell short by 5 percentage points. Thanedar had loaned his campaign more than $8 million and spent around $4 million of it to win.
In the wake of DMFI’s endorsement of Frost’s opponent, Torres and Frost began talking. Mubarak warned him away, saying: “Do you know that this person is not progressive at all? He seems progressive, but he’s actually very problematic, not just on Palestine.” She pointed out that he had been dodging other candidate questionnaires yet made time for Torres.
Frost replied: “Oh, I know, but he just took me under his wing because I’m Afro-Latino.”
To reassure his early and most energetic supporters, Frost sat down for a Zoom call on March 9 with several dozen activists with the Florida Palestine Network for a conversation about his views.
A former state senator, Dwight Bullard, joined the call as well. Bullard told me: “My hope was in being on that call that he would feel a sense of camaraderie if you will: ‘I’m letting you know publicly I’m an ally of Florida Palestine Network, and it’s OK to speak your mind.’”
In the legislature, Bullard had been introduced to the issue of BDS when Florida lawmakers pushed to strip state contracts from any company that endorsed the boycott. Bullard was not himself a BDS supporter but believed the right to boycott was central to any struggle for dignity or civil rights, and certainly no business of the Florida state Senate.
“To me, just on its face, it sounded like a repressive anti-First Amendment kind of thing. If students at Florida State wanted to boycott Coca-Cola we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, but here we are making this part of our legislation.”
He took enormous heat for voting against the measure and began looking into the issue further. The organization Dream Defenders, affiliated with FPN, invited him to visit the region, and he took them up on it in 2016. “You can’t unsee what you saw, and to come back and have people be like, no, it wasn’t that — I had people trying to tell me that everything I had experienced was a completely staged exercise,” he said.
That year, thanks to the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Bullard’s district was redrawn, and he spent the 2016 campaign not just fending off charges of antisemitism, but also of terrorism. One of the tour guides, a Palestinian, had previously been affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which the State Department labels a terrorist group, and an attack ad overlaid images of 9/11 with Bullard.
“Seventy percent of the district is new voters,” Bullard told me. “And you have to reintroduce yourself to people while they’re putting up television ads saying you’re a terrorist. So that was my journey.”
On the Zoom call, Bullard came away believing Frost was in sync. “I heard him say he was in alignment with that group, that he would be an ally if elected to Congress,” Bullard said.
A year earlier, Frost had signed a Palestinian Feminist Collective pledge and another Florida Palestine Network petition that was to be delivered to Demings. Among their propositions, the latter called to “end U.S. military aid to Israel” and the former pledged to “heed the call of Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.”
According to four Florida Palestine Network members and allies on the call, Frost was clear he still stood with them: “I support BDS, which is a grassroots movement,” Frost said.
Though there is no recording of the call, Ahmad Daraldik, who was on it, added the quote to a group text that was going on at the time, and others on the call remember him saying it as well.
Maram Al-Dada texted the group in response to Daraldik’s transcription: “AWESOME!! Good job everyone.”
Perhaps even more importantly, Frost had said that as he crafted his official Israel-Palestine policy position, he would do it in direct collaboration with his longtime allies in the Florida Palestine Network.
As far as political organizing in America is supposed to go, the Florida Palestine Network had done everything right: build an association of like-minded people, project power through rallies and lobbying of local officials, and back a candidate for Congress, holding him accountable to the positions he staked out. Alexis de Tocqueville would have easily recognized their work as a quintessential element of democracy in America in action. But Tocqueville knew nothing of Super PACs.
Later in March, Rep. Torres publicly endorsed Frost. Torres told me: “Multiple members [of Congress] approached me and said you have to meet Maxwell Frost. And what I found most compelling about him was his youth. I remember running for the city council at age 24, and I was drawn to the notion of the first Gen-Z member of Congress. And then when I met him, he’s just incredibly impressive. I’ve been critical of Congress as a gerontocracy.”
I asked if he had talked to Frost specifically about the Israel-Palestine issue: “We spoke about a variety of issues and it is not my place to tell either a present or future colleague how to think or what to think,” he said. “You know, I might encourage him to keep an open mind, listen to every side of the debate. But ultimately when you’re a member of Congress, you have to be your own person. You have to come to your own conclusions and he’s going to be fiercely independent.”
DMFI had already endorsed Bracy in the race, and I asked if Torres helped talk the group out of spending actual money on behalf of Bracy.
“We had a difference of opinion in the race. I’m convinced that Maxwell represents exactly what we need in Congress,” he said. “Those organizations are going to do what’s in their interests. It’s not my place to tell people whom to endorse or what to endorse. Just like I want others to respect my right to act independently, I would extend other individuals and institutions that same courtesy.”
I also asked if he had put in a good word with the crypto world on behalf of Frost. “I don’t tell them what to do, and you have to be careful,” he said, referring to campaign laws around Super PACs and coordination. “But obviously it was known that I had publicly endorsed him.
“We mainly just spoke about being young and Afro-Latino,” said Frost. “He said that he was really excited to get more Afro-Latinos in Congress, and especially young men of color, and that’s when he offered up his endorsement and his help and support.”
In early April, in the wake of Torres’s endorsement of Frost, the fight for crypto support was on. Bracy, the DMFI-backed candidate, announced the formation of a legislative caucus that would include federal and state lawmakers interested in crafting crypto policy. Frost followed on April 27 by announcing a “national council” to advise him on “cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies.”
The council included experts but also Adelle Nazarian, CEO of the American Blockchain PAC, and Sean McElwee, co-founder of the progressive polling operation Data for Progress, who had played an early role in Torres’s election to Congress.
On May 10, Frost appeared on a crypto podcast hosted by one of the crypto council members, and that evening, at an Adams Morgan bar in Washington, D.C. that held a fundraiser hosted by McElwee; Ben Wessel, campaigns director for the Emerson Collective, funded by Laurene Powell Jobs; and Leah Hunt-Hendrix, a progressive organizer and founder of Way to Win and a member of Frost’s crypto advisory board. Gabe Bankman-Fried, the brother of crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, spoke at the fundraiser. Gabe is the head of Guarding Against Pandemics, a PAC funded by his brother and dedicated to policy advocacy around pandemic prevention, which teamed up on high-profile races, such as Nida Allam’s, with DMFI, AIPAC, and Mainstream Dems. Building a Stronger Future Foundation, one of Sam Bankman-Fried’s philanthropic entities, provided financial support for The Intercept’s bio-risk, pandemic prevention, and lab-biosafety coverage. (A nonprofit affiliated with Way to Win, Way to Rise, has also donated to The Intercept, facilitated by Amalgamated Foundation.) In April 2022, according to campaign finance records, Protect Our Future paid the Mellman Group for polling. (The report doesn’t indicate which race they collaborated on, but both DMFI and Bankman-Fried’s PAC spent heavily to beat Allam in North Carolina.)
At the fundraiser, for longtime D.C. hands who’d seen hundreds of candidates come through town, Frost, charming in person and charismatic on the stump, was talked about as a future presidential candidate, not in terms of if but when.
Frost said that his involvement with Gabe Bankman-Fried’s PAC was rooted in an interest in preventing future pandemics.
MAF: I remember we had our first Zoom, where Gabe was talking to me about, what are the policies that they’re championing? Why are they doing this at this time? And honestly, pandemic preparedness was something I knew zip about.
MAF: So I actually had a pretty informative call with Gabe about what Guarding Against Pandemics is fighting for and it actually really piqued my interest, because I remember a few weeks prior to that I was speaking with some community members, and they had brought that up. And I felt like wow, the appetite for pandemic preparedness will kind of get lower and lower and lower as time goes, as that happens with mass shootings and gun violence. And I saw a parallel there. So I told Gabe this is something I can get behind.
RG: Protect Our Future, a Super PAC linked to Guarding Against Pandemics, announced on May 17 that it would be spending at least $1 million to back Frost. Former Rep. Alan Grayson, competing with Frost for progressive votes, didn’t buy the rationale that it was all about pandemic preparedness. Grayson said, “I don’t think you’ll ever see a more clear-cut example of somebody putting themselves up for sale.”
“He auditioned for the role of corruption, and he won the part,” said Grayson, who was polling competitively before the deluge of money.
Mike Levine, a spokesperson for Protect Our Future, said the group’s support of Frost revolved genuinely around his pandemic preparedness position. “Protect Our Future’s support for Maxwell Frost and other candidates across the U.S. was driven exclusively by our desire to prevent the next pandemic. We take no position on anything related to cryptocurrency. Florida primary voters clearly saw through efforts to distract from the real issues and overwhelmingly nominated a leader who will do what it takes to protect against catastrophic pandemics.”
Relations between Frost and his earliest backers deteriorated further, even as that week he also received a number of endorsements in Congress, from Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Ed Markey to Rep. Pramila Jayapal and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
It was becoming difficult for Frost’s activist allies to square his commitments to the Palestinian community in Orlando with his alliance with Torres. On May 11, Israeli forces sparked global outrage first by killing Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and then again days later by attacking mourners and pallbearers, nearly toppling her casket at the funeral procession.
Mubarak reached out to Frost, asking why he hadn’t spoken out yet. “A journalist was murdered,” she texted him. “This is an easy time to speak out in solidarity for Palestine. You’re mad because I didn’t put out a tweet,” she recalled him saying. That missed the point, she said. A tweet was the bare minimum she was calling for.
RM: So I said it’s as if you don’t believe in the humanity of the Palestinians anymore for you to respond that way. Because on any other issues, he would never respond that way.
RM: Palestinians are disposable, our lives are discounted, our freedom isn’t measured, all of a sudden, the same way as others.
RM: Right? That’s what it felt like when he reacted that way.
RG: He told Mubarak he had seen the horrifying video of the funeral and was willing to do a post, he texted. She asked him to send her a first draft. She was underwhelmed, to say the least, by what he sent.
RM: In his first draft, he didn’t even include the word Palestinians. Called us “folks.” I said, you’re not even using the word Palestinians? That’s part of an erasure in itself.
RG: The examples were apparently not persuasive — or, perhaps, were persuasive in the opposite direction. DMFI had spent heavily against Sanders during his presidential run and was also busy spending Newman into retirement in a primary. On May 15, Frost quote-tweeted a 2-day-old Blinken post, leaving in the word “folks” and adding a reference to “Palestinians” at the end as people who “deserve to mourn without facing violence.”
That Tuesday was a day that DMFI, AIPAC, and Mainstream Democrats had hoped would be a death blow to the nascent insurgency that had been gaining traction in the primaries. Reid Hoffman’s PAC had spent millions to prop up conservative Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, who was facing a credible challenge from Jamie McLeod-Skinner in Oregon. There was also Summer Lee in Pennsylvania, and Nida Allam and Erica Smith in North Carolina.
Allam lost 46 to 37 percent. Mubarak said, “[Frost] really got scared after Nida got beaten.”
Smith, who also faced more than $2 million of AIPAC money and $467,000 from DMFI, was beaten soundly. And in Texas the following week, Jessica Cisneros was facing Rep. Henry Cuellar in a runoff she would lose by just a few hundred votes. But McLeod-Skinner knocked off Schrader, and progressive Andrea Salinas overcame an ungodly $11 million in Bankman-Fried money through Protect Our Future PAC to win another Oregon primary.
The marquee race, however, was in Pittsburgh, where AIPAC and DMFI combined to put in more than $3 million for an ad blitz against Lee in the race’s closing weeks. (Mara Talpins — the wife of hedge funder Jeffrey Talpins, named as the one hosting credit card-stacked AIPAC fundraisers in New York — gave $5,000 to Steve Irwin.) In late March, Lee held a 25-point lead, before the money came in — and that amount of money can go a long way in the Pittsburgh TV market. As AIPAC’s ads attacked her relentlessly as not a “real Democrat,” she watched her polling numbers plummet.
But then Lee saw the race stabilize, as outside progressive groups pumped money in and her own campaign responded quickly to the charge that she wasn’t loyal enough to the Democratic Party. Justice Democrats poured in nearly $1 million, WFP put in $450,000, and the Progressive Caucus PAC put in $200,000. Her backers made an issue of the fact that AIPAC had backed more than 100 Republicans who had voted to overturn the 2020 election while pretending to care how good of a Democrat Lee was.
On Election Day, she bested Irwin by less than 1,000 votes, 41.9 percent to 41 percent, taunting her opponents for setting money on fire — $4.5 million set on fire, she posted.
Had she not enjoyed such high popularity and name recognition in the district, AIPAC’s wipeout of her 25-point lead in six weeks would have been enough to beat her. John Fetterman, meanwhile, was able to face his centrist opponent in an open seat for Pennsylvania Senate without taking on a Super PAC, too — and he won easily.
Mubarak let Frost know she was disappointed by the soft-pedaled post on Abu Akleh, but told him not to dwell on Allam’s loss. What was the goal of winning if he didn’t stay true to his values? “Just to put it into perspective, last year, you were screaming and leading chants with us. This year we are begging for a retweet,” she texted. “I keep trying so hard to be a resource, a good friend and an advocate to and for you since the very first day I met you. Even before you wanted to run for office. You can’t say the same to the very folks who you may be listening to re Palestine.” On May 21, Frost dissolved his kitchen cabinet.
Bracy, the Frost opponent whose hoped-for surge of DMFI money never arrived, had been disappointed Mubarak had gone with Frost over him. “I’ve known her for a long time and we’ve worked together on stuff, but she was so mad when I got endorsed by DMFI,” Bracy said. “This was something where we just didn’t agree, because I guess I’ve got a different viewpoint after going to Israel myself and going to Palestine and seeing things for myself.” Bracy had previously gone on an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel. She told him the issue was deeply important to her and that she’d be publicly supporting Frost. “She was saying how she was just going to support Maxwell, just because of this issue. And I was like, you know, that hurts, but I get it. And then he basically, after he got all of her contacts, put her political capital behind him — she’s got a following in Central Florida — and he flipped. I was like, at least I really believed it.”
By early June, pressure was building for Frost to grant an interview to Jewish Insider. For months, campaign manager Kevin Lata had been fending off the request, which had come in shortly after Torres’s endorsement. He told the campaign’s consultants in a group text on June 4 that: “I’ve been kicking the can on this for 2 months. I don’t think we can kick it much longer. I was just going to get them to send the questions and we can respond over email. Seems like far too much risk to do it over the phone. J Street has offered to review our responses before we submit them. We’re definitely aware of the sort of coverage that JI does. Any flags or thoughts before we proceed?”
One of the consultants asked if Lata knew the angle of the story and who was reporting it, and Lata shared the reporter’s email with the group. The reporter had written: “Maxwell is of interest to us for a variety of reasons, one among them being that he earned an endorsement from Rep. Torres, which is likely of interest to our readers because we often write about his efforts in the House,” the reporter had explained on April 13, noting he’d want to ask about the Iran nuclear deal, combating antisemitism, and “the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Lata texted, “He hit me up again 3 days ago, which coincided with us sending around our paper. So I feel pretty confident that he has it.”
Our paper. The Frost position paper on Israel-Palestine was out. The paper that the Florida Palestine Network was sure Frost would workshop with them had already been drafted and submitted.
Some of the consultants seemed taken aback. Victoria McGroary texted, “What is the paper and how did they get it?”
Rania Batrice, the Palestinian-American media consultant on the chain, asked about it too, texting: “I still haven’t seen the paper. And would very much like to. What is Maxwell going to say about the Iran nuclear deal? What about things like additional funding to Israel, etc. What is the ‘non-worst case’ you’re envisioning here?”
Lata responded, “It’s all in the paper.” Batrice continued to argue against granting an interview and insisted the paper be shared more widely. But she and others pushing Frost on Israel policy had already lost. Within 48 hours, Frost fired Batrice, who declined to comment for this article. To replace her as a media consultant, he brought in Mark Putnam of Putnam Partners. Putnam often partners on campaigns with Mark Mellman, the head of DMFI.
Though Frost had formally dissolved his kitchen cabinet, he stayed in touch with Mubarak. On June 23, they met one on one in a cafe in downtown Orlando, where she raised the firing of Batrice. Mubarak warned him that at a bare minimum, the optics of having pushed out the only two Palestinian women on the campaign, while he was shifting his position, were troubling. Frost, she said, denied his break with Batrice had anything to do with her pushback. Mubarak asked if it was true that an Israel policy statement was being drafted or had been drafted, and he told her it was and talked through some of his new thinking on the issue.
RM: I reminded him of his commitment to the Florida Palestine Network saying, you promised this organization, this group of people that you were a part of at one point, that you would only release something with our eyes on it, our review and our approval. And he never sent it to us. We had no idea it was coming out. A part of my false hope kicked in, like maybe he’s still gonna come through. And then it just was released. And we had no idea about it. And — yeah.
RG: The Bracy campaign, concerned that there had yet to be an independent expenditure by either DMFI or AIPAC, reached out to both to ask what was up, according to a source with direct knowledge of the exchanges. Bad news came back: Torres and other influential figures had weighed in on Frost’s behalf, and his new position made Super PAC spending unnecessary.
In mid-July, Maryland voters went to the polls in another Democratic primary, this one pitting former Rep. Donna Edwards, who had won an insurgent campaign against an incumbent-turned-lobbyist back in 2008 and was now trying to make a comeback, against an establishment Democrat. During her first year in Congress, she had voted “present” amid a pro-Israel resolution amid its latest war on Gaza and cast a handful of other votes that deviated from a 100 percent AIPAC-aligned voting record. DMFI and AIPAC backed her corporate attorney opponent, taking a race that was Edwards’s to lose and, with a staggering $6 million-plus in spending, turned it into a landslide against her.
The ads, as usual, did not mention Israel-Palestine but instead attacked Edwards, a Black woman, as lazy when it came to constituent service, a charge even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an ally of AIPAC, weighed in to protest.
Howard Kohl, the AIPAC CEO told the Washington Post this, explaining why its primary ads don’t mention Israel, “It’s focused on the issues that are important to the voters in that district. The objective here is to ensure that your candidate emerges victorious and that the anti-Israel candidate is defeated.”
Florida’s primaries were among the last in the country, and the Frost campaign did manage to delay the Jewish Insider piece a bit longer, helping Frost solidify his standing as the leading progressive in the race. But on August 11, less than two weeks before the primary, and after early voting had begun, the article finally ran. (Frost said the campaign had submitted its answers by July, but the article didn’t run until later.)
Reported Jewish Insider: “The first-time candidate has indicated that he will pursue a nuanced and somewhat more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than one might expect of a staunch progressive who is otherwise aligned with the activist left on such trademark legislative objectives as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
In a candidate questionnaire solicited by Jewish Insider, however, Frost distanced himself from measures that would penalize Israel, rejecting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as ‘problematic’ while opposing calls to condition U.S. aid to Israel. More broadly, Frost said he is “committed to supporting” continued military assistance that “helps ensure” Israel “can properly defend itself.”
Frost elaborated in his position paper, which was obtained by JI, that he would also advocate for “robust U.S. assistance that benefits the Palestinian people and is in compliance with [the] Taylor Force Act,” referring to a law that withholds aid to the Palestinian Authority on the condition that Ramallah ends payments to families of terrorists. The assistance, he wrote, “serves an essential role in meeting Palestinian humanitarian needs.”
The position paper, published by Jewish Insider, was even starker. No conditions should be placed on military aid to Israel, he wrote in the paper, and he reversed course on BDS. He said, “I believe that the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement is extremely problematic and undermines the chances of peace and a two-state solution. Additionally, It hurts both Palestinians and Israelis who suffer economically from it. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine have been designated by the United States as terrorist organizations and all these groups are a part of the Central BDS movement’s council, which in my eye delegitimizes the entire organization and movement.”
Al-Dada, who had chanted next to Frost at the Gaza War rally and then volunteered for his campaign, was shocked. But it was so late in the campaign, most voters had made up their minds. “I know personally about 35 people who, for a fact, voted for Max because of me,” Al-Dada said. “I didn’t vote at all.”
Frost said that in his March meeting with the Florida Palestine Network, he was honest about where he stood at the time but later evolved his position, particularly on BDS. His support of it as a “grassroots movement,” he said, was undercut when he learned that groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were central players in it.
MAF: I think there was a nuance that I was trying to hit there that I was asking about, that, as I spoke with other organizations, other people from all different sides, I found out that what I was trying to hit at just didn’t make sense. And that was part of my being naive on the issue. … But [as] time went past, I contacted Rasha and other folks to express kind of where my head was at.
RG: As for military aid, Frost said, he had evolved there too after numerous conversations:
MAF: I spent a long time speaking with different groups and different people, individuals in my district, clergy leaders, different organizations, and it really came down to understanding how things are over there and in the region,” he said. “I just really feel like our commitment to Israel that we have, and the [memorandum of understanding] that President Obama signed, is something that I support. And so that’s why we were pretty specific writing that out in the paper.
RG: Bullard said he was disappointed to learn of Frost’s turnaround. “You want people who have a level of conviction who, when confronted with — and I get it, you’re now being put in a position where people are telling you why you need to think a particular way — but you also have to recognize that there’s a dominant narrative that does not create a sense of equity around issues of Palestine in the American context,” he said. “You have to make the decision of whether you’re going to stand firm or you’re just going to take the safe position.”
Frost said that DMFI and AIPAC can’t take credit for his evolution because it came from inside his district.
MAF: For me, it wasn’t really about the spending, but it was about the dialogues in the district and my conversations with people. So my district changed a lot in the middle of the campaign. And it became a district where, like, the JCC [Jewish Community Center], is in it now. There’s a lot of Jewish communities in it. And when that change happened, I engaged with those communities and just started to really dive into it.
If I were to look at the timeline, the maps, I think, changed around March or April. And that’s exactly when I started having these conversations.
RG: Whatever the fears of hard-line Israel hawks, the rise of Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez to power in Congress did not materially slow the expansion of Israeli settlements into occupied Palestinian territory.
In 2019, their first year in office, Israel added more than 11,000 new settlement units. In 2020, the figure doubled to over 22,000, many of them in East Jerusalem and deep in the West Bank. A European Union representative to the United Nations said in a report chronicling the increase, “As stated in numerous EU Foreign Affairs Council conclusions, settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.” The settlement expansion included multiple “outposts” — which are seizures of farmland and pasture — that puts any semblance of Palestinian independence or sustainability further out of reach.
In 2021 — despite Yair Lapid’s campaign promise not “to build anything that will prevent the possibility of a future two-state solution” — settlement expansion in East Jerusalem doubled in 2021 compared to the year before, threatening to fully slice the remaining contiguous parts of Palestinian territory into small, prison-like enclaves.
In Congress, Jamaal Bowman ended up siding with constituents who pushed him to support $1 billion in new funding for Israel’s Iron Dome, drawing the ire of a faction of DSA organized through its BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group. Bowman told me that ahead of the vote, he heard almost exclusively from supporters of the Iron Dome system and “not much at all” from opponents.
Jamaal Bowman: Those on the ‘yes’ side were very clear, and very loud, and very consistent with why they believed the vote needed to be ‘yes.’ It’s an important issue for this district in particular, which is why I voted yes. But it’s also, as I’ve been asked before and stated before, that vote is not going to stop me from continuing to fight for Palestinian rights, to fight to end the occupation which absolutely needs to happen, and to make sure Palestinian humanity is centered.
RG: On August 5, without the support of his cabinet, Lapid launched airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, agreeing to a truce on August 7. Palestinian militants fired over 1,000 rockets, though no Israelis were killed or seriously wounded. The three-day conflict left 49 Palestinians dead, including 17 children.
Israel’s initial denial of any role in the killing of Abu Akleh gradually morphed under the weight of incontrovertible evidence into admission of possible complicity. Partnering with the London-based group Forensic Architecture, Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq launched the most comprehensive investigation into her death. On the morning of August 18, at least nine armored Israeli vehicles approached the group’s headquarters in Ramallah and broke their way in, ransacking it and later welding shut its doors. An attempt by the Israeli government, headed-then by Mellman ally Yair Lapid, to label it a terrorist organization was rejected by the EU, which reviewed the evidence Israel provided and found it not remotely convincing.
On August 23, voters went to the polls in Orlando and cast their ballots. Frost won 35 percent of the votes, Bracy pulled in 25, and Grayson — who’d taken to calling Frost “Maxwell Fraud” by the end of the campaign — took in 15 percent. In the end, neither DMFI, AIPAC, nor Hoffman’s group had to spend a penny in the race. Bracy lost, but they had won. “That’s the goal,” observed a source close to AIPAC after the election. “That’s the whole point.”
Summer Lee agreed.
RG: Have you noticed it all, on the way that you think? Because what they’re trying to do is put pressure on the way you’re acting as a politician.
SL: Absolutely, and not just with me, I see it with other people, right? I see people who are running for office or thinking of running for office in the future and they feel deterred because this is a topic that they know will bury them.
RG: “There’s absolutely a chilling effect,” Lee continued.”I’ve heard it from other folks who will say, you know, we agree with this, but I’ll never support it, and I’ll never say it out loud.”
More broadly, though, it makes building a movement that much more difficult, Lee said: “It’s very hard to survive as a progressive, Black, working-class-background candidate when you are facing millions and millions of dollars, but what it also does is then it deters other people from ever wanting to get into it. If you’re somebody who sat through my race as a supporter or not, someone in our district, who’s witnessing the movement that we’ve been a part of, they will look at the onslaught, they will look at what they said about me and how they conducted those campaigns, and then they would say, ‘I would never want to run myself.’ So then it has the effect of ensuring that the Black community broadly, the other marginalized communities, are just no longer centered in our politics.”
In September, the Democratic National Committee refused to allow a vote on a resolution, pushed by Democratic National Committee member Nina Turner and other progressives, to ban big outside money in primaries. Leah Greenberg, co-founder of Indivisible, said it was absurd that Democrats continued to allow outside groups to manipulate Democratic primaries even though they clearly have little interest in seeing the party itself succeed. Their goal is to shape what the party looks like — whether it’s in the minority or majority is beside the point. Greenberg said, “For a group called Democratic Majority for Israel they don’t seem to be putting much effort into winning a Democratic majority.
Dmitri Mehlhorn said Mainstream Democrats, for its part, remains invested in the party, and is focusing on swing-state governor’s races, adding “we’ve moved quite a bit to Pelosi’s team.”
Not so much for AIPAC. Though Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democratic of Virginia whose race is listed as “key” by AIPAC, has been one of the organization’s most outspoken and loyal allies since her 2018 election, United Democracy Project has declined to help her so far. Instead, its only foray so far into the general election has been to spend in a Democrat-on-Democrat race in the top-two state of California. According to Jewish Insider, “a board member of DMFI expressed reservations over [David] Canepa’s Middle East foreign policy approach, pointing to at least one social media post viewed by local pro-Israel advocates as dismissive of Israeli security concerns.” The allegedly dismissive message, posted on May 13, 2021, as the Gaza War raged, read: “Peace for Palestine.”
The ad was about abortion. Both candidates, of course, support abortion rights. Only one called for peace.
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