Obama to meet, raise money with connected advocate for Israel

Baltimore's Howard E. Friedman formerly led influential pro-Israel lobby

  • President Barack Obama speaks in Baltimore in May 2013.
President Barack Obama speaks in Baltimore in May 2013. (Baltimore Sun )
September 11, 2014|By John Fritze | The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — President Barack Obama, who is attempting to help Democrats maintain their grip on the Senate, will attend a fundraiser Friday at the home of a wealthy Baltimore hedge fund manager who has become one of the nation's foremost advocates for Israel.

Howard E. Friedman, a former president of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, and a leading patron of Jewish political causes, will host Obama for a dinner that will cost guests up to $32,400 — the maximum an individual may give to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the calendar year.

The president's second visit to Baltimore in as many years comes as Democrats are defending nearly a dozen Senate seats in the midterm elections. Obama's unpopularity in battleground states such as Kentucky and Arkansas has buoyed GOP hopes of capturing the majority.

Friedman, a founding partner of a hedge fund investment firm in New York, has been a prolific political donor, giving nearly $100,000 since 2009 in direct contributions usually — but not always — to Democrats. The 48-year-old lives in Cheswolde with his wife, Karen, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge.

"He knows everybody," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. "The Jewish community in Baltimore is extremely close-knit, and Howard's an integral part of that community."

Those who know Friedman talk about his accessibility and engagement. In Maryland, he has served as chairman of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the principal fundraising and philanthropic arm for local Jewish organizations, and as president of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

He was the first Orthodox president of AIPAC, a position he held from 2006 to 2009. The pro-Israel lobby has long wielded considerable influence in Washington.

Friedman declined a request to be interviewed. An assistant said he has a "long-standing policy" of not speaking to reporters.

None of the groups he has led, including AIPAC, would discuss his contributions to the community or his influence on U.S. policy on Israel. Marc B. Terrill, the president of The Associated, responded with a one-sentence statement in which he described Friedman as a "passionate leader who cares deeply about the greater good."

Though he has sought a low public profile, Friedman has moved with ease among power brokers in Washington and Maryland. He has frequently traveled to Israel with politicians including Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the former congressman and governor.

And when Obama signed legislation in 2012 providing additional security funding for Israel, Friedman was invited to stand behind the president in the Oval Office.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a similarly staunch supporter of Israel, said he knew Friedman as a teenager — when, Cardin recalled with a smile, the Baltimore native was working precincts for a political opponent in a House of Delegates race.

"There's hardly a major Jewish activity that he's not involved with," said Cardin. "He's one of the most active individuals I've met."

Obama's visit, which will also include a private tour of Fort McHenry, comes during a tenuous cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas after weeks of fighting in Gaza that left thousands of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis dead.

The president has maintained an aggressive schedule of fundraisers this summer — including one during his vacation on Martha's Vineyard last month — and the Democratic campaign operations for both the House and Senate have reported significant cash balances. Still, polling suggests Democrats are increasingly on defense in their effort to keep the majority.

Republicans need to pick up six seats to capture control of the Senate.

Neither the fundraiser nor the president's visit to Fort McHenry will be open to the public.

Friedman, whose father was a longtime civil servant for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, grew up the second of five siblings on Simmonds Avenue, according to a 2006 profile in the Baltimore Jewish Times. He started his first business, a publishing company, at 19.

He is a founding partner of Lanx Management, a hedge fund of funds with a portfolio valued at about $400 million, according to a 2012 Securities and Exchange Commission filing. The firm controls several offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands — a common practice that has drawn criticism from some because investors enjoy lower tax rates and greater secrecy than they would if they invested directly with a U.S. manager.

Friedman does business in New York and politics in Washington. But friends say he has chosen to stay in Baltimore in part for the city's strong Orthodox community.

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