Jeff Bartos looks ahead to 2022

The real estate developer has launched his second bid to represent the Keystone State in the Senate

Jeff Bartos, a real estate developer who recently announced his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, is in the process of offloading the responsibilities of his day job as he transitions to campaign mode. “If you hear any weird noise in the background, there is an excessive amount of jackhammering going on right below where I happen to be,” Bartos, 48, told Jewish Insider in a phone interview on Wednesday morning. “I don’t generally do interviews at construction sites.”

“I’m a disaster around tools,” he joked. “I know how to put deals together and bring people together and get deals done and projects done. But if you actually asked me to, like, caulk a window, we’d have a big problem.”

His admission was, in some ways, characteristic of the folksy sensibility Bartos seems eager to convey as he gears up to compete in next year’s Republican primary. Bartos, who entered the race on Monday, is by far the most well-known Republican candidate in the race to succeed outgoing Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), having run for Senate in 2017 before pivoting to an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor. But more Republicans are expected to jump in for a chance to claim the seat in what is expected to be one of the most closely watched and competitive Senate contests in the country. 

Ari Mittleman, a political strategist and expert on Pennsylvania politics, said that Bartos is well-poised to compete in a Senate race that will likely top $500 million in spending. “Jeff is a proven fundraiser with a diverse statewide and national Rolodex,” Mittleman told JI via email, noting that Bartos “made a strategic move getting in before the end of the first FEC quarter.”

In his first video ad, Bartos presents himself as something of an old-fashioned conservative whose primary concern is the fate of small businesses affected by the pandemic — a story with which he is intimately acquainted as the recent founder of a nonprofit, the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses throughout the state that are struggling to stay afloat. “I learned from my dad the value of being a part of a community, and if you can help, you absolutely help,” Bartos says in the video, navigating a country road in his Chevrolet SUV. 

Bartos is wagering that this message will appeal to voters across the vast swing state of Pennsylvania, which went for President Joe Biden by an 82,000-vote margin in the November election. But the somewhat sentimental tone of his announcement feels reminiscent of a style of conservative politics that appears to be fading as many Republican candidates imitate the brash and tempestuous tenor of former President Donald Trump, who is likely to play an outsized role in the upcoming election cycle. 

Bartos, for his part, suggested that he may opt for a middle path, expressing admiration for a broad array of Trump’s policies both domestic and foreign. As a Jew who is deeply invested in Israel’s security, Bartos was perhaps most enthusiastic about the Trump administration’s recent achievements in the Middle East, including the Abraham Accords, as well as Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. 

Still, in the interview with JI, Bartos largely ignored the president’s role in inciting a mob of protesters to storm the Capitol in an effort to overturn the election — the aftermath of which has created deep divisions within the GOP. 

It remains to be seen how Bartos will navigate his relationship with Trump as the race progresses — or even what the political landscape will look like with more than a year remaining until the primary. “It will be a long and winding road,” said Mittleman. “I think we’ve all learned it is difficult to make long-term predictions and speculations about President Trump. A lot can happen between now and then — or even in the space of 24 hours.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Insider: You previously ran for Senate but then switched to the lieutenant governor’s race in 2018. Do you see a new opportunity here? How is this race different?

Jeff Bartos: We spoke about the nonprofit that I started. You’ve probably heard loud and clear my passion and commitment and devotion to helping people across Pennsylvania, and I would say, at the core of that, we call every small business owner with the good news, and before we give them the good news, we always ask them, “How are you?” I’ve done over 500 of those calls in the last 10 months, and those calls are gut-wrenching, inspiring, funny, sad, crying, laughing. But at their core, they are these resilient, courageous, gutsy small business owners, women and men, who have put their lives and their life savings and their hopes and their dreams into their small business, and they feel that elected officials have continued to tilt the field over the last year in favor of giant companies. What I mean by that is, why are giant companies allowed to be open and small mom-and-pops are shut? Why are certain businesses deemed essential and certain businesses are told, “Yeah, it’s your hopes and your dreams and your employees, and yes, you’re employing single moms, and yes, you’re a fixture in the community, but you’re not, quote unquote, essential.” I feel like the work I’ve devoted myself to over the last 10 months has been fighting for Main Street, fighting for our communities that have been left behind, forgotten by elected officials. Big companies keep getting bigger and bigger, and smaller companies are getting crushed by elected officials. I looked at that and said, “You know, we’re doing a great job here. We’re making a real impact for these women and men, and I need to take that fight to the Senate. I need to fight for Main Street, Pennsylvania.”

JI: Are you expecting a crowded primary?

Bartos: Gosh, I don’t know. I’d say my ability to tell the future has been completely shot over the last six years. I’ve gotten out of the future-telling business. We’ll deal with the circumstances as they come. We’ve put together a great team. But way more important than the team or the candidate is the message and why we’re doing it and how we’re going about it. We’re doing it for the right reasons, we have the winning message, and I know we’ve got the right team in place to not only win the primary, but to win the general election in November of 2022.

Jeff Bartos and Scott Wagner
Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, left, and his running mate, Jeff Bartos, attend a GOP picnic at the Carrolltown American Legion Park in Carrolltown, Pa., Tuesday, July 17, 2018. (John Rucosky/The Tribune-Democrat via AP)

JI: There’s a dynamic in the Republican Party now where some members are trying to distance themselves from Trump, while others are embracing him. What’s your approach in this race? In your campaign announcement video, you mention that the former president “represented someone listening to millions of Pennsylvanians who felt like no one was fighting for them.”

Bartos: It’s important to kind of step back and talk about the policies that the president and his administration implemented on behalf of Pennsylvanians, on behalf of the American people. Domestically, we could talk about tax cuts, we could talk about deregulation, we could talk about the best economy any of us have seen in our lifetimes prior to the pandemic, we could talk about the real impact of those economic policies on the lowest wage-earners. Both for Pennsylvanians and then for the United States, we were hitting on all cylinders and heading into 2020 with a record-breaking economy before the pandemic, and some terrible government policies at the state level in certain states crushed the economy, crushed small businesses, crushed that progress. I think it’s important to point out that the decisions of elected officials crushed our economy, not the virus, and I feel very strongly about that. 

As it relates to foreign policy, the achievements in the Middle East and around the world — holding China accountable, making sure that America continued her important role to be the leading light onto all nations. If any one of these achievements happened in a four-year period, we’d say, “Wow, these all happened.” So: Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, moving the American Embassy, the Abraham Accords, pulling us out of the disastrous JCPOA — some people call it the Iran nuclear deal. I think all of those policies I’m not only comfortable discussing, but enthusiastic to discuss. 

Then, stepping back, there’s a lot of populist anger in Pennsylvania, there’s a lot of populist anger in the nation, and my campaign is going to be all about taking that anger and that frustration, taking the time to listen, which I’ve done for the last 10 months — and I’d like to think I’ve done for most of my career — taking the time to listen, and then to work, day and night, to implement policies that move people forward and address that anger in a productive way. I think taking all of that frustration that people understandably have and really working hard to make sure that we’re channeling it into productive policies that improve people’s lives, that increase prosperity, increase liberty, increase freedom, make us safer, make us healthier. Otherwise, fundamentally, what’s the point of doing this?

JI: You mentioned populist anger. The elephant in the room with regard to Trump is the January 6 riots that caused mayhem at the Capitol. Stylistically, you seem very different from Trump. How would you seek to tap into that rage in a constructive fashion, rather than in a way that would seemingly rile people up — as Trump has been accused of doing?

Bartos: My whole career, in law and in business, in public service and in philanthropy, has been about bringing people together around shared principles and shared ideas. I saw this on my last campaign. The media reported we’re terribly divided, we’re terribly divided, we’re terribly divided — and what I saw every day were neighbors going into each other’s stores and moms and dads holding bake sales and neighbors trying to lift up their communities and volunteering and working and generally not talking about the things you see on CNN or Fox or MSNBC or whatever. So as I campaigned across all 67 counties for 21 months, I didn’t see that division day-to-day on Main Street, Pennsylvania. I’ve rejected the notion that that was who we are as a nation. I still reject it. The 30 Day Fund and the work we’ve done to help Main Street, Pennsylvania, over the past 10 months has shown me that neighbors truly have each other’s backs, that people love each other and they want people to succeed. So, when I talk about the anger and frustration, it’s more like, “Hey, I’m just trying to live my life here and run my business and take care of my family. Why are you elected officials, why are you politicians making it harder for me? You shut my business down, you made me lay off my staff — people who I’ve had a relationship with for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years — you forced me to close my business and shut down while the Walmart down the street is wide open. My people can’t work.” Depression is up. Drug addiction is up. Domestic disputes are up. Despair is up. And this is all decisions we’ve made, or it’s decisions that elected officials have made in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, but not in Arizona and Florida and Texas. 

So, when you say “tap into,” I would say it’s more taking the time to listen, to understand what’s really going on on the ground, and then committing to make sure you’re fighting for people to just let them live their lives. I want to stress: Over the past 10 months, I haven’t heard anybody say to me, “I want the government to do X — I really need this from the government.” What I’ve heard is, “I just need the government to get out of my way, trust me to run my business, trust me to take care of my employees and my family, trust me to be a good part of the community, just trust me and I will do right.” I’m confident there are millions of employees who feel that way, and so our campaign is going to be about listening, and it’s going to be fighting for all Pennsylvanians to get the government out of the way so that they can live their lives.

JI: If you’re elected, would you be willing to work with the Biden administration on issues like the Iran nuclear deal and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Bartos: I certainly hope you can share with your readers, our family, we’re all deeply committed to philanthropic efforts in the State of Israel. I’ve led the efforts to build a kindergarten on an Air Force base in the Negev. My in-laws have led the efforts to build other buildings for families on Air Force bases. We’ve been active in supporting scholarships for very talented youth in the periphery to get them to the engineering, science and math programs that will improve the safety, security and prosperity of the State of Israel. We’ve been very active in connecting the American Jewish community to Israel, through efforts in the Lehigh Valley and in the Philadelphia area. So the U.S.-Israel relationship is sacred to me and to our family. It’s been something that we’ve really devoted the last eight years of our life to — our daughter Sarah attended Jewish day school in the Philadelphia suburbs, is very active with Chabad on her college campus. So we as a family are deeply committed not only to the health and well-being of the State of Israel, but more importantly, a very, very strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Jeff Bartos and John Fetterman
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, left, greets Jeff Bartos, who ran against him for the lieutenant governor position, on a balcony off his new office in the state Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

JI: What do you make of Biden’s foreign policy approach so far?

Bartos: I don’t understand what the Biden administration is doing. I think we always want to give the benefit of the doubt. But President Trump inherited a Middle East in turmoil and conflict from the day President Obama gave his apology speech in Cairo in 2009 right up until 2017, when President Trump was sworn in — and in the four short years, we pulled out of a deal that provided Iran with a patient pathway to a nuclear weapon and we put on maximum pressure and sanctions that brought the Islamic Republic to its knees. From a cash perspective and from an economic perspective, they are the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. And, early days, I’m shocked and disappointed that the Biden administration has brought back a cast of characters that led us down this terrible path in the first place. I don’t know how Wendy Sherman and John Kerry and others are given additional jobs after their performance — North Korea for Wendy Sherman, and then Iran, and now she’s back. John Kerry — this is a whole other separate interview about the Kerry doctrine and what he did to mess up our foreign policy. 

But I’m disappointed and shocked that the Biden administration isn’t taking this incredible momentum that they were given and building on it. I mean, if you’re President Biden, how do you not speak to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu on day one, day two of your administration? I get that President Biden may not be working the same number of hours that other presidents have, but still, you have time for a phone call. So I think that sends a terrible message to our special ally in the Middle East. I think the Biden administration will ultimately realize that the Abraham Accords are something they should build on, and as a senator, I would be strongly, loudly and daily advocating for building on the successes of the Trump administration and its foreign policy in the Middle East. I don’t understand, in these early days, why the Biden administration is not taking that momentum and building it. They haven’t asked my opinion, but they’ll certainly be hearing it soon enough.

JI: It appears that Arlen Specter was the last Jewish senator in Pennsylvania. If you’re elected, do you think your Jewish heritage would be significant in a state where the Tree of Life synagogue shooting took place not too long ago?

Bartos: Gosh. I’ll never forget the days around that. I went to Pittsburgh. The massacre happened on a Saturday, of course, during Shabbat services on Saturday morning. I went to Pittsburgh on Monday and went to the first two funerals at Rodef Shalom on Tuesday morning, just a couple days after the massacre, and I’ll never forget how the Pittsburgh community came together. It was a beautiful day, and I went to the services for Cecil and David Rosenthal. I did not go to the burial service at the cemetery, but I walked over to Tree of Life, where we all saw that makeshift memorial that had happened outside with the Stars of David and people’s pictures, and it was a gorgeous fall day in Pittsburgh. And I just remember being outside, and then, at some point, when I was out there, I believe it was Rabbi Avi Weiss from New York and a couple other clergy had brought buses in, and before I knew it, people around me were all coming together. And the next thing I knew, Rabbi Weiss launched into an impromptu sermon about love, and then a Catholic priest gave a benediction, and then and an imam spoke, and we sang some traditional Jewish songs, which, of course, the whole group didn’t know, but some people had song sheets. It ended with the mourner’s kaddish, at which point I started to cry, because how could you not? And then, in an almost classically Jewish way of how we celebrate Yom HaZikaron and then Yom Ha’atzmaut back to back — the saddest day turns into the most joyful day — we went right from the mourner’s kaddish right into Am Yisrael Chai — and more crying, of course, under the circumstances, but also very inspiring. 

So, does it matter to the average Pennsylvania voter that I’m a Jewish candidate in light of what happened at the Tree of Life? No, I don’t think so. But it matters deeply to me. And, of course, I’ll be representing all Pennsylvanians. But I want to show, as part of this campaign, we’re going to be bringing a terrific coalition together that, I think, is going to surprise people, and certainly, when I’m in Pittsburgh, with the Jewish community and with the overall community out in Pittsburgh, Tree of Life still comes up, and there’s still a lot of healing that needs to happen, and of course, we can never let something like that happen again. 

JI: You’re friends with Pennsylvania lieutenant governor John Fetterman, who recently entered the Democratic primary race for Senate. Are you looking forward to running against him again if you both make it to the general election again?

Bartos: I’m very confident we will win this primary. Like I said, we’ve got the right team. I think we’ve got the right candidate. I’m kidding, of course. But we feel really good about where we are and the coalition and the movement that we’ve already started here. I certainly can’t predict who’s going to win the Democratic primary, but no matter who wins the Democratic primary — everyone’s seen me campaign before, I mean, this isn’t my first rodeo. So I’ve run a primary. I won a four-way primary with 47% of the vote back in 2018, and then ran a general-election campaign in a hard-fought, very challenging cycle, and I think what people saw was someone who came to work every day with a smile, sleeves rolled up, mastering policy, making sure that I always knew why I was doing what I was doing. We fought a really hard campaign, and no matter who the Democratic nominee is going to be, I approach everything with respect and courtesy. I’m a fighter. But we’re gonna win this race with our policy ideas, we’re going to win this race with our commitment to being on the ground, in town halls, going door-to-door, if you will, or town-to-town across Pennsylvania. That’s how we’re going to win it. And so I’m going to run the campaign the way I run my life, which is to be respectful and courteous with everybody.

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