The ball’s in Alex Lasry’s court in Wisconsin

The Senate hopeful, a former White House aide on leave from his position with the Milwaukee Bucks, believes his message is catching on

MADISON, Wis. — Alex Lasry was easy to miss as he hovered near the counter at Colectivo Coffee on a recent afternoon in downtown Madison. The 34-year-old basketball executive could easily have been mistaken for a young professor at the nearby public university or perhaps a government employee in the Capitol building across the street.

It can be difficult standing out as one of a dozen candidates running in Wisconsin’s crowded Democratic Senate primary.

But Lasry, a New York native who now lives in Milwaukee, believes his campaign is catching on. “We feel great about the prospects of the race,” he told Jewish Insider last week, slinking into a table near the back of the café without having ordered anything. “We’re seeing a ton of momentum and enthusiasm for our campaign.”

Despite never having sought public office, Lasry held some built-in advantages when he announced his candidacy last February.

The Senate hopeful, a former Obama White House aide on leave from his position as senior vice president of the Milwaukee Bucks, has deep ties with the Democratic Party — connections that appear to have served him well even before launching his campaign. 

In 2020, for instance, Lasry helped bring the Democratic National Convention to Milwaukee, where he settled about seven years ago after his father, the billionaire hedge fund manager and Democratic bundler Marc Lasry, became a co-owner of the basketball team that would go on to win the NBA championship in 2021.

Now that he is making his bid for the upper chamber, Lasry has benefited from relationships within both Democratic politics and professional basketball. His first-quarter filings with the Federal Election Commission showed that he had pulled in donations from such NBA bigwigs as Commissioner Adam Silver and former All-Star player and now coach Jason Kidd as well as Chelsea Clinton’s husband, Marc Mezvinsky. His family members also contributed approximately $100,000, Lasry’s campaign said in April..

Notwithstanding such support, Lasry argues that his candidacy is resonating because he has been speaking directly to voter concerns, at this point, for the better part of a year. “This race is too important to not be talking to voters right now and defining what this race is going to be about,” he told JI, “which is, how do we create jobs, raise wages and bring more investment back to the state?”

Since launching his campaign, Lasry has earned endorsements from several statewide labor groups while raising more than $2.3 million, according to the latest FEC filings. He has also loaned himself $800,000, despite a somewhat ambiguous claim, in an interview with JI last March, that he had no plans to “self-fund” but instead would “invest” in his candidacy.

In recent weeks, he has used those resources to establish an early presence on the airwaves, having wrapped up a weeks-long advertising blitz last month that appears to have had a measurable impact on his polling numbers.

Lasry boasts that he is so far “the only candidate” who has been on TV. “We just did a six- or seven-week TV stretch, just letting people know who I am as a candidate and what we’re about, because this race is going to be about not why not someone, but why us?”

The limited publicly available polling suggests that Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s first-term lieutenant governor, is the man to beat. But Lasry has been catching up somewhat as the crowded field begins coalescing around three or four top contenders.

Last week, the progressive think tank Data for Progress released a survey, conducted in mid-November, that put Lasry in second place at 16% among likely Democratic primary voters.

Though still trailing Barnes, who is one of two candidates in the race to have won statewide office, by double digits, it was a major improvement over an internal poll that the lieutenant governor had released in September, giving him a 29% lead over his opponents. Lasry, for his part, came in at just 5%, in a statistical dead heat with Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski.

The dynamics remain mutable, of course, not least because the primary to replace Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who has yet to announce if he will run again, is scheduled for August 2022. In the Data for Progress poll, the most recent survey on the race, 29% of respondents said they were still undecided about who they would vote for.

For Lasry, that leaves an opening. “The way I differentiate myself from anyone in the field is I’m not a politician,” he told JI. “I’m someone who has worked in the highest levels of politics, whether on the Hill, in the White House or bringing the convention here to Wisconsin. But I’ve also got a track record of real accomplishment.”

Among other things, the first-time candidate touts his role in creating “good-paying union jobs” with the Bucks, and he says he was proud to participate in racial justice protests two summers ago amid a national reckoning with police brutality that remains a raw issue within Wisconsin.

“We’re kind of feeling that tension in Wisconsin right now, where it just kind of feels like one thing after another,” Lasry said, describing the November acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse as “justice not being served.” The Waukesha attack two weeks ago, when a driver plowed into a Christmas parade, killing six people, has only added to that sense of unease.

As he tours the state, Lasry says he has heard from voters about a variety of concerns, including China’s increasing prominence on the international stage. “The biggest things, I think, that we’re hearing about with foreign policy is, number one, competitiveness, and how are we going to make sure that we’re bringing jobs back from overseas and raising wages here,” he said. “How is that going to allow us to stay competitive in a global, interconnected world? I think the rise of China is a big deal.”

Still, he was somewhat reticent while discussing the NBA’s highly profitable business relationship with China. Such dealings have been a subject of renewed controversy since China pulled Boston Celtics games from the internet after the team’s center, Enes Kanter Freedom, called out Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “brutal dictator” on social media. In recent weeks, Freedom — who was raised in Turkey and recently changed his surname to celebrate becoming an American citizen — has remained outspoken while criticizing players for their silence on human rights abuses in China such as the forced internment of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang.

“These are atrocities,” Lasry said of China’s actions against the Uyghurs. “It’s terrible, and we need to make sure that we’re able to call it out and bring more attention to the human rights violations that are happening in China, without a doubt.”

But asked to assess recent tensions between the NBA and China, Lasry seemed eager to sidestep the matter. “When, I think, we’re talking about how we combat the rise of China, that’s the U.S. government’s role,” he reasoned. “I say this all the time — there are people in power right now who would rather criticize someone else rather than doing the job themselves. I’m running for Senate because, as a senator, you have the ability to influence and make change in how we’re dealing with and working with other countries.”

“We can’t just turn our back to growing and emerging markets,” he clarified, noting that ginseng farmers in Wisconsin are dependent on export markets across Asia. “We can’t close down, but we have to make sure that China’s playing by the same rules as everyone else,” Lasry said, “and that’s where I think we need to take a tougher stand.”

Looking to the Middle East, Lasry praised the Abraham Accords for establishing trade relations between Israel and a number of Arab nations, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, where his father was born. “When I was growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, I never would have imagined the idea that my dad’s country,” said Lasry, who is Jewish, “would ever have diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.”

J Street, the left-leaning Israel advocacy group, is supporting Lasry in the race, along with Barnes, Godlewski and Nelson. The organization, which has yet to engage in other primaries, designated the four candidates as “primary-approved,” allowing them to solicit donations through its membership network, according to Laura Birnbaum, J Street’s national political director.

In an interview with JI on Monday, Birnbaum noted there are “variations” between the candidates, who were asked to submit Israel position papers as part of the approval process, “in terms of policy issues.” But she said they were all broadly in agreement with J Street on basic goals such as supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and opposing settlement expansion in the West Bank. “We’re really encouraged that we can support so many folks in this race,” she said. 

“I’m proud to have the J Street stamp of approval, and that’s because we agree that a two-state solution is the solution, and I can be very pro-Israel while also saying I believe very much in a Palestinian state,” Lasry, who says he is against Israeli settlement expansion, told JI. “I don’t think those two issues are at odds, and I think that’s where J Street and I both see very much eye to eye.”

Lasry’s campaign declined to provide JI with an Israel position paper.

Recently, J Street has begun advocating for a new policy objective, placing what it describes as “end-use restrictions” on U.S. aid to Israel that would ensure the Jewish state uses such assistance only for “legitimate security purposes.” 

Birnbaum said that restricting aid isn’t a part of J Street’s endorsement criteria this cycle. “But it is something that we have serious conversations with every candidate about,” she told JI.

For his part, Lasry said he is against imposing “stipulations” on U.S. military assistance for Israel, though he did not explicitly clarify whether he agrees with J Street’s end-use restrictions, which, the group argues, differ from calls to condition aid to the Jewish state. 

Either way, he said he was dismayed by opposition from some Democratic House members who, in September, voted against providing $1 billion in supplemental funding to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, a measure supported by J Street.

“We shouldn’t be saying, ‘Hey, we’re only going to help you defend yourselves if you do this piece of what we say,’” Lasry told JI. “I think the settlement expansion has to be part of the diplomatic course of how we work with Israel to bring the two-state solution.”

Still, Lasry said he understood “complaints that some of the aid we’re giving to Israel goes toward settlement expansion,” adding that “when we give defensive military aid to Israel, that should be used for defense purposes.”

But a more pressing issue, he believes, is that criticism of Israel often comes at the expense of denouncing Hamas. “We can’t get to a two-state solution with Hamas in charge,” he argued. “Unless Hamas is willing to change their stance or change their charter, we’re stuck, and it’s not because of Israel. We’re stuck because of Hamas, and I think that’s something that needs to be talked about more.”

In addition to J Street, Lasry said he has also engaged in conversations with AIPAC. “When it comes to anything going on with Israel, the Middle East, foreign policy,” he said, “I’ve talked with J Street, I’ve talked with AIPAC, making sure that I’m able to figure out what’s going on on the ground. You know, ‘What are you guys hearing?’”

As far as Lasry is concerned, the two groups, which haven’t traditionally been viewed as aligned on key issues — not least the Iran nuclear deal, which he supports, as does J Street — have more in common than is immediately apparent. 

“Both organizations want a strong and peaceful state for Israel, one that can live in peace and can be viewed as the strong, powerful democracy in the Middle East that it is,” he said. While they “might have a little bit of a different view of how to get there,” Lasry suggested, “they both want the same thing.

AIPAC declined to comment on its engagement with Lasry.

Lasry has also spoken with the Wisconsin chapter of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, the group confirmed to JI.

Barring the May conflict between Israel and Hamas, Lasry said that Middle East foreign policy issues haven’t often come up as he’s met with voters and other groups throughout the state.

More broadly, “what we’re talking about is what we would do” within the state, Lasry said. “We have to tell voters what we would do with that opportunity to be the next senator from Wisconsin.”

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