When I called Joel Pollak on Wednesday, he was back home in Skokie for the Jewish holidays—visiting from his new home in Santa Monica. He moved there to work as an in-house counsel and editor-in-chief for conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart, famous most recently for bringing down Acorn and Rep. Anthony Weiner.
The 34-year-old Pollak—a staunch advocate of Israel, the Tea Party, and a graduate of Harvard College and its Law School—didn’t come too close to beating 9th District Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky in 2010 (he garnered 31 percent of the vote). But he seemed to spook the 67-year-old veteran, and he ran a much tougher race than the seven-termer was accustomed to. He also brought in such stars as his former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, who quipped at a Pollak fundraiser last year that were the young pol to win, he’d raise Congress’s average I.Q. by several points.
Busy in his new job, Pollak says he won’t mount a rematch in 2012, adding that he has approached a couple of people to take on Schakowsky. (He says he won’t reveal their names because they both said no.) Schakowsky is vulnerable, Pollak insists, pointing to the special election earlier this month for Weiner’s seat in a heavily Democratic district encompassing parts of Brooklyn and Queens. The winner, by a healthy margin, was a Republican retired cable news executive who had never held elective office.
During our chat, I asked Pollak if he could have won in the 9th if the election had taken place a year later. I also asked for his take on Sarah Palin and Joe Walsh, how he came to throw his lot with Breitbart, and whether he played any role in taking down Weiner. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
CF: So how did you come to work for Breitbart?
AB: I met him socially a couple of years ago. I must have spoken to him for 15 seconds. He got interested in me during the campaign, and then after the election he contacted me and was interested in possibly hiring me as an in-house counsel, as his company was growing. The more you succeed, the more open you are to liberal challenge, especially in the media where people don’t necessarily like what you’re writing and saying. I do a lot of the legal grunt work, in addition to overseeing the editors on the website. I don’t read every post before it goes out, but our editors know if there’s a question about some legal area, they clear it with me before they put it up.
CF: You were involved in exposing, so to speak, Anthony Weiner?
JP: All of us were involved to some extent in that story. Initially, I was less involved because Weiner sent the offending tweet on a Friday night when I’m not on my computer for religious reasons. So for the first 24 hours of that story, I was in the dark about what was happening. I don’t think it would have become the story that it did if [Weiner] hadn’t made the accusation of hacking. Once he made the accusation that his account had been hacked, and raised questions about whether we had hacked his account, suddenly that gave us a sort of existential interest in the story because we were defending ourselves. It gave even those of us that don’t particularly care about the personal details of a politician’s life; it gave all of us a stake in the story.
CF: What are you up to recently at Breitbart?
JP: The examination of [Joe McGinniss’s] new book about Sarah Palin. We released an email that indicates McGinniss knew there was no factual evidence for some of the most sensational things he was saying, and he was frantically trying to reach out to left-wing bloggers to try to see if they had any evidence he could include in the book to back up what he was saying.
CF: So given the shocking result in the NY-9, is Schakowsky vulnerable in 2012?
JP: I like to joke that we didn’t actually lose in IL-9; they didn’t count all the votes until NY-9. [Because I ran against her], her views are now more exposed than they were before. She is really a member of the hard left. She doesn’t have to maintain a façade of moderation anymore, and she has won election anyway—why not go out and be a spokesperson for the left? And that’s what she done with her jobs bill, which is ridiculous on a policy level, but it does speak to the far left constituency in this country. When New York’s 9th can go Republican on much of the same model that we used here in 2010, focusing on President Obama’s Israel policy and focusing on the economy, I think that certainly the chances [of defeating her] will be stronger [next time].
CF: In NY-9, did the fact that this district is almost certainly going to be eliminated in redistricting play a role in the Republican’s victory? After all, it’s not a permanent addition of a Republican to Congress.
JP: No, because I think now that it’s a Republican seat, it may not be eliminated. It may become part of the horse-trading in the redistricting in the state. And, paradoxically, if it had remained in Democratic hands, it might have been eliminated.
CF: I know you’re a hawk on national defense and on fiscal matters. What about social issues—say abortion and same-sex marriage?
JP: I would describe myself as more conservative on abortion. On same-sex marriage, I lean more to the libertarian viewpoint: that it’s up to states to decide for themselves. I’m very much in favor of traditional marriage, but marriage is what people want to make of it, and if people decide that they want to define marriage in a particular way, I think they should be allowed to do it.
CF: Who are you supporting for the Republican nomination for president?
JP: I can’t really say right now, but I will say that I’m very impressed with Herman Cain—and have been since the first debate. What really has made him stand out recently is his positive message. He doesn’t waste time running other candidates down, and his ideas are very fresh, and I think that makes him an exciting candidate to watch.
CF: When we will have the first Jewish president?
JP: I think if Sarah Palin runs, she’ll be the first Jewish president.
JP: Sarah Palin is treated as Jews have been treated for generations: no matter what she does, she’s wrong. She’s either too religious or not religious enough; she’s a housewife who can’t function as governor, or she’s the governor who doesn’t take care of her domestic duties. All the things are thrown at her in the same way that Jews were targeted. She’s identified herself [with Israel] and has shown empathy for the things that the Jewish community cares about in a way that I think has yet to achieve the right recognition. She sent out a picture recently to supporters—not Jewish supporters, but her general supporters—and it’s a picture of her in front of the Statue of Liberty and she’s wearing a Jewish star. Maybe not since the Puritans founded America and gave biblical names to each other has there ever been such a positive identification with Jewish symbolism, so I like to joke that Sarah Palin will be the first Jewish president.
CF: Most people who dabble in politics would say that were Palin to become the nominee, President Obama will win a second term.
JP: I think Obama at the moment is so politically weak that almost any Republican can defeat him, and I think that what [Palin] brings that some of the candidates lack—including some of the candidates who have done very well—is executive experience. That’s going to be her calling card, and although her term was cut short when she resigned because of the personal financial costs of having to defend frivolous ethics complaints brought by political opponents, while she was In office, she did a very good job. I think she’ll point to that if she does run.
CF: Do you give President Obama any credit for his strong speech in support of Israel at the United Nations last week?
JP: Obama said the right things in that speech, but I think it never should have gotten to the point where this became a possibility. And it’s noteworthy that the Palestinians in their campaign for statehood were playing excerpts of Obama’s [earlier] speech and saying, “Look Obama promised us a state.” I think that President Obama early in his term placed far too much faith in the UN. Palestinians were able to use that American stance. The U.S. blocking a Palestinian state at the UN is kind of the minimum that we expect from a president—not the maximum that we hope for.
CF: What’s your take on [freshman 8th District Republican] Joe Walsh?
JP: I think he has been very effective in making his case in the media, and by taking a few very well defined, often controversial stances, he has become an articulate spokesman for the Tea Party. Nobody really speaks for the Tea Party. That movement really did need more voices in Congress, and with Michele Bachmann focusing on her presidential campaign, it really was a gap that Joe Walsh [filled]. I think he did something politically that in some ways was very helpful and also that was politically savvy. You have to find a way quickly in an unstable political situation to become a national voice.
CF: Any plans to run for office again?
JP: No, not right now, and probably not in the near future. But one day, certainly.