Joel Pollak and Alan Dershowitz
Professor Alan Dershowitz, right, with Joel Pollak, the GOP nominee for the 9th congressional district

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz draws overflow crowd for her opponent, Joel Pollak

Joel Pollak, the 32-year-old Harvard-educated Tea-Party-backed candidate for the 9th Congressional District (currently occupied by Jan Schakowsky), had what seemed like a hugely successful fundraiser on Wednesday afternoon. Featuring Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, the luncheon was held at the Rich Melman-owned Wildfire restaurant on West Erie. Melman, founder and chairman of Lettuce Entertain You, is a big backer of Pollak—as is Melman’s partner and general counsel, Jay Steiber, who introduced Dershowitz and Pollak at the event.

When I talked to Schakowsky later that day, she didn’t seem to know much about the luncheon, where the hot topic was Israel and the attendees claimed that the congresswoman was too sympathetic to the Palestinian side. Schakowsky supports Obama’s Mideast policy, including the sanctions on Iran, which Pollak and his backers see as weak.

Schakowsky told me she has a 100 percent voting record with The American Israel Public Affairs Committee. An AIPAC spokesman said, “AIPAC doesn’t rate or endorse candidates… but certainly Rep. Schakowsky has an excellent record on issues important to the pro-Israel community.”

Schakowsky asked me, “Did my name come up [at the luncheon]?” “Did Dershowitz endorse my opponent?” “How many people were there?” Yes and yes, I told her. The main room of the restaurant was packed (220, according to a count from Pollak’s campaign).

She groaned when I mentioned that the best line of Pollak’s speech was, “I’m very proud to have Alan Dershowitz at my fundraiser; she had Helen Thomas at hers.”

“Bad timing,” Schakowsky calls it. Thomas, 89, was the “featured guest speaker” at the congresswoman’s 9th Annual Ultimate Women’s Power Lunch on April 20. Just weeks later, Thomas retired after making comments suggesting Israeli settlers should go home to Germany or Poland. Schakowsky recalled the pioneering newswoman as “absolutely delightful and not in the least bit controversial.” Israel never came up in the women’s power lunch, Schakowsky added.

Before Pollak’s luncheon, Dershowitz told me that the candidate is the only Republican he has “ever come out and campaigned for.” He recalled teaching such future politicians as Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer during his 46 years at Harvard, but he said he has never “seen a more promising political leader than Joel,” who graduated from the law school last May. Dershowitz told the luncheon guests that if Pollak wins, he would immediately raise the IQ of Congress by several points. 

The professor identifies himself as a Democrat—a good friend and avid supporter of Barney Frank, whose bullying of Pollak at a Harvard forum became a You-Tube hit and propelled the young man into politics. Dershowitz was also a strong supporter of Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race against Scott Brown. 

It’s the Democrat at the top with whom Dershowitz seems disillusioned—for foreign policy reasons. He told me he supported Obama in 2008 even though his heart was—and still is—with Hillary Clinton. In 2012, he added, “I’m probably going to vote for Obama.” 

Still, Dershowitz told me, “No matter what good Obama does on jobs and on the economy, if he allows Iran to become nuclear, he’s going to be remembered the way Neville Chamberlain was remembered for failing to confront the worst evil of his generation.”

Dershowitz seems thrilled at the prospect of Pollak debating Schakowsky, adding that Pollak once challenged him to a debate on the subject of Israel, and “the young punk wiped the floor with me.” No debate is yet scheduled, and Pollak is skeptical about the prospect, but a Schakowsky spokesman said there will be one in the fall—pending finding a sponsoring organization and a date.

Schakowsky has won her past races easily (typically with 75 percent of the vote), and for the time being, the 9th District, which covers part of the north suburbs and Chicago’s North Side, isn’t regarded as a worrisome race for the Dems. Forty percent of the constituents speak a language other than English at home, says Schakowsky. “Over a third were born outside the country.” About 20 to 25 percent are Jewish. (Pollak, who grew up and lives in Skokie, is an Orthodox Jew. Schakowsky is also Jewish.)

Pollak’s spokesman told me that the Dershowitz lunch yielded $30,000, “but more came in via Internet and is still coming.” J Street, a new, more liberal alternative to AIPAC—which praises Schakowsky for her commitment to a “two-state solution” and a “rational, sensible Middle East policy”—sent an e-mail out the morning of the Pollak fundraiser and raised $40,000 for the congresswoman, according to a Schakowsky spokesman.

My take on the race? Hold on to your seats. Schakowsky will likely win; but it won’t be pretty.


Photograph: Courtesy of the Pollak campaign