Solving problems with Nancy Jacobson

Nancy Jacobson. Photo by David Stuck.

Sitting in her office beneath life-size portraits of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, framed in bright pops of blue and pink, Nancy Jacobson offers her pitch for political centrism.

“Until we create a new bloc inside the Congress of Republicans and Democrats that are willing to unify and act as one unit, basically we’re not going to be able to see change,” she said.

Jacobson is the founder and CEO of No Labels, an organization promoting bipartisan political solutions. A longtime Democratic operative and prolific fundraiser, Jacobson started No Labels after her then-boss Sen. Evan Bayh retired from Congress.

“I always believed that the left had a movement, and the right had a movement, but nobody had figured out how to create a movement for the new center,” said Jacobson.

And, despite surging populism on both the right and left, Jacobson believes her message is breaking through.

“Deal making for the sake of deal making? There’s no interest in that,” Jacobson said. “But there is agreement that the only way we’re going to make sure progress and move forward is to get the leaders of Democrats and Republicans to the table to work together — and that is becoming an urgent rallying cry.”

Jacobson points to the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House of Representatives, which she said No Labels was instrumental in creating, as evidence. No Labels is now trying to assemble a cross-chamber caucus of moderate Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate, a group she hopes by 2024 will be able to work with “a problem solver president.”

“This democracy is very fragile. It could fray apart or tear apart,” Jacobson said. “But at the end of the day, people instinctively know that having the insurance of a bipartisan bloc, or a new organ, inside this Congress is the best theory of change.”

Jacobson and her organization have no shortage of critics, especially on the left, who say that No Labels and the Problem Solvers Caucus are fronts for monied interests seeking to pull the Democratic Party to the right.

An article in the Daily Beast two years ago reported that No Labels-affiliated political action committees had raised $11 million during the 2018 campaign cycle from 53 donors, and had approached conservative donors including David Koch, in addition to centrists like Michael Bloomberg.

Jacobson brushes off this criticism as so much noise.

“Listen,” she said. “If we weren’t being effective people wouldn’t be coming after us.”

“We always knew that the minute people would realize that we are the dominant group focused on this sort of work, and problem solving, you’re going to get under attack.”

At the same time, Jacobson did little to push back on the assertion that No Labels leans right. As an example of the Problem Solvers Caucus’s success, Jacobson cited its members blockage of Democratic leadership’s attempt to limit immigration funding for deportation and child detention in a congressional spending bill last year.

Jacobson also credited the Problem Solvers for forcing House leadership to vote on a resolution condemning the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Israel. The resolution was praised by many pro-Israel and Jewish groups, though critics said it infringed on free speech.

Jacobson said that in general, elected officials should approach tough issues with an open mind.

“Solving problems is the goal,” she said. “There may not be a path for agreement on everything, but understand that half a loaf is better than no loaf. Eighty percent is better than nothing.”

But when it comes to Israel, Jacobson said, that approach did not apply: “There is no middle ground on Israel.”

The only other non-negotiable for No Labels? Federal debt.

“There’s no middle ground with the need to focus on the deficit,” she said.

Jacobson entered politics as a college student at Syracuse University in the 1980s and came to Washington in 1987 to fundraise for Gary Hart, one of the first prominent, business-friendly “New Democrats,” before working for like-minded politicians, including Al Gore and Bill Clinton, and taking over national fundraising for Bayh (D-Ind.) until he retired in 2010 to become a lobbyist.

Early in her political career, Jacobson realized she had a knack for fundraising.

“My unique gift is bringing the right people to the table for impact,” Jacobson said. “You’ve got to be a good listener, you’ve got to meet people where they are, you’ve got to have a low ego, you’ve got to be about something bigger than yourself — you cannot sell something you don’t believe in.”

Jacobson also draws a distinction between her political work and the rest of her Washington life.

“It’s not my whole life, put it that way,” she said. “My day job is being part of the Washington milieu, but when that part of the day is over my interests and my I’m a part of a whole different Washington.”

Jacobson said her family’s involvement with the Jewish community centers on support for AIPAC, as well as Sixth & I the synagogue and Jewish center.

“What’s inbred is the tikkun olam ethos, wanting to repair the world.”

Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington writer.

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