Any time social service funds are threatened by a budget axe, or strained by a crisis, Ron Soloway is on the phone, at City Hall or in the statehouse, warning of the impact on vulnerable people served by UJA-Federation of New York’s network of more than 100 agencies. After 25 years of lobbying, most recently as managing director for external and governmental relations, the Brooklyn native, 64, is retiring in June. He looked back, and ahead, in a recent interview. This is an edited transcript.
Q.: What experience prepared you to work in government relations?
A.: In some important respects my interest in social justice and systems change began [at New York University], where I was actively involved in civil rights and anti-Vietnam war activities. I learned leadership and organizing skills and soon recognized the power of advocacy to change government policies. I was amazed that our activism could lead Lyndon Johnson to not stand for re-election.
After a degree in Urban Public Policy and a master’s in Urban Affairs, I sought employment in the public sector, where I learned how government worked. I co-founded the Center for Public Advocacy Research, an organization that advocated for the needs of poor women and children. After eight years, I was hired by UJA-Federation.
How does lobbying today compare with 25 years ago?
There are many more lobbyists being paid many more dollars. For example in Albany, there were only a few human service lobbyists, and UJA-Federation was the only Jewish organization with a sustained presence in the capital. Today, there are dozens of human service lobbyists and the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, among others, now represent the Jewish community. As such, the need for collaboration and coalition building have become much more important. Another major change is the growth in blogs and Internet streaming. I now know the latest news almost immediately, which makes advocacy efforts more informed and timely.
How do you convince budget makers that your programs are more worthy than others doing the same or similar work?
I always believed that demonstrating need, developing meaningful program responses and showing likely impact are key. Relationships are certainly important but can’t substitute for content.
What are the biggest crises you faced?
Sept. 11 and [Hurricane] Sandy. I single out these two events because they had life and death immediacy. Reaching out to government to determine what was going on, who needed help and identifying resources enabled UJA-Federation staff and agencies to care for those who needed help.
Has it been a challenge to stay nonpartisan when sometimes you have a clear sense which candidate is better for your interests?
Not at all. People vote for their democratically elected representatives and that’s what makes our country so strong. I need to work closely with whoever is elected, and my effectiveness is enhanced by being nonpartisan. I’m clearly not nonpartisan in the voting booth, and one advantage of retirement is that I can publicly support candidates who more closely share my values.
How has UJA-Federation steered clear of politics in such a political city?
As a rule, I do not attend political campaign events. One advantage of this policy is that I’ve had some nights to relax. In all seriousness though, I do believe that the role of money in campaigns needs to be addressed. My own personal view is that too many people see campaign contributions as buying access, and this is not healthy for our democracy.
Were you concerned that the scandal at a UJA-Federation beneficiary, Met Council, would have broader negative implications for the network as a whole?
Only momentarily. UJA-Federation’s network of agencies has a century-long record of achievement and service to the community and I didn’t believe that the failings of one individual would undermine the important work we do.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be spending considerable time in Australia with my Australian-born wife [Rochelle] and her family. Perhaps we will summer there and summer here. I’m interested in comparative economics and politics, so maybe I’ll write some articles in that realm. I’d also like to find an NGO or two that would find my expertise valuable.
I will now have more time for my antiquarian book collection. My wife and I plan to travel extensively and spend lots of time with family. I also plan to take up Australian lawn bowling and hope to one day win an age-appropriate tournament. Hopefully, these new pursuits will still allow time to work for social justice, my most important lifetime pursuit.
Will you still follow the budget process?
I may find time to read different newspapers and follow different issues. That said, I’ve spent 40 years in and around government relations representing the Jewish and broader community. My commitment to these issues and people will never be diminished.