The Jewish Card

Give me my job back or I'll call the Anti-Defamation League, you anti-Semite!

Accompanied by a handful of rabbis, Harold Wishna lowered the boom on the North Broward Hospital District last week. The 75-year-old political power broker stood before the district board, which is appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, and complained that the public hospital system discriminates against Jews.

The gray and balding Wishna, who wore a George W. Bush reelection pin on the lapel of his dark suit, gave a ten-minute speech before the board, which met at the North Broward Medical Center in Pompano Beach. The gist of his claim was that too few Jews occupy supervisorial positions at the district, the county's third-largest employer.

It's the second time that the long-time Jewish community leader has brought up the allegation. Back in 1993, when Wishna served as a hospital district commissioner himself, his complaints led to increased advertising in Jewish newspapers. This time, Wishna held himself up as living proof of discrimination. After 20 months on the payroll, the district fired him in late January from his $52,000-a-year part-time job to promote NBHD to the Jewish community.

While the seven commissioners, none of whom are Jewish, sat in silence, he blamed the anti-Semitic culture for his firing. "I look at you, and I say, 'When is this going to stop?'" he said into the loudspeaker. "We have a right to have Jewish personnel treated right."

Wishna's claims made for quite a show at the board meeting and provided hot copy for the Sun-Sentinel, which published a story on the Local section frontpage with the headline, "Hospital district faces bias charge."

I don't doubt that there is a dearth of Jews working in the district's administrative offices. And Wishna is genuinely concerned about it, I'm sure. But his impassioned speech was, in reality, little more than a play of the Jewish card in an attempt to get himself back on the public dole. And his firing had nothing to do with his religion. Like most everything else that goes on at the district, it was as political as that "W'04" button pinned to Wishna's suit.

Wishna, in fact, will tell anyone who asks that he was really fired because of an ongoing power struggle between the former chairman, Paul Sallarulo, and the new one, J. Luis Rodriguez. The two commissioners have been engaged in bitter conflict for months. Wishna's saga involves the governor's office, the upcoming presidential election, and the George W. Bush camp's push for the South Florida Jewish vote.

To really understand why Wishna's job was terminated, you have to know why he was hired. And the reason for that dates back to 1979, when he moved to Broward from New Jersey and took a job representing dozens of temples as regional director for the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism. As a conduit to the Jewish community, the job made Wishna a key political property.

Politicians wooed him, hoping he would help them tap crucial Jewish votes. Back then, Wishna was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and he befriended U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who appointed him to the hospital board in 1991. He was also an early supporter of Bill Clinton, who invited him to his inauguration and again to the White House in 1996 for one of those famous coffees.

But in 1998, Wishna converted. Just eight days before Jeb Bush beat Democrat Buddy MacKay, Wishna announced that he was backing the Republican. Both the Herald and Sun-Sentinel reported charges by fellow Democrats that Wishna made the switch only because he wanted to gain sway with the impending Bush administration, which was way ahead in the polls. Wishna still denies that allegation, saying he simply didn't think MacKay was worthy of Chiles' legacy.

Instead of reappointing Wishna (Bush had others in mind), the governor put him on other boards, including the Council on Education Policy. In 2000, Wishna had to make a tough choice for president: He could either support Jeb's brother or back Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, the first Jewish vice presidential candidate in U.S. history. Publicly, he was mum, refusing to voice allegiance to either side. He says he wound up voting for Bush.

It wasn't until April 2002 that then-district chairman Sallarulo -- a top South Florida supporter of the Bush brothers -- helped Wishna land his $50-an-hour, 20-hour-a-week job to serve as a liaison with the Jewish community and to try to drum up new patients. According to one highly placed NBHD official, part of the deal was that Wishna would also use his clout to help reelect the president in 2004.

This, of course, is an explosive charge. Using taxpayers' money to buy support for a presidential candidate is the kind of thing that might draw the interest of the federal grand jury now investigating the district's business deals. But Wishna denies that the job entailed his public backing of the president, as does Sallarulo, who otherwise refused to discuss the issue. "I don't mix politics with my work at the district," Wishna says with a straight face.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman