Back from Morocco, Sam and Sylvia Kaplan resume political life

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2013 - 9:17 PM

Home from Morocco, DFL fundraisers Sam and Sylvia Kaplan are already re-entering the political fray.

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Sam and Sylvia Kaplan unpacked after their move back home to Minneapolis after Sam’s stint as U.S. ambassador to Morocco. The Kaplans and their dog, Sonnie, who was given to them while they were posted in Morocco, in their Minneapolis home Wednesday afternoon, June 26.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER, Star Tribune

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It became known as the “scandal of the kiss.”

As U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Minneapolis lawyer Sam Kaplan, 77, had made it clear he came as a package deal with his outgoing wife Sylvia, a longtime Twin Cities’ restaurateur and his partner in DFL politics.

So when newly installed Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane met them at an air show in the fabled North African city of Marrakech, the traditional Moroccan kisses were exchanged all around, including between Sylvia and Benkirane, the moderate leader of an Islamist party.

The news footage went viral around the Muslim nation, one of the few in the Arab world to ever have hosted a Jewish U.S. ambassador.

Benkirane, who once was quoted saying he had no interest in dictating to women “how many centimeters of skirt they should wear to cover their legs,” survived the ordeal. But the next time, he was not so eager to kiss the American ambassador’s ever-present companion.

The Kaplans’ 3-1/2-year tour of duty in Morocco gave them a close-up view of the “Arab Spring” protests that convulsed nearby Egypt, Libya and Tunisia starting in December 2010, a year after they arrived.

It also left them sitting out the 2012 U.S. presidential election, a difficult transition for major Democratic fundraisers and power players who had helped launch the career of the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. In 2008, the Kaplans raised between $100,000 and $200,000 for the Obama campaign, ranking them among the campaign’s top 500 bundlers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Signed up to raise money

Since their return in May, they’ve already signed up to raise money for Minneapolis mayoral candidate Mark Andrew, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. Nor was their political exile in Morocco a complete desert of campaign fundraising. Sylvia Kaplan, working on her own, managed to raise nearly $80,000 for Democratic causes and candidates in the 2011-12 federal election cycle, records show.

The Kaplans, however, say that diplomacy meant playing a larger role not only for Obama, but for their country and perhaps the world.

“It was very meaningful for us to be able to represent the United States at the period of time,” said Sylvia Kaplan, now 74. “In that part of the world, people really do not understand American electoral politics. We had an opportunity to talk to kids in college and other places to talk about the joy of politics, Paul Wellstone-style.”

Nor did diplomacy inhibit their Minnesota-bred cosmopolitan ways. Morocco is perhaps one of the most Westernized nations in North Africa, with a tradition of tolerance and good relations with the U.S. Tight jeans and European fashions are more prevalent than burqas. Sylvia Kaplan said she felt no need to cover her hair when she accompanied her husband to present his credentials to King Mohammed VI.

She regrets only that she forgot to curtsy. “Or bow,” Sam Kaplan added.

“The truth is Sylvia was very popular in Morocco,” her husband said. “She and I were a couple and we traveled the country. We went to areas no ambassador had gone before. They were interested in Sylvia.”

“It was nice to be together,” Sylvia added, “because sometimes we don’t agree and I would interrupt him. We were modeling alternative behavior.”

Serious issues, too

But the mood wasn’t always light for the Kaplans. In March, 2010, the Moroccan government began expelling foreign evangelical Christians accused of proselytizing children in church-sponsored schools and orphanages.

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