October 28, 2008
Jews running for Congress: Old faces, new challengers and ‘me, Al Franken’
The Senate matchup in Minnesota between two Jewish candidates could end up determining whether Democrats acquire a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Incumbent Norm Coleman, one of only two Jewish Republicans in the Senate, is being challenged by Democrat Al Franken.
Democrats now have a 51-49 advantage in the Senate with the inclusion of independents Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. But surveys suggest that by the end of voting on Nov. 4, enough seats will have changed hands to bring the Democrats close to 60 votes -- the number at which the party could stop a Republican filibuster.
Should Democrats reach the magic mark, will Lieberman continue to caucus with them as an independent or end up on the GOP side of the aisle following his endorsement of presidential candidate John McCain?
In the House, the Democrats' 236-199 advantage is expected to expand, which is likely to add to the total of 29 Jewish lawmakers whose re-election bids are looking strong.
Only three of the 13 Jewish members of the Senate are up for re-election: Coleman, and Democrats Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Carl Levin of Michigan. Levin is expected to win his sixth term handily against Jack Hoogendyk Jr., a Republican three-term state representative.
What follows is a look at some of the more important and interesting races featuring Jewish candidates.
Minnesota's 'Jewish' seat
"I don't think Minnesota is ready for a gentile in this seat."
That's comedian Al Franken's standard joke about the fact that the U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota for which he's running has been occupied by a Jew for the past 30 years. That streak should continue another six years with Franken, a Jewish Democrat, running 5 to 6 percentage points ahead of the Jewish first-term incumbent, Republican Norm Coleman, in recent polls. According to the surveys, a non-Jewish independent candidate, Dean Barkley, has been receiving 15-20 percent of the vote.
Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul, and Franken have clashed over issues. Franken supported a quick U.S. pullout from Iraq, while Coleman has opposed a firm timetable for withdrawal. And the Republican backed the $700 million bailout bill last month, while the Democrat criticized it for failing to provide enough congressional oversight and supports more economic help for the middle class.
Israel has not been an issue in the campaign, but Iran did come up at a recent debate. Franken said that while he would not take any option off the table, it would be a "grave mistake" to take military action against Iran and backed talks with the Iranian government. Coleman said military action must remain an option and stressed the importance of energy independence in being able to counter the Islamic Republic.
Franken and Coleman have spent a combined $28 million mostly attacking each other. Best known for his time as a writer and performer on the television program "Saturday Night Live," Franken has criticized his opponent's ties to "special interests" such as oil and pharmaceutical companies, using a talking fish in some of his television ads to illustrate a Coleman fishing trip with oil company executives.
Meanwhile, Coleman has used Franken's background as a comedian against him, taking the Democrat to task for material he had written that was insensitive to women. Franken responded that he was a comedian for 35 years and wasn't proud of every joke he had written.
Coleman, one of two Jewish Republicans in the Senate, also has questioned his opponent's temperament with a TV ad featuring various clips of Franken yelling and screaming. But the day after Yom Kippur, Coleman said the "time of fasting, soul searching and refocusing on your life" had convinced him to pull all his negative advertising -- although Democrats have pointed out that the Republican Party has continued to run attack ads in the state.
The Minnesota race is seen as one of the crucial races Democrats must win if they want to achieve a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate. That message was hammered home last week in a taped TV commercial by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who campaigned last week with Franken.
The only other U.S. Senate race matching two Jewish candidates is in New Jersey, where 84-year-old Democrat Frank Lautenberg is strongly favored to win his fifth non-consecutive term over Republican Dick Zimmer, 64.
Lautenberg had retired in 2000 after three terms, but returned two years later to replace incumbent Bob Torricelli on the ballot just a few weeks before the election when Torricelli became enmeshed in scandal. Lautenberg has stressed his record as a protector of the environment, foe of big oil and backer of energy independence, as well as his support of expanding affordable health care.
Most recently a lawyer-lobbyist, Zimmer spent three terms in the U.S. House before losing to Torricelli in the 1996 Senate race. He is best known for his sponsorship of the federal version of Megan's Law, which requires notifying residents when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood.
The Republican is emphasizing his fiscal conservatism, accusing Lautenberg of backing wasteful spending and arguing that the Democrat has not done enough to get New Jersey its fair share of federal tax money returned to the state.
The other 10 Jewish senators -- seven Democrats, two independents and a Republican -- are not up for re-election this term.
Rabbi's run in N.J.
In a race with a potential first, Democrat Dennis Shulman -- aka "The Blind Rabbi" -- appears to be within striking distance in the contest to represent New Jersey's 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. A new poll has Shulman, who lost his sight as a teenager and was ordained as a Reform rabbi five years ago, trailing incumbent Republican Scott Garrett by just 7 percentage points. Also, the Democrat in recent days has picked up the endorsements of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, and The New York Times.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently moved the seat from its list of "emerging races" to the "Red to Blue" category, meaning the party is more optimistic about its chances in the district.
Shulman's bid picked up momentum in the last month, since he started attacking Garrett over a staffer's ties to a mortgage company connected to the economic crisis and charged the lawmaker with taking an improper tax break on his property. Shulman also has accused Garrett of being "too conservative" for his Bergen County-area district. Garrett has denied any wrongdoing and last week responded in kind, airing a negative advertisement accusing Shulman of wanting to negotiate with Hamas terrorists and calling him "too extreme for New Jersey."
(Shulman denies supporting talks with Hamas, saying he backs whatever diplomatic approach that Israel adopts on the issue.)
At a recent debate at a local synagogue, Garrett called on Shulman to "renounce" the endorsement he received from the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street.
Shulman defended the endorsement, saying he backs the new group's desire to see the United States play a more active role in promoting Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Garrett has received the endorsement of the New Jersey-based pro-Israel political action committee NORPAC.
New Jersey's 3rd District presents a solid chance for a new Jewish legislator, where Democrat John Adler is vying for the House seat being vacated after 24 years by the stalwart pro-Israel Republican Jim Saxton. The most recent poll shows Adler, a 16-year state senator, and his main opponent, Medford Mayor Chris Myers, locked in a dead heat. But the Cook Political Report rates the race in a South Jersey district that includes Burlington and Ocean counties, as "leaning Democratic."
Adler's signature achievement in state government is legislation banning smoking in indoor public places. Both candidates have strongly proclaimed support for Israel, but have clashed over typical partisan differences.
Adler wants a quick pullout from Iraq, while Myers believes the United States must keep its military presence there until it achieves victory "on our terms." Myers calls Adler a "tax-and-spend" politician, while Adler accuses Myers of being a "George W. Bush apologist."
Chosen in Alaska and Wyoming?
Fewer than 500 Jews are estimated to live in Wyoming and only about 3,500 in Alaska, yet both states could fill their lone House seat with Jewish candidates.
In Alaska, Jewish Democrat Ethan Berkowitz -- who served 10 years in the state Legislature, eight as House minority leader -- leads 18-term incumbent Republican Don Young by 8 points. Young, 75, survived a razor-thin primary and is under investigation in the bribery scandal for which Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens was found guilty Monday on seven felony charges.
Berkowitz, 46, a San Francisco native, is running as a change candidate arguing that Alaska would be better served having a member of the Democratic majority represent the state in Washington. Both candidates back opening the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve to drilling, but Berkowitz says he will be more effective in convincing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Democrat, to support it. The Democrat also has criticized what he calls Young's "bullying" style in the House.
Young voted against both versions of the economic bailout bill, saying there should be limits to government involvement in the economy. Berkowitz said he would have reluctantly supported the final version of the legislation because no one but the government could do the job. He also said the legislation would free up credit for resource development in Alaska.
Berkowitz says he has a good relationship with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, but some political observers say her selection as the Republican vice-presidential nominee could make his road to Washington tougher because it will motivate Republicans in the state to vote.
In Wyoming, two polls last week showed Jewish Democrat Gary Trauner and his Republican opponent, former state treasurer Cynthia Lummis, in a dead heat in their race to succeed Barbara Cubin. Political observers still slightly favor Lummis because of the 2-to-1 party registration edge Republicans have in the state, but Trauner lost a challenge to Cubin in 2006 by slightly more than 1,000 votes.
The New York-born Trauner, 49, stresses the importance of energy independence and Wyoming's potential role in energy development. He is also a strong backer of Second Amendment gun rights. His opponent was endorsed by the National Rifle Association's political action committee, but Trauner received an "A minus" from the organization.
Trauner, a cowboy boot-wearing businessman, has eschewed negative ads, saying that "the way you campaign is the way you will govern."
Lummis has touted her record of more than doubling the state's investment portfolio during her two terms as treasurer, but the state's Democratic governor, Dave Freundenthal, in his endorsement of Trauner earlier this month said no one person should take credit for that growth. The Republican also has emphasized energy independence and pledged to oppose any federal tax increase if elected.
Due to a tough primary fight for Lummis, Trauner enjoyed a significant financial edge heading into the last month of the campaign with nearly $600,000 in the bank compared to about $200,000 for Lummis.
Move over Obama and Palin
If the sight of a black presidential nominee and woman vice-presidential choice feel like old news by now, then check out Colorado and Florida.
Jared Polis, a 33-year-old Democrat in Colorado's 2nd District, is poised to make history. If he wins the open seat, which has been occupied by a Democrat for more than 30 years, Polis would become the first openly gay non-incumbent male elected to Congress. He is seen as the most likely bet to add to the current total of 29 Jewish House members.
A multimillionaire Internet entrepreneur, Polis founded the site for his parents' Blue Mountain Arts greeting card company. He has given more than $5 million to his campaign to win a district that includes includes Boulder and other Denver suburbs. Polis has not emphasized his sexual orientation in the campaign.
"I think it's important to live one's life openly and honestly, and I certainly do that," he told the Advocate, a gay publication. "I treat it as I would my religion. If people ask, I'm happy to tell them about it."
Polis is emphasizing his background as a champion of public education -- he is a founder of two Colorado charter schools and a six-year member of the state Board of Education. He also supports a universal health-care system and a quick end to the war in Iraq.
He is facing Republican aerospace engineer Scott Starin, Unity Party candidate Bill Hammons and the Green Party's J.A. Calhoun.
In the 6th District, Democrat Hank Eng is attempting to become the first Jewish, Chinese-American in Congress. Eng, a recent convert to Judaism, is trailing Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman, a Republican, in the race to follow GOPer Tom Tancredo. No Democrat has won the seat since it was created in 1980.
Eng, a New York native born to Chinese immigrants, married a Jewish woman and converted as his daughter approached bat mitzvah. He found himself immersing deeper into Judaism and made a choice that soon seemed a natural fit with his politics.
"Part of my faith includes a commitment to tikkun olam; there is so much that needs correcting," he said, using the term for "repairing of the world."
He said that, combined with his sensibility as the child of immigrants, drove him to repair what he saw as the damage committed by Tancredo, who ran in the Republican primaries on a stridently anti-immigration platform.
On the other side of the country, in the Miami suburbs, Colombian-born Annette Taddeo, 41, is hoping to become the first Jewish Latina in Congress. The businesswoman faces a tough challenge, though, against Cuban-born Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has used her spot as the ranking minority member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to advocate strongly for Israel.
A recent poll commissioned by the Taddeo campaign had the race within single digits, although a neutral poll earlier in the month gave Ros-Lehtinen a commanding lead. The Democrat has, like many others in her party, attempted to link her GOP opponent to President Bush. In addition, Taddeo has emphasized her experience as the owner of a small business and stressed her traditional Democratic views on issues such as expanding children's health insurance.
Ros-Lehtinen, a 19-year incumbent, stresses her "moderate Republican" image and her superior record of serving her constituents.
Lord slams Bush outside Phoenix
In the northern suburbs of Phoenix, Jewish Democrat Bob Lord is in a tight race with seven-term GOP incumbent John Shadegg for Arizona's 3rd District seat.
Lord, a tax attorney who has served on the board of Phoenix's Jewish federation, is trying to tie his opponent to President Bush's conservative policies and is counting on the changing demographics of the state for help in turning the seat blue.
Shadegg points out that he has opposed a number of Bush policies, from the financial bailout bill to No Child Left Behind, and also criticized the president's handling of the Iraq war.
Adding to the buzz over the race last week, a Shadegg campaign credit card was found on the floor of a local Democratic Party office. A campaign volunteer said he had visited the office to pick up a Barack Obama bumper sticker for his political memorabilia collection and dropped the credit card when he reached in his pocket for money, but Democrats are wondering whether he was snooping.
National Democrats are high on Lord's chances, having provided him with $1.5 million in financial support.
Only in Alabama
Alabama is one of the few places where a Democrat is stressting his points of agreement with President Bush.
In the state's 3rd District, which includes Montgomery, the three-term incumbent Republican Mike Rogers says his challenger, Democrat Josh Segall, is "too liberal" for the district, tying him to the American Civil Liberties Union in an ad because Segall's father, Bobby -- a former president of the Alabama Bar Association -- does work for the organization. Segall, 29, a Montgomery native and Brown-educated lawyer, responds that he is pro-gun, supports the Bush tax cuts and backs offshore oil drilling. He believes the biggest problem facing his district is the loss of textile jobs overseas -- Segall has criticized Rogers for backing free-trade deals -- and feels the solution is improving infrastructure.
Segall has attacked Rogers for voting in favor of the economic bailout bill. Rogers, 50, has defended his vote as being in the best interests of the country.
This is another race that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee upgraded to the "Red to Blue" category. A poll earlier this month had Segall less than 10 points behind.
The fighting freshmen
Two years ago the House welcomed a half-dozen new Jewish Democratic members, and all six appear poised to win re-election as of the final week of the campaign. Three are locked in competitive races.
The member with perhaps the toughest road back to Capitol Hill is Steve Kagen in Wisconsin's 8th District, which includes Appleton and Green Bay. He faces a rematch with Republican John Gard, who he defeated by a 51-49 margin in 2006.
A medical doctor and founder of the Kagen Allergy Clinics, Kagen would make history if he wins as the first Democrat since the mid-1970s to hold the 8th District seat for two consecutive terms. He has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, and said that "any person who's Jewish and visited Israel would understand how important the Second Amendment is."
In another rematch, Democratic incumbent John Yarmuth is a slight favorite in Kentucky's 3rd District over Anne Northup. Yarmuth edged Northup, who had served the Louisville-area district for five terms, by 3 percentage points in 2006.
The Democrat told JTA that he was glad to be squaring off again against Northup because she was close with Bush and "part of the Republican majority in Congress, the policies of which were rejected by the people."
Northup has made an issue recently of Yarmuth's failure to support a resolution last year recognizing Christmas, noting that Yarmuth did vote for resolutions marking Muslim and Hindu holidays. Yarmuth responded at a debate that he voted "present" because he felt the resolution trivialized an important religious holiday. Northup has said her criticism of Yarmuth has nothing to do with his Judaism.
Gabrielle Giffords may not be facing a rematch in Arizona's 8th District, but she is running against someone she knows fairly well. Giffords and her opponent, Arizona Senate president Tim Bee, attended the same school until the ninth grade while growing up in the Tucson area. The two have clashed over the economic bailout, with Giffords defending her vote for the final version as necessary and Bee, a Republican, saying the legislation is an example of "what's wrong with Washington."
Paul Hodes' run for re-election in New Hampshire's 2nd District also had been considered competitive, but a poll out last weekend had the Democrat ahead by 25 points over former newspaper columnist and radio talk show host Jennifer Horn. Hodes has focused his message on "what we've been able to accomplish for people in the district," he told JTA in an interview.
On the Broward and Palm Beach county coasts in South Florida, Ron Klein is expected to win re-election over Republican retired Army Lt. Col. Allen West. Klein, who defeated longtime incumbent Clay Shaw with less than 51 percent of the vote in 2006, said he was not taking anything for granted.
"In large urban areas, it's very difficult to penetrate" the minds of voters, he told JTA in an interview earlier this month. "We still have a third of the voters who don't know who I am."
Finally, Democrat Steve Cohen had his tough race in August. While he still has to defeat three independents on Nov. 4, Cohen's primary win in Tennessee's 9th District, a Democratic stronghold, virtually assured his return to Washington.
The Memphis congressman won 79 percent of the vote; his African-American opponent ran television ads implying that his Judaism made him an outsider in the district.
Cohen said his campaign had "tremendous strength" in the African-American community, adding that "I feel very good about that."
Rematch in Chicago
The race in Illinois' 10th District features no Jewish candidate, but the race in the heavily Jewish northern suburbs of Chicago is of interest to many in the Jewish and pro-Israel community.
The four-term incumbent, moderate Republican Mark Kirk, is seen as a leader on pro-Israel issues and is close to AIPAC. He introduced legislation earlier this year backed by the pro-Israel group that would have punished those selling refined gasoline to Iran. His challenger, Democrat Dan Seals, also has expressed strong support for the Jewish state. Seals, who defeated former Clinton administration Jewish liaison Jay Footlik in the Democratic primary, lost to Kirk by 6 points in 2006.
Kirk has received the endorsement of JACPAC, a Jewish political action committee devoted to the U.S.-Israel relationship and a domestic agenda that includes reproductive choice and the separation of church and state. He has stressed his independence from Bush, while Seals has tried to link Kirk to the unpopular president as much as possible.
A September poll commisisoned by the Web site Daily Kos sparked controversy earlier in the fall because it was conducted on Rosh Hashanah. Kirk's pollster accused the Web site of intentionally conducting the survey on the holiday in order to exclude observant Jewish voters who back Kirk. Site founder Markos Moulitsas argued that by excluding Jews -- a group that traditionally supports Democrats in large numbers -- the timing of the poll may have helped Kirk.
In fact, while the Kos survey found Kirk ahead by 6 points, a poll a few days later by a different organization showed Kirk leading by 8 points. The most recent poll, also conducted by Kos, had Seals 6 points ahead in a race that many observers rank as a toss-up.
Jewish women face off in Pa.
The race in Pennsylvania's 13th District matches two Jewish women.
Democratic incumbent Allyson Schwartz is strongly favored in her race against Republican lawyer and businesswoman Marina Kats in a district that includes a portion of Philadelphia and part of neighboring Montgomery County. Kats is highlighting her personal story: She came to the United States from Ukraine as a teenager in 1979 with no money or knowledge of English, and worked her way through college, law and business school.
Schwartz is touting her two terms on Capitol Hill, where she focused on expanding health insurance for children and sponsored a tax credit for businesses hiring veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Three Jewish Republicans are major underdogs against well-known incumbents.
In New York's 5th District, covering parts of Queens and Nassau County, Liz Berney is attempting to unseat 12-term Democratic incumbent Gary Ackerman, also Jewish and the chairman of the House subcommittee on the Middle East. In Chicago's northwest suburbs, former minor league hockey player Steve Greenberg is challenging two-term Democrat incumbent Melissa Bean in Illinois' 8th District. And in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nick Gerber is facing Democrat Ellen Tauscher in California's 10th District.
Another Jewish Republican is also considered a longshot, even though he is running for an open seat in New York's 13th District that has long been in GOP hands.
On Staten Island, former state Assemblyman Bob Straniere is facing off against Democratic City Councilman Michael McMahon. Straniere, unpopular within the local party establishment because of personal financial issues, won the primary after the handpicked Republican Party candidate died over the summer and other possible GOP contenders bowed out. But he is lagging well behind his opponent in fund raising and the seat has been all but written off by many New York Republicans.
Incumbent Republican Vito Fosella is leaving Congress after his arrest earlier this year on drunk driving charges and the subsequent revelation that the married congressman had a girlfriend and child living in the Washington area.
In New Jersey's 4th District, Jewish Democrat Joshua Zeitz is attempting to defeat 28-year incumbent Christopher Smith. Zeitz, a history professor who wrote the book "White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics and the Shaping of Postwar Politics," has attacked Smith for his opposition to abortion. Smith is emphasizing his record of legislative accomplishment and leadership on worldwide human rights issues.
In California's 45th District, which includes Palm Springs, former state Assemblywoman Julie Bornstein is hoping to unseat Republican Mary Bono Mack. Bornstein, who advocates for affordable housing, has highlighted Bono Mack's refusal to debate her and repeated the common theme of yoking her GOP opponent to the unpopular president. Bono Mack, the widow of singer and politician Sonny Bono, has defended herself as an independent voice.
Health policy expert Judy Feder again will challenge 14-term incumbent Republican Rep. Frank Wolf in Virginia's 10th District, which covers some of Washington's northern Virginia suburbs. Feder, a Georgetown University public policy professor, put up a spirited challenge two years ago but lost by 16 points. Wolf has been a leader on human rights issues and was among the first members of Congress to visit Darfur.