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Health-care vote could mean tough campaign for some Dems

WASHINGTON – A window was shattered by a pellet gun in an apparent vandalism attack at her Tucson district office. Sarah Palin has put her on the list of Democratic lawmakers she is targeting this fall. Arizona Tea Party activists are pledging to help defeat her bid for re-election.

All this because Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) voted for health-care reform.

Giffords is one of a few Jewish Democrats political observers say could have a difficult re-election campaign because of her vote for the controversial Democratic-backed health-care bill.

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A glass door at the Tucson office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shattered in an apparent vandalism attack just hours after Giffords voted for the health-care reform bill in Congress. Gary Jones

The bill passed March 21 would provide access to insurance for more than 30 million uninsured Americans, provide subsidies for those who cannot afford it, eliminate the ability of insurance companies to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and require all Americans to buy insurance or pay a tax. Republicans have attacked the bill as too costly and portray it as government takeover of the health-care industry.

While support for the health-care bill represents a potential political liability if disaffection with the president runs high on Election Day, November is still far enough away that it’s not clear how much influence it will have.

The general mood of the country, which probably will depend on the state of the economy, will likely be the determining factor, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. If the mood is sour, he said, voters “are going to evaluate health care in that light.”

Two-term congresswoman Giffords is in a more vulnerable spot than most. She hasn’t been in office long, and her district is not solidly Democratic. John McCain won it in the 2008 presidential election, with 52 percent of the district vote.

Helping those who cannot afford health insurance, rather than focusing on re-election, was Gifford’s paramount concern in deciding which way to vote, her spokesman said.

“The congresswoman is convinced it was the right thing to do, and good for the country,” said her communications director, C.J. Karamargin.

Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who has been particularly outspoken on health-care issues, is another potentially vulnerable Jewish Democrat. Grayson has called the U.S. health-care system a “holocaust” — making him a darling of the left but a target of the right.

Grayson unseated a four-term Republican in 2008 to win the 8th congressional district in Florida, which includes part of Orlando. While President Obama carried the district in 2008, George W. Bush carried it in the prior two presidential races.

National Jewish Democratic Council CEO Ira Forman acknowledged that votes in favor of health-care reform could be problematic for Jewish Democrats like Giffords and Grayson, but he is “doubtful it will be the determinative vote” for an incumbent’s prospects of survival this fall.

Victory on a historic reform of health care “is much better for Democrats in general” than a defeat, Forman said. However, the larger issues of the economy and the unemployment rate are likely to be greater factors for vulnerable Democrats come election time, he said.

The only Jewish Democrat to vote against the health-care bill was New Jersey first-termer John Adler, who also is likely to face a tough battle in November. Hailing from a district in the Philadelphia suburbs, Adler will be facing off against former Philadelphia Eagles lineman John Runyan.

Adler said he did not back the legislation because it didn’t do enough to control costs and make health care affordable for his constituents. He also reportedly had encountered strong opposition to the bill at meetings throughout his district.

Obama carried Adler’s district by five points in 2008, but Bush eked out a slight win in 2004. Before Adler, the district’s congressional seat was held by a Republican for 16 years.

Adler’s vote will make it easier for him to argue that he is “not a rubber stamp” for the president.

The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, agreed that the health-care bill is likely to be a big issue in the 2010 election. The RJC has called for repealing the bill.

More upsetting than the bill itself, Brooks said, is that, “with an exploding debt and deficit, the president is focusing not on jobs but on health care.”

Meanwhile, at least one Jewish Republican challenger is hoping that his opposition to the health-care reform legislation will help him knock off a Democratic incumbent. Randy Altschuler, a contender for the GOP nomination in New York’s 1st congressional district, which includes much of Suffolk County on Long Island, said he backs repealing the health-care legislation and replacing it with a different type of reform because the “spending, tax increases, and heavy government intervention” outweigh its “marginal benefits.”

Altschuler first must win a tough primary race against Chris Cox, Richard Nixon’s grandson, before being able to square off against incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop.

“That’s a race where these kinds of issues are going to resonate,” Brooks said of the brouhaha over health care.

JTA

 
 

Still a problem

 

Making a reservation for the Tea Party, and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

With a little more than a month to go before November’s mid-term elections, a new player has emerged on the field causing ripples in the Republican world and a mix of worry and relief among Democrats.

We speak, of course, of the Tea Party, the grassroots movement of protests that’s been sweeping the nation since early 2009. A number of Tea Party candidates have fared well in recent Republican primary elections, beating out GOP-favored opponents.

Most notably, Tea Party candidate Joe Miller upset Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary for her Senate seat, and Christine O’Donnell beat out GOP-favored U.S. Rep. Michael Castle in Delaware’s Republican Senate primary last month.

“The national Tea Party movement is the embodiment of political activism,” Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) said in a statement to The Jewish Standard. “Based on the results of recent primary elections, it’s hard to deny the influence the Tea Party movement has had on politics the last year. If the past is any indication of things to come, there is no doubt in my mind that the Tea Party movement will have an impact on the elections in November and beyond.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, president of the Englewood-based Israel political action committee NORPAC and a registered Republican, believes the Tea Party candidates are too far to the right to win in the general elections. While NORPAC focuses solely on candidates’ records on Israel, the Tea Party has put forward a cast of unknown candidates that has made life more difficult for the PAC to quickly determine their positions.

“Sometimes people are overly enthusiastic and trend toward candidates unvetted and poorly qualified,” he said.

The Tea Party victory in the Delaware primary has assured Democrat Chris Coons a victory in the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden, according to Chouake. Castle, a former two-term governor, was the GOP’s best hope at winning the open seat, he said.

“The likelihood of the Senate switching majorities in this cycle has become slim because of the influence of the Tea Party in the Senate primaries,” Chouake said.

Tea Partier Sharron Angle, a former Nevada state representative, won the GOP nomination to face Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in November, which, in Chouake’s opinion, almost guarantees the senator a victory.

“Sharron Angle is probably the weakest candidate in the field, at least according to the polls,” Chouake said. “While we’re neutral on the Tea Party issues, we’re happy to see Harry Reid has this best chance at re-winning his seat because he’s a good friend on U.S.-Israel relations.”

Reid visited Englewood on Sunday for a NORPAC fund-raising event — closed to the press — that drew about 30 people and raised between $25,000 and $30,000 for the senator’s re-election bid.

“On our issue he’s tremendously supportive,” Chouake said. “He has a deep understanding of the problems the Jews have had throughout history.”

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Reid is confident in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to win a peace agreement because he has support from Israel’s left and right wings, Chouake said.

Regarding Iran, Chouake said that Reid preferred to avoid military action but all options had to remain on the table because a nuclear Iran is the worst-case scenario.

Earlier this week, Senate Republicans blocked Democrat-sponsored legislation that would have overturned the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A 56-43 vote defeated a $726 billion defense spending bill that included a pay raise for troops and a repeal of the controversial policy that blocks openly gay soldiers from serving.

Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation. Reid voted against the bill, citing a Senate rule that allows him to reintroduce the legislation later if he votes with the majority.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) condemned Republicans for blocking the legislation. “This bill provides our military with new equipment and authorizes pay and health programs for our brave men and women,” he said in a statement. “This bill would also authorize the long overdue repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ No American should be barred from serving in our military simply because of their sexual orientation.”

 
 

Jewish officials flex muscles ahead of possible GOP wins

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Rand Paul, shown speaking at a rally in Paducah, Ky., on April 10, is among the Tea Party-backed candidates who could have a major impact on social services spending if he is elected to the U.S. Senate, some Jewish officials say. Gage Skimore

WASHINGTON – Across the United States, Jewish community professionals are honing their skills of suasion, preparing to deal with a new crop of lawmakers who are unfamiliar with Jewish organizational priorities — and who are likely to be unenthusiastic once they’re in the know.

This season of anti-incumbent sentiment, much of it swelling from the political right, presents the likelihood of a Republican takeover of at least one house of Congress. The GOP needs 39 seats to win in the House of Representatives; pollsters are predicting gains of 17 to 80 seats.

The Tea Party insurgency has pushed past the GOP primaries a crop of candidates who have never held political office. Many of the freshmen are likely to arrive in Washington sharing their party’s warmth for Israel, but knowing little about the Jewish state or U.S. domestic issues that Jewish federations traditionally champion — elderly care, poverty relief, and other community services.

“In the Tea Party, the concern to dismantle government is very strong and, for better or worse, the Jewish community has prospered and gotten used to involved government, grants, social services, government aid to Israel,” said Marshall Breger, the Reagan administration liaison to the Jewish community who teaches law at Catholic University. “Once they start cutting, it’s going to be hard to make exceptions.”

The strategy, said Joyce Garver Keller, the executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, a group that lobbies for the state’s federations, is to make friends now to prepare for more nuanced meetings after January.

“The first purpose is to make a friend, not to come cold in January,” Keller said of her initial outreach to fresh Republican candidates, who have proliferated in her state. Ohio has a disproportionate amount of toss-up elections that could unseat Democrats.

In the meetings she has with candidates, Keller outlines broad areas of concern, leading with support for Israel and the need to confront Iran over its suspected nuclear program, and then explaining Jewish community backing for safety net spending.

She anticipates a long learning curve in a number of cases.

“We have people running who have never been to Israel, and even if they have a position paper they don’t grasp that it’s more than a war zone,” Keller said.

In some cases the learning curve may be insurmountable.

Hours after Keller spoke with JTA on Friday, The Atlantic magazine revealed that Rich Iott, a Tea Party-backed candidate in the Toledo area, for years had spent weekends dressing up as an SS officer as a member of a group that re-enacted Nazi maneuvers.

Iott, who has never held public office, seemed baffled that anyone was taking offense, even after the national Republican Party made him politico non grata.

“Never, in any of my re-enacting of military history, have I meant any disrespect to anyone who served in our military or anyone who has been affected by the tragedy of war, especially the Jewish community,” he said in a statement.

Iott was an extreme example but across the country, community outreach officials fretted at a political demographic that hasn’t had much overlap with Jews.

Matt Goldberg, the Jewish Community Relations Council director in Louisville, Ky., said he was worried that spending reductions would result in cuts to security and social programs for seniors.

National officials forecast a grim winter, noting threats by incumbent Tea Party-backed GOP senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to dry up spending. Despite overtures by top Jewish officials, DeMint will not budge, insiders said.

If DeMint and Coburn are joined by another handful of hard-liners, they could muster the power to bring government to a halt, using the Senate’s arcane parliamentary rules that grant even lone senators sweeping powers to gum up legislation.

“If you have Rand Paul in Kentucky, if you have Sharron Angle in Nevada, if you have Joe Miller in Alaska, you can have a tremendous impact on social services,” said one official, referring to three races where budget-slashing Tea Party-backed candidates are competitive.

Of concern are possible cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, programs seen as vital to sustaining food and medical assistance to the poor and the elderly.

“One of the things we’ve been working on with local JCRCs is looking at the most vulnerable populations, the new people in poverty,” said Josh Protas, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the JCRC umbrella that is a partner in the interfaith Fighting Poverty with Faith campaign. “Certainly a lot of the service agencies are feeling the brunt of this.”

One frustration for Jewish officials has been the demonization of “earmarks,” the district-specific spending widely derided as “pork” by conservatives. Earmarks fund an array of programs favored by Jewish groups, including naturally occurring retirement communities, the jewel in the federation system crown, and grants that enhance security at Jewish institutions.

Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition director, downplayed talk of a GOP takeover — but he also said Republican policies would not place at risk safety nets now funded by earmarks.

“Perhaps there will be a different vehicle and a different level of accountability,” said Brooks, who last week oversaw a rollout of a $1 million ad campaign targeting Jewish voters in key states. The campaign includes attacks on what the RJC says are Obama’s economic policy failures.

Robin Schatz, the director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said she had been making the case for earmarks to Pat Toomey, the conservative Republican running for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

“I told Pat, ‘Earmarks are not a four-letter word. If you are elected, we’re going to sit down and have a substantive talk about this,’” she said. “I think he has substantive reasons. You don’t want to see bridges to nowhere — in the Jewish community we want transparency, too — but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Toomey, who served previously in the House, at least is approachable and has strong relations with Pennsylvania Jews. In Kentucky, Goldberg has yet to communicate with Paul, who bested the establishment-backed Trey Grayson, who had close ties to the state’s Jews.

“Suddenly we’re confronted with Rand Paul, and he’s an unknown in the community,” Goldberg said.

Grayson is from Louisville, where there are 10,000 Jews. Paul is from Bowling Green, which has only a handful of Jews. Goldberg said he had tried to get in touch with Paul but had yet to find a Jewish intermediary.

Instead he’s only heard third-hand that the candidate is “more pro-Israel” than his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who has one of the House’s worst pro-Israel records. Goldberg said he was counting in part on pro-Israel evangelicals in the state to make Israel’s case.

Keller said difficulties in establishing relationships are typical of rural districts.

“In Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus, the Jewish community has visibility,” she said of her state. “When you go outside those cities, it is rare for the candidate to even have Jewish friends.”

They key may be to go outside those cities: In Minnesota, in addition to hosting a JCRC gubernatorial debate, Jewish officials traveled to events like the Aug. 4 FarmFest debate in rural Redwood Falls in the state’s southwest, said Ethan Roberts, the director of the Twin Cities Jewish Community Government Affairs Program.

When she scores a meeting, Keller said, she probes whether the candidate has a beloved relative — a grandparent, an uncle — in a nursing home. She then talks about the Jewish emphasis on caring for the elderly and uses, and explains, Yiddishisms like “bubbe” and “zayde,” which she finds candidates enjoy hearing.

Months later, at an initial meeting in a congressional office, she will return to the issue, recalling the lawmaker’s beloved relative — and tie it in to her agenda.

“It’s trying to personalize these billion-dollar issues that are numbers on a budget and talk to them about the safety net,” Keller said.

Another area of concern is funding for Israel, despite broad GOP enthusiasm for the Jewish state.

Keller said candidates often don’t realize until they get to Washington that Israel’s $3 billion in annual defense assistance is part of a $25 billion international assistance package — one the Obama administration hopes to double within the next two years.

“You get a lot of people who get into office who say I like aid for Israel, but …,” she said.

Backing the entire foreign assistance package has long been a sine qua non of pro-Israel support. Pro-Israel groups wince at conservative proposals to separate Israel funding because they say it smacks of a “special case” status they’d rather not have.

Conservatives object to programs that fund family planning overseas, as well as aid for countries where governments do not vote with the United States in the United Nations and do not have democratic governments.

Joel Pollak, a rare Jewish Tea Party-backed candidate hoping to oust Rep. Jan Schakowsy (D-Ill.) from her suburban Chicago seat, said the likelihood was that a Republican Congress would tweak foreign aid.

“I think it will be discriminating foreign aid,” he said. “There will less foreign aid to countries that do not honor human rights and sponsor terrorism.”

JTA

 
 

Unifying factor in 2010 election: Never before

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Tea Partiers rally against Nevada Sen. Harry Reid March 27 in the Senate majority leader’s hometown of Searchlight. Mark Holloway

WASHINGTON – Talk to veteran campaign watchers about this year’s congressional races, and within seconds they will tell you that they’ve never before seen elections quite like these.

“We’ve never seen a cycle where there’s been this many races this close to an election and you don’t know how it’s going to come out,” said Joy Malkus, the research director at the Chicago-based Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, or JACPAC, a group that directs funding to candidates who are pro-Israel and moderate on social issues. “And I’ve been doing this since 1982.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, a New Jersey-based, pro-Israel political action committee, agreed.

“This one has taken twists and turns that surprise almost all of us that follow these events,” said Chouake, who lives in Englewood. “I’ve never seen anything like this in all the years I’ve been doing this — in my lifetime.”

Despite the unfamiliarity of the terrain, the rules of the Jewish fund-raising road remain the same: Stick with your friends and get to know unknowns as fast as possible.

In fact, the only change might be to append a “more-so”: There are many more friends at risk, and there are a lot more unknowns. An anti-incumbent surge already has had an impact in the primaries, ousting a clutch of incumbents in the Senate, where races generally are much more expensive than in the House of Representatives.

“The thing that has created the greatest demand for money in the pro-Israel world are all these open Senate seats,” said Lonny Kaplan, a veteran pro-Israel giver who is based in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs and is a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

A greater demand and, according to insiders, a surprisingly greater supply, considering the economy’s narrow straits. Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he has never seen money flowing like this in a non-presidential election year.

“This is the largest effort our leaders have made in a midterm — ever,” he said.

Here are some races to watch in this very watchable season:

Endangered incumbents: The triumvirate

A number of pro-Israel incumbents are at risk in the Senate. Some already have been or are almost being written off, among them U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Others at risk are rallying in the final weeks and have attracted a late burst of pro-Israel attention, including Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Reid, the majority leader, is facing a tough challenge from Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-backed Republican challenger. Reid is considered critical by the pro-Israel community because he has taken the lead in helping to shepherd through Iran sanctions legislation. He’s also seen as having advanced pro-Israel defenses, most recently in a letter with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pressing President Obama to designate the Turkish group behind the Gaza Strip aid flotilla as terrorist.

If Reid goes, and if the Senate changes hands, its pro-Israel cast is not likely to change: McConnell is also solidly pro-Israel and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the chamber’s most stalwart Israel defender (and a Jew from Brooklyn), likely would replace Reid.

Yet pro-Israel insiders say it remains a priority to keep in place a party leader who has been a proven champion of Israel.

“I’ve worked very hard for Harry Reid’s campaign, and the pro-Israel community has been very, very supportive of him,” Kaplan said. “It’s a very tough race. From my perspective we have a very friendly incumbent — it’s not hard to pick a side there.”

Boxer, a Jewish candidate who is facing former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, is likewise considered important because of the recent trend among liberal Democrats to question Israeli policies.

“She’s very liberal but also a leader,” said a donor who is close to top Democrats and did not want to be further identified. “She puts her name on pro-Israel legislation.”

Getting to know you: the Tea Partiers

Reid’s race is also considered critical also because he is facing Angle, who like most of the candidates backed by the Tea Party movement is friendly to Israel but also seeks budget cuts across the board. That makes her anathema to groups like JACPAC that are concerned about social services.

The Tea Party also makes some pro-Israel conservatives nervous because some in the movement want to slash foreign funding, although they have promised to work out a way to maintain funding for Israel. Some say that reveals a misunderstanding of the holistic nature of foreign aid: If aid is cut across the board, it signals an isolationism that can only harm Israel in the long run even if it benefits from short-term exceptions.

“The pro-Israel community has the challenge of keeping up foreign aid overall” if Tea Party candidates score major successes, said an insider associated with AIPAC.

That effort to keep up foreign aid already is under way, and pro-Israel insiders report warm conversations with Angle in addition to Mike Lee, the Republican candidate in Utah whose Tea Party insurgency unseated longtime incumbent GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, and Ken Buck, who is challenging Colorado’s Bennet.

Other Tea Party candidates have kept their distance from the pro-Israel community. They include Senate hopefuls Joe Miller, a Republican who is leading in Alaska, and Rand Paul in Kentucky.

Paul’s association with his father, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose isolationist polices have resulted in one of the worst pro-Israel records in the House, as well as the younger Paul’s reluctance to parry outside of his inner circle, have conferred upon his opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, the rare status of favored pro-Israel candidate in an open race. The pro-Israel donor community as a rule attempts to split the difference in such races, not wishing to alienate either side.

“Conway has great position papers on all of our issues — Israel, [reproductive] choice, and separation of church and state,” JACPAC’s Malkus said. “Rand Paul is not good on any of our issues.”

Unlikely challenges to incumbents — and unlikely incumbent

House Democrats facing challenging races across the country fall into two categories: Those who just months ago were seen as sure bets, and those who beat the odds to win in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats scored victories over a weakened Republican Party. In 2008, those underdog Democrats were buoyed by voters enthusiastic about presidential candidate Barack Obama.

A typical candidate who used to be seen as safe but now is in jeopardy is Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who defeated his current opponent, Republican Allen West, by 10 points in 2008. Klein has strongly supported Israel in a heavily Jewish district that includes patches of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

West, however, has posed a formidable challenge this time, in part by linking Klein to a president perceived as less friendly to Israel than his predecessors, and in part because of anxieties among retirees over reports that Obama’s health-care reform will suck funds from Medicare, the government-funded insurance plan for retirees. An African-American Iraq war veteran, West also has an Achilles’ heel: Most recently he was associated with a biker gang that does not admit Jews or blacks as members.

Another Florida Jewish congressman is typical of the other column. In 2008, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), facing an incumbent weakened by a strong primary challenge, swept in in a district that encompasses Orlando and leans Republican.

Grayson, one of the most outspoken critics nationwide of the Republicans, is now in trouble, with outside Republican-affiliated groups pouring money into negative campaign ads. He has offset the blitz by raising four times as much as his Republican opponent, Daniel Webster, in individual donations, stemming from the joy his politically incorrect broadsides bring the Democratic base.

Grayson has accused Republicans of wanting the uninsured to die. Nonpartisan campaign watchers criticized Grayson recently for a TV ad that edited remarks to make Webster appear as if he were endorsing New Testament commands that wives should submit to their husbands. In fact, Webster was advising Christian fathers that they should ignore the commandments in question.

Which pro-Israel are you?

Two major campaigns have split the pro-Israel community: Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) vs. Alex Giannoulias for the open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) vs. Pat Toomey for the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

JACPAC is backing Sestak because of the organization’s twin missions of supporting Israel and moderate social policies. Toomey, Malkus notes, voted against foreign aid more often than not when he was a congressman in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

On the other hand, Sestak has been targeted by right-wing groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel for his associations with the left-wing pro-Israel lobby J Street.

By and large, however, J Street associations have not figured large in the campaign, said Kaplan, who is backing the Democratic incumbent Rush Holt in New Jersey.

JACPAC is staying out of the Kirk-Giannoulias race because of Kirk’s leadership role on pro-Israel issues in the House and his record as a Republican moderate. NORPAC’s Choauake referred to Kirk’s seminal role in shaping the enhanced Iran sanctions legislation that passed over the summer.

“He’s brilliant and hard working; he’s a mover and a shaker, “ he said of Kirk. “He can get stuff done — he knows how to strategize to get to the finish line.”

Races to watch? Try people to watch

Pro-Israel and Jewish money sometimes goes to candidates not because they need it, but because the community sees a future with the person in question.

That’s the case with Kelly Ayotte, a Republican leading in the open race for New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate seat, and Chris Coons, a Democrat in the same position in Delaware.

Ayotte “is someone who’s going to get into the Senate and do well,” Chouake said. “She’s been supported by Democratic and Republican governors as attorney general, which means she must be highly respected. She’s going to be a prime candidate for [the] executive branch if they’re looking for a young Republican woman.”

Coons, until now a little-known county executive, is also respected, said the pro-Israel insider close to Democrats.

“He’s very much up on the issues, very foreign policy attuned,” the insider said. “He pronounced [the name of Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad correctly.”

Reach out to the outreachers

Asked why he was backing Ayotte in the New Hampshire Senate race instead of Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), a Jewish congressman with a solid-pro-Israel voting record, NORPAC’S Chouake’s answer was simple: “She called me. He didn’t.” JTA

 
 

Israel, Iran, court, entitlements — what would a GOP Congress mean?

Cantor could help GOP take the House, but can he win over the Jews?

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U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, shown speaking at the 2009 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, hopes to shepherd the GOP to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Robert A. Cumins/Jewish Federations of North America

WASHINGTON – Eric Cantor has spent a lifetime having fun wearing the other hat.

Among Jews, the Republican congressional whip from Richmond, Va., likes to play the genteel Southern conservative, the posture that won over his wife, a socially liberal banker from New York.

Among southerners, he’s the nice Jewish boy who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and graduated from Columbia University but who has an easy familiarity with NASCAR, country music, and evangelical beliefs.

Profile

It’s an approach that has Cantor poised to become the highest-ranking Jewish member in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives. If the Republicans take the House, as the pundits and polls are predicting, he is expected to rise to the position of majority leader.

Maybe even House speaker, as the buzz goes, if the new wave of Republican lawmakers decides to dump Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), whom some conservatives see as too close to lobbyists and establishment interests. Cantor, the only Jewish Republican lawmaker in the Congress, denies that talk.

At the same time that Cantor, 47, stands on the verge of what could be his greatest victory in his young career, he faces what also might be his greatest test: reconciling the liberal tendencies of the smaller, Jewish community in which he grew up with the sharp swing right in the larger, conservative community he has embraced.

He insists it’s not such a big deal.

“The American Jewish community is not unlike others in this country,” Cantor told JTA this week in a quick phone interview from the campaign trail, where he was been spending a frenetic summer and fall in hopes of helping his party win as many as 90 seats from the Democrats. “Jews are frustrated at their own economic circumstance.”

Cantor said that American Jews have nothing to fear from the Tea Party, the disparate conservative insurgency that appears ready to propel the Republicans to victory.

“Tea Party individuals are focused on three things: One, limited, constitutional government; two, cutting spending; and three, a return to free markets,” he said. “Most Americans are about that, and the American Jewish community is like that.”

In the same interview, Cantor laid out a proposal on funding for Israel that could test exactly how “like that” is the American Jewish community — or at least its organizational leadership.

Cantor said he wanted to pull the $3 billion Israel receives in funding from the foreign operations budget so that GOP lawmakers — who in recent years have been voting in increasing numbers against the foreign funding bill — may vote their conscience: for Israel on one bill, against countries perceived as anti-American on another.

“Part of the dilemma is that Israel has been put in the overall foreign aid looping,” he said. “I’m hoping we can see some kind of separation in terms of tax dollars going to Israel.”

Other Republicans have suggested putting the Israel funding in the defense budget, noting that most of the money is for defense assistance.

Prior to that statement, a number of pro-Israel officials had told JTA on background that they feared exactly such an initiative. However, the expectation was that it would come from Tea Partiers and not the GOP leadership, whom the pro-Israel officials expected to be an ally in making the case for foreign funding in January when the new Congress is inaugurated.

Repeated attempts by JTA in the wake of Cantor’s comments to reach the same figures — among them, some of the most voluble pro-Israel advocates — went unanswered.

The silence itself was not unusual — no one in a non-partisan role wants to stand directly against an entire party a week before Election Day. But it signaled the chasm with Republicans that pro-Israel groups may be looking at come January.

Democrats and their allies were not so shy in reminding Cantor of the traditional pro-Israel argument for wrapping spending on Israel into the broader foreign aid budget.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, called Cantor’s proposal “outrageous.”

“Manipulating aid to Israel in this way would dangerously threaten continued bipartisan agreement on national security policy and programs other than direct assistance to Israel that aid in its security,” she said in a news release.

The funding, Lowey said, promotes diplomacy and alleviates the factors that create a fertile ground for terrorist recruiters.

“Because it is inextricably linked with broader U.S. national security goals, separating assistance for Israel in order to make it easier for Republican members to vote against the foreign aid bill would be counterproductive,” she said in her statement.

Cantor outlined a much different view: Israel was not like other nations, he said.

“Israel’s survival is directly connected to America’s survival,” he said. “Israel’s security is synonymous with our own.”

Bridging divides is not new to Cantor. His conservative posture on social issues — he is against gay marriage and abortion — place him on the opposite side of most Jewish voters. And Jewish advocates for the elderly strongly oppose several proposals in his new book “Young Guns,” co-authored with two other youthful conservatives, Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

The Republican trio calls for opening up Social Security and Medicare to private companies and raising the eligibility age for both plans. In addition, the book extols the GOP leadership’s voluntary freeze last March on earmarks, which Cantor wants to make permanent — and extend to Democrats, should the GOP win the House.

Jewish groups have relied on earmarks, the funds lawmakers set aside for their districts, to fund programs for the elderly.

Still, Cantor is always a welcome presence at Jewish communal events, associates say.

“He always has gotten community support, even though the Jewish community is mostly Democratic,” said Jay Ipson, a retired auto parts dealer who has known Cantor since he was a boy.

Cantor, who has a reputation for tirelessness, makes himself available to the Richmond Jewish community when he is home, Ipson says — visiting its institutions and working on its behalf. Cantor’s intervention on the state level helped Ipson establish the city’s Holocaust museum, which opened in 2003.

Richard November, a former president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, said Cantor was typical of a younger generation of Southern Jews who refused to be circumspect about their Jewishness and would wear their identity with pride even as they ventured into the broader community.

November recalled tracking Cantor, who was the same age as his daughter, Debra, as he grew up.

“In my day — I graduated high school in 1956 — it was more isolated if you would, the Jewish kids stuck together,” he said. “During my daughters’ high school years, there was a greater acceptance of the Jewish students, the Jewish students were more aggressive in becoming involved in things that were not just Jewish.”

Cantor was well-turned-out early, he recalled.

“He always had a certain demeanor that most people don’t have at that age,” he said.

It helped win over his wife, Diana, six years his senior and a Goldman Sachs employee when he courted her while he was at Columbia.

“I said, ‘I thought you were Jewish?’ I’d never met someone who was Jewish and Republican,” she told The Washington Post in 2008.

In Washington, Cantor has made the Jewish community’s case to the Republican leadership, particularly as it applies to funding for safety net programs, said William Daroff, who heads the Jewish Federations of North America Washington office.

“He’s been helpful with legislative matters where there have been funding issues, issues around regulations, particularly with Jewish family service agencies,” Daroff said.

Some Jewish Democrats see Cantor as a friend and appreciate his outreach on Israel.

“We disagree on domestic issues, but when it comes to Israel there are no disagreements,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “His heart is in the right place when it comes to Israel.”

Cantor’s Jewish profile has, if anything, heightened as he ascended to the leadership. While his family remains Conservative, he now attends Orthodox services and, when his busy schedule allows, takes classes with a rabbi.

In “Young Guns,” his new book, he makes no bones about the Jewish values he brings to the GOP.

“I pray on Saturday with a Southern accent,” he said. “Paul and Kevin,” his co-authors, “go to church on Sunday and talk to God without dropping their gs.”

That’s an outlook appreciated by a professional Jewish class that has been stymied at times in reaching out to Jewish lawmakers.

“The Jewish community has unfortunately had its fair share of members who shy away from their identity as they embrace public life and build their careers,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch. “Eric has done the exact opposite.”

JTA

 
 

Brouhaha in Texas House a Jewish test case for Tea Party

In Texas, the Tea Party passed its first Jewish test even before its legislators had been sworn in.

Deeply conservative forces in the Lone Star State firmly repudiated the effort by evangelical Christians to unseat the powerful Jewish speaker of the Texas House of Representatives because he wasn’t a “true Christian conservative.”

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Texas state Rep. Joe Straus looks set to stay in the powerful speaker’s role after a broad coalition defeated challenges based on his Judaism. Office of Rep. Joe Straus

Speaker Joe Straus still faces opposition from his right flank because of his relatively moderate views, but his opponents have made clear that Straus’ Judaism is not a factor in the Jan. 11 race to be speaker.

“There is absolutely no place for religious bigotry in the race for Texas speaker, and I categorically condemn such action,” Rep. Ken Paxton, one of Straus’ two challengers in the race, said in a statement to the Houston-area Jewish Herald Voice. “Furthermore, it is just as shameful for anyone to imply that I would ever condone this type of behavior.”

State Rep. Warren Chisum, Straus’ other challenger, wrote him directly.

“I assure you that those sorts of attacks on a man’s religion have absolutely no place in the race for speaker,” he said. “I absolutely reject all such attacks or insinuations.”

The controversy in Texas was important because Jews nationally had been watching it as a test case to see whether the Tea Party’s deeply conservative base was receptive to anti-Jewish ferment. The considerable Christian rhetoric in the Tea Party movement has stoked some concern among Jews, particularly as candidates from the movement cited Scripture in explaining their opposition to abortion, church-state separation, and the teaching of evolution.

As it turned out, the strong response against statements singling out Straus for being Jewish were a relief, said Fred Zeidman, the most prominent Jewish Republican in Texas after Straus. Straus had turned to Zeidman to manage the crisis as soon as it emerged in e-mails from a small cadre of grass-roots conservatives. Straus’ office did not respond to interview requests for this story.

“The big fear was, what are the elected guys going to do knowing this is their base,” Zeidman told JTA. “But they didn’t take the bait — everybody either spoke up or stood down. Nobody followed the lead of this guy in Lumberton.”

“This guy in Lumberton,” a small town in east Texas, was Peter Morrison, who in a newsletter that reaches much of the state’s GOP leadership noted that Chisum and Paxton “are Christians and true conservatives.”

Morrison wasn’t the only Straus opponent calling attention to his religion.

“Straus is going down in Jesus’ name,” the Dallas Morning News quoted one Republican e-mailer as saying.

Ken Myers, the chairman of the Tea Party in Kaufman County, in sending a mass e-mail in support of a prominent state House critic of Straus, Rep. Bryan Hughes, wrote that “We finally found a Christian conservative who decided not to be pushed around by the Joe Straus thugs.”

Kaufman County, in suburban Dallas, coincidentally is named for David Kaufman, the first Jewish speaker of the Texas House — in the 1840s, when it was a republic.

On Nov. 30, The Texas Observer published an e-mail exchange among members of the state’s Republican Executive Committee in which committee member John Cook launched a salvo against Straus’ faith.

“We elected a House with Christian, conservative values,” he wrote, referring to the supermajority that Tea Party conservatives had helped win for Republicans in the state House. “We now want a true Christian conservative running it.”

But other executive committee members repudiated Cook, and Straus now claims the support of 79 Republican members of the 150-member House, as well as 49 Democrats.

Some Tea Party members said the issue wasn’t that Straus was Jewish, but that the term Christian was being misapplied or misunderstood.

“I think people have been intellectually lazy in using ‘Christian’ and ‘conservative’ interchangeably,” Felicia Cravens, a Houston Tea Party founder, told Fox News. “And there’s a lot of that in Texas.”

Straus, whose wife and children are Christian but who is active in San Antonio’s Jewish community, seemed unfazed by the flare-up.

Straus faces a strong challenge from his right flank precisely because he has proven able to work with Democrats. The House was almost evenly divided in 2009 when he was elected speaker — the second most powerful position in the state because of the power to shape the legislative agenda. Straus angered conservatives with his successful challenge of longtime speaker Tom Craddick.

Straus’ moderation and the challenge he is brooking from his right flank reflect the other challenge facing the Jewish community as Tea Party conservatives assert their strength both in state Legislatures and in Congress. Straus has voted against restricting late-term abortions or gay adoption rights.

The bottom line, said Marlene Gorin, director of the Dallas-area Jewish Community Relations Council, was that the outbursts of anti-Semitism disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.

“It came out of the blue — we have excellent relationships with all the legislators,” she said. “Even to bring it up was disgusting, but I think now it is behind us.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Jewish groups adjusting agendas for new GOP-led Congress

WASHINGTON – Faced with a new Congress intent on slashing the U.S. federal budget, Jewish groups are trimming their agendas to hew to its contours.

On issues from Israel aid to the environment to elderly care, Jewish organizations are planning to promote priorities that would find favorable reception in the new Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives. The groups are trying to build alliances based on shared interests and recasting pitches for existing programs as Republican-friendly.

“Some parts of our agenda won’t have much traction in this new climate,” acknowledged Josh Protas, the Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We are looking for items that have bipartisan priorities.”

To be sure, Democrats still control the White House and the Senate, and many conservative initiatives will die in the Senate or by the stroke of a presidential veto. But the House, with its considerable oversight powers and its ability to stymie legislation, remains extremely important.

Protas says the JCPA, an umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, already has had meetings with staff members of the new House speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio).

On domestic issues, many of the major Jewish organizations are devoted to policies that directly contradict Republican approaches. According to Protas, Boehner’s staffers told JCPA representatives that the best strategy for working around that is to cherry-pick the smaller issues within the broader agendas that could appeal to Republicans.

“We definitely got the sense that smaller, more focused legislation is what we’ll be seeing, so we’re trying to look at more discrete cases,” he said.

For example, on elderly care, a signature issue of the Jewish Federations of North America. The JFNA will seek to frame Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, one of the jewels of the federation system, as a cost savings, according to William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations’ Washington office.

NORCs have been pitched previously as appealing earmarks for lawmakers to insert into bills. But Republicans say they will eliminate earmarks, or discretionary spending by lawmakers; the Jewish Federations’ emphasis on cost-effectiveness is an attempt to hit a popular Republican note.

“Programs like NORC,” Daroff said, “shift governmental policy away from expensive institutionalized care to less expensive” programs.

Daroff invoked Republican talking points in explaining how the Jewish Federations would continue to seek funding for security for Jewish community institutions. Security funding, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in recent years, has given local law enforcement the power to decide exactly how the money is spent, not federal officials.

“It’s not a nameless, faceless bureaucrat in downtown Washington making a decision but someone in a community allocating funds to what a community feels its needs are,” he said.

Another strategy is to establish relationships with Republican Congress members based on mutual concerns, and then trying to make the lawmakers aware of what drives Jewish community concerns, said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

He cited international religious liberty issues, including the persecution of Christians around the world.

“You have to go member by member to find people’s interests,” he said.

Jewish organizations will continue to promote some issues even if the Republican-controlled Congress isn’t interested in them. Protas and Pelavin cited cuts in funding for the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or food stamps, as an area where their groups would push back against GOP cuts. Daroff mentioned plans by some fiscal conservatives to disburse funding for Medicaid and poverty assistance in bloc grants to states, which would dilute spending on programs for the disabled.

Israel funding is likely to remain steady, Capitol Hill sources said, although there are concerns about how the funding will take place given the Republicans’ interest in trimming foreign spending.

Some leading Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the new chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, say Congress could separate funding for Israel from overall foreign spending, allowing conservatives to maintain current levels for Israel while slashing foreign spending for countries they don’t see as friendly or programs they oppose.

The pro-Israel community sees such a proposal as disastrous, in part because it will make Israel a “special case” after years of efforts to make backing Israel a natural extension of foreign policy. That could engender resentment of Israel.

Correspondingly, the pro-Israel lobby sees foreign aid as a means to bolster support for the U.S.-Israel alliance in the international community. Pro-Israel groups in Washington often have taken the lead in lobbying for Israel-friendly countries in the past.

One proposal has been to make Israel funding a part of defense spending. Insiders say they have been reassured that Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, has no intention of giving up funding for Israel and the power it yields her.

It also remains unclear what Republicans mean when they say they plan on keeping funding for Israel steady. Israel and the United States are in the middle of a 10-year agreement that incrementally increases assistance year by year between 2007 and 2017, so that it averages $3 billion a year.

Does “keeping funding steady” mean maintaining the 2010 level of $2.775 billion, or keeping to the agreement and upping the amount to $3 billion this year?

Officials say the best asset available to Jewish organizations dealing with domestic and foreign policy is the grass roots — not the lobbyists in Washington, but the activists across the country who make appointments to see their lawmakers on home visits.

The lesson of the Tea Party, the grass-roots movement that propelled Republicans to retake the House, should not be lost on Jewish groups, says Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women, which will advocate this year for President Obama’s judicial nominees, pay equity, and immigration reform, among other issues.

“The inside-the-Beltway strategy is to find our friends where we can, on a bipartisan basis,” she said. “But also to get the grass roots to speak out — that’s key, that’s what always turns the tide. If the Tea Party taught us nothing, it’s that getting folks to speak out and be persistently involved makes a difference.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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