Political Hopefuls In Both Parties Run ‘Independent’

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 17, 2010, issue of February 26, 2010.
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For Jewish Democrats vying to make 2010 the year in which they ascend to the national level, these midterm elections pose a special challenge.

Coming from a community that voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama and that is strongly aligned with the Democratic Party, Jewish Democrats are nevertheless seeking to strike a new tone this year. This means taking a step away from the party and the president and using the term “independent” as much as possible on the campaign stump. And for Jewish Republicans running for statewide offices, hopes are high that they can cash in on public disappointment with the conduct of leaders in Washington.

This is the picture that emerges from interviews with 10 up-and-coming Jewish politicians identified by the Forward. Republicans and Democrats, running for offices ranging from United States senator to state treasurer, hailing from states as distant from one other as Alaska and Florida, these Jewish candidates for higher office are all reckoning with a charged national political environment.

“I distance myself and disagree with a lot of what goes on in Washington,” said Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general, who is running for the Senate seat held by the retiring Chris Dodd. “I regard myself as an independent.”

Democrat Lee Fisher, Ohio’s lieutenant governor now running for the Senate, comes across voter frustration in meetings throughout his state. “I tell them that I’m a Democrat, but I’m an Ohioan and an American first, and therefore while I support our president, I don’t always agree with him,” he said.

“In January 2009 many of us, including myself, had great hopefulness that the new president will come with a magic wand and all the complexities will disappear,” said Beth Krom, a Democrat trying to take over a strongly Republican congressional district in California’s Orange County.

And Paul Hodes, a Democratic member of Congress running for New Hampshire’s open Senate seat, is counting on his state’s independent tradition to overcome what some are referring to as the “Massachusetts effect” — a term that emerged in the wake of Republican Scott Brown’s Senate victory in neighboring Massachusetts.

“Of course the frustration with the pace of change exists here too, but as an independent thinker who represents the state’s independent values, I feel confident,” Hodes said.

The challenge of distancing congressional and gubernatorial campaigns from the way national politics is being conducted in Washington is shared by all Democrats running in 2010. But for Jewish candidates in some districts, there is an extra burden of explaining to voters from their own community the seemingly strained relations between Obama’s White House and the Israeli government.

Ted Deutch, a Florida state senator now running for the congressional seat formerly held by Robert Wexler, has encountered this issue. The South Florida congressional district has one of the largest concentrations of Jewish voters in the country. “They want to be sure that the administration recognizes that decisions made by the State of Israel about its own security need to be respected,” Deutch said.

Political analysts see most of the 32 Jewish members of Congress as safe, meaning they are not at risk of losing the mid-term elections. All but one — minority whip Eric Cantor — are Democrats. In the Senate, where Al Franken’s defeat of Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Arlen Specter’s party-switch have left no Republican Jewish representation, no Democratic Jewish incumbents are expected to be upset. Jewish senators — who now number 13 — are even likely to increase their number, with Blumenthal considered the front-runner in Connecticut.

Republican Jewish political candidates — none of whom are known to be in serious contention for Congress this cycle — expect that public frustration with the Democrats will work to their party’s benefit.

“There is definitely a new momentum,” said Josh Mandel, a Republican running for the post of Ohio state treasurer. “I think it will have more of an impact in states with bigger Jewish populations.” Jewish Republicans have high hopes for Mandel, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, and view him as a potential future player on the national level.

While Jewish Republican candidates are stressing what they see as shortcomings of Democratic-led Washington, they also seem to be distancing themselves from their own party politics.

“It is crystal clear that people are looking for problem solvers,” said Steve Poizner, the California state insurance commissioner who is trailing far behind fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in primary polls. “They don’t care about the party, they are looking for skills.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com






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