Dozens of Jewish Super-Delegates May Hold Key to Democratic Race

Campaign Marks a Communal Coming of Age in Party Politics

By Jennifer Siegel

Published March 20, 2008, issue of March 28, 2008.
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According to a new survey conducted by the Forward, a disproportionately large share of the Democratic party’s super-delegates are Jewish. Many of them have declared their support for Hillary Clinton, accounting for more than 15% of her current backers.

Like the general population of super-delegates, whose support remains fluid, several Jewish supporters of the New York senator said in interviews that their votes still remain up for grabs. All told, more than 70 Jewish super-delegates will make the trip to Denver this summer for the Democrats’ nominating convention. They account for nearly one-tenth of the party’s nearly 800 so-called super-delegates, the informal term for elected and party officials whose status as delegates to the convention does not depend on state primaries and caucuses.

If the Democratic presidential primary comes down to a photo finish, these Jewish insiders could play an outsized role in anointing a nominee at the party’s August convention. And it would be a history-making experience: Although Jews have long been considered a formidable voting bloc and have been overrepresented among the country’s cadre of liberal activists and thinkers, they have only more recently become common as Democratic establishment insiders, with unprecedented numbers of both Jewish elected officials and party leaders.

“Politics in America has become a Jewish profession, just like arts and the law,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and the author of a book about Jews and American politics. “We now are overrepresented in all these areas.”

The relatively high number of Jews among super-delegates highlights a larger political shift that has occurred in recent decades, according to Forman. Although Jews have always been well represented on the American left, he said, historically they have tended to gravitate toward causes, such as the labor and civil rights movements, rather than active participation in party politics.

In the years since World War II, however, the number of Jewish politicians has grown significantly, with 33 Jewish members elected to Congress in 2006, up from 13 in 1950. In addition, over the past 15 years, the DNC has been led by three Jewish chairs — Americans for Peace Now head Debra DeLee; Massachusetts-based party activist Steve Grossman, and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, all now backing Clinton — while the current chairman, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, is married to a Jewish woman and has raised his children as Jews. Of the DNC’s nine national officers, three are currently Jewish.

Susan Turnbull, who became a vice chair of the DNC in 2005, told the Forward that she has begun organizing get-togethers for Jewish DNC members at the party’s national meetings in recent years, and occasionally communicates via e-mail on issues of mutual concern, as when, several years ago, she was helping to pass a DNC resolution against divestment from Israel.

To compile a list of Jewish super-delegates, the Forward included elected officials and DNC members known by the paper to be Jewish. Turnbull identified additional Jewish DNC members, and the Forward’s list was vetted by the Clinton and Obama campaigns. This list may omit Jewish super-delegates whose religious affiliation is not widely known.

In the current presidential primary, the support of Jewish party insiders is particularly critical for Clinton, who won contests in New York, New Jersey and California and has pledged support from a preponderance of Jewish super-delegates in the Golden State and the Northeast — including nearly a dozen in her home state of New York.

In recent weeks, as Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has won more new super-delegates and snatched away some super-delegates who had previously committed to Clinton, Clinton’s backers have worked to shore up her existing support and counter the growing perception by many in the party that if Obama maintains his current lead in the popular vote, as well as in total states and delegates won, the super-delegates should fall in line behind him.

The super-delegates “were not selected by the national party to be either potted plants or rubber stamps,” wrote Grossman, a top fundraiser for Clinton, in an open letter he sent out earlier this month to DNC members. The letter urged those who are still uncommitted to suspend making a judgment in the race until all state contests are concluded in early June.

In an interview with the Forward, Grossman argued that if the result from the disputed Florida primary is counted, and Clinton performs strongly in upcoming primaries, the results of primary season would be inconclusive and it would be the responsibility of super-delegates to vote their conscience.

But despite the efforts to ensure their support in recent weeks, several Jewish super-delegates who are currently committed told the Forward that they were open to changing their vote.

“I’m on the horns of an emotional dilemma,” said June Fisher, 76, a member of the DNC from New Jersey who worked for several Democrats during a long career in politics and currently serves as a part-time special projects coordinator for Senator Bob Menendez. While Fisher originally endorsed Clinton after her initial choice, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, dropped out of the race, she said she was open to revisiting the decision — despite two phone calls from former president Bill Clinton, one in the past two weeks.

Rachel Binah, a longtime Democratic activist from northern California, said she committed to the New York senator after some “heavy arm-twisting,” which included phone calls from both Chelsea and Hillary Clinton. Binah explained her quandary a bit more bluntly.

“Anybody who had any sense wouldn’t have declared, and if I were smart, I wouldn’t have,” Binah told the Forward. “But how can you say no to the former first lady, and potentially the first woman president, who personally talks to you for 20 minutes on the phone?”







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