When the Democratic presidential contest comes to Indiana in several weeks, Senator Barack Obama will not be the only politician counting on a multicultural coalition.
Further down the ticket, in a primary race packed with more than a half-dozen candidates, the state’s only Jewish lawmaker is looking to a biracial, interfaith coalition of voters to send him to Washington. David Orentlicher, a six-year veteran of the Indiana state legislature, is running for Congress in Indianapolis. The May 6 primary pits him against three leading African American candidates, including the grandson of Rep. Julia Carson, who held the seat for a decade before her death last December.
Orentlicher is the latest in a series of Jewish politicians who have vied in recent years for congressional seats previously held by African American politicians — at times, to controversial effect. Barely 500 miles southwest of Indianapolis, in Memphis, Tenn., freshman congressman Steve Cohen currently faces a rematch of a racially charged 2006 election campaign, with some African American leaders currently working to promote a single black candidate to defeat him in Tennessee’s August primary.
Orentlicher’s chief opponents in the primary — which is likely predictive of the general election result, given the district’s heavily Democratic orientation — include Carolene Mays, a fellow state representative; Woodrow Myers, a former state health commissioner, and the seat’s current occupant, Rep. André Carson. Carson, the grandson of Julia Carson, won the seat in a special election held last month and is currently the second Muslim serving in Congress, after Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.
While Carson has something of a favored-son status in the race — with backing coming from such party leaders as Senator Evan Bayh and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — he has failed to win the unified support of Indianapolis’s black community, and the race is thought to be open to any of the top quartet of contenders, said Stephen Graham, a professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis.
Orentlicher, a graduate of Harvard law and medical schools who teaches bioethics at the Indiana University School of Law, has assiduously courted supporters in the African American community; at his campaign kick-off in March, he stood with one of his supporters, Reverend Derek King, nephew of Martin Luther King Jr., and he has visited upward of a dozen black churches in recent months. Still, given the 7th District’s racial make-up, which is roughly one-third African American and nearly 60% white, Orentlicher may ultimately prove to be the prime political beneficiary of a fractured African American vote.
Raised in a Conservative household in Bethesda, Md., Orentlicher today keeps a kosher home and attends Indianapolis’s Conservative synagogue, Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, with his family, while his two children attend the Hasten Hebrew Academy day school.
In an interview with the Forward, Orentlicher said he saw some “interesting parallels” between himself and Cohen, but did not feel the Indianapolis campaign had shown signs of becoming racially divisive. At the same time, Orentlicher said, he was aware of the challenge his faith might pose come Election Day, with both white and black voters.
Being the only Jewish state lawmaker in a heavily Christian region of the country has proved difficult at times, Orentlicher said. In 2005, when the Indiana Civil Liberties Union sued, ultimately successfully, to prevent nearly daily references to Jesus Christ in formal benedictions offered at the State House, Orentlicher took flak from Democrats and from Republicans for supporting the suit, to which he was not a party.
“The media often portrayed it as if it was the ‘Jewish legislator’ behind the issue,” Orentlicher said, expressing frustration with the negative attention he drew over the lawsuit.