Jewish Representative Rises In House’s Republican Ranks

By E.J. Kessler

Published October 07, 2005, issue of October 07, 2005.
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With the indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives, is climbing up the GOP leadership ladder.

Cantor — who is chief deputy majority whip, the fourth-ranking House leadership post — is gaining added responsibilities as Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, the third-ranking Republican, temporarily assumes the mantle of majority leader after the indictment forced DeLay to relinquish the post. Majority leader is the House’s second-most-senior post, after speaker.

First elected in 2000, Cantor, 42, an observant Jew who is a lifelong resident of the Richmond area, has been groomed by the GOP leadership to be the avatar of what is hoped to be a new generation of young, conservative Jews in their ranks. He is a social and economic conservative who has hawkish foreign-policy views.

“Congressman Cantor will serve in an expanded role to help the Republican leadership team move forward on the remaining legislative goals for the year,” said his spokesman, Geoff Embler. “This is a temporary arrangement, and Congressman Cantor fully expects Congressman DeLay to return to his duties.”

The move “elevates Cantor to a spot that no Republican Jew has ever held before,” said Akiba Covitz, professor of political science at the University of Richmond. Covitz said that Cantor is “clearly moving up” and “is closely tied to Blunt.” However, he cautioned that DeLay still might be pulling the House GOP’s strings even as he relinquishes his title.

“There’s a question if DeLay will really stop whipping his troops into shape and playing the leadership role he, in his own mind, is born to play,” Covitz said, noting that many Republicans think DeLay did not do anything wrong. “I don’t know how much real power this gives to Cantor.”

DeLay is charged with conspiracy in an alleged scheme to launder corporate money for Texas statehouse candidates. In Texas, corporate campaign donations are illegal for everything but administrative costs. DeLay denies the charge. The allegedly illegal donations served to further the goal of engineering a GOP statehouse majority in Texas. The statehouse majority, in turn, was intended to ensure that the legislature would redraw congressional district lines in order to give the GOP a stronger majority in Congress — and, with it, more power to DeLay. The goal was achieved.

In Jewish communal terms, DeLay’s indictment and Cantor’s rise represent some interesting political turnabout.

The biggest political target of DeLay’s congressional redistricting scheme, as it happens, was DeLay’s nemesis, Rep. Martin Frost. A moderate Jewish Texas Democrat and former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Frost lost his seat in November 2004.

From 1999 to 2003, Frost was the Democratic caucus chairman. This is the third-ranking minority leadership position in the House, and the position made him the highest-ranking Jewish congressman — before Cantor’s accession to his leadership post. Given DeLay’s legal troubles, Frost, now a fellow at Harvard University Institute of Politics, offered some pointed advice to Cantor.

“I think he needs to be very careful and take the advice of legal counsel if he has any question if something is illegal. He should not just go along with the crowd,” Frost said. “When I was in leadership, I felt a special obligation not to cause any embarrassment to the Jewish community. I regularly consulted with legal counsel.”

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