Bible-toting Bluegrass Boychick Eyes Kentucky Governor’s Mansion

By Jennifer Siegel

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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Jonathan Miller — the Jewish, Harvard-educated state treasurer who has recently all but declared that he will run for governor of Kentucky — has already developed a sure-fire opening for his stump speech: He talks about Jesus Christ.

The Christian New Testament and the Jewish Talmud share a “really similar story,” Miller recently told a group of New York City Democrats, after warming up the crowd with a perfunctory joke about the country ham and fried shrimp he is unwittingly served back home. The Jewish sage Hillel said, “‘What is hateful to yourself, do not do unto your neighbor,’” while “another great rabbi… Rabbi Jesus” also explained God’s law as “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

It is a warm-and-fuzzy comparison that Miller — who at 39 looks and sounds like a tidy investment banker — made repeatedly as he recently toured the country in support of his new book, “The Compassionate Community: Ten Values to Unite America.” Soon, it will likely be recycled on in the wake of a patronage scandal, and several of the state’s most prominent Democrats have recently ruled out taking him on in next November’s gubernatorial election. This leaves Miller, the only state official who faces a term limit next year, as one of several younger Democrats feverishly scrambling to find a running mate in advance of publicly announcing a gubernatorial bid.

Heavily evangelical Kentucky might not seem to be particularly fertile ground for Jewish Democrats — indeed, the state supported President Bush by a margin of 20 percentage points in 2004 — but Miller is, in fact, the least prominent member of a homegrown Jewish political triumvirate. The mayor of Louisville, Jerry Abramson, was first elected in 1985 and is arguably the most popular politician in the state, having captured more than 80% of the vote in November. John Yarmuth, who was previously best known as a liberal political columnist for the Louisville Eccentric Observer, recently defeated Republican Rep. Anne Northrup in a race for the city’s congressional seat.

While all three men are the first Jewish citizens to hold their respective positions, it is notable that Abramson, 60, and Yarmuth, 59, both won election in relatively moderate Louisville. With more Catholics than most southern communities and a history of strong union activity, the city has more in common with Midwestern neighbors like Cincinnati than with Kentucky’s deeply conservative rural areas. If Miller mounts a campaign for governor, however, he will need to succeed throughout the state, in a way that Tennessee Democratic Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. failed to do with his recent campaign to become that state’s first African-American senator since Reconstruction.

“In terms of statewide politics… Kentucky politically is a choice between conservative and more conservative,” said Michael Baranowski, a professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University. “You have to have good positions on guns, gays and God, and if you don’t, you’re going to make life tough for yourself as a candidate.”

A Reform Jew from Lexington who first discovered his passion for elective office by serving as treasurer of his local Jewish youth group chapter, Miller has firsthand knowledge of the social conservatism of rural Kentucky. Both in his book and in his standard tour speech, he tells the story of how, during his 2004 re-election campaign, he traveled the state’s poverty-stricken backcountry. Armed with information about how he could help the state’s poorest residents, Miller knocked on doors, only to find himself asked repeatedly, “What’s your position on gay marriage?”

It is a question that Miller sidesteps in his book. A centrist who was named a rising star by the Clinton-allied Democratic Leadership Council — his book’s afterword was written by Al Gore — the treasurer gives the impression of a straight-A student who never has the wrong answer. During a failed primary bid for Congress in 1998, Miller filmed a campaign commercial with his former third-grade teacher, who assured voters that she “knew even then that he was destined for great things.” When interviewed by the Forward before a recent appearance at the National Arts Club in New York, the treasurer said that his two daughters, ages 10 and 12, attend private school, but quickly added that the eldest will be going to public school next year.

Like a growing number of faith-friendly Democrats — including former vice-presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman and potential 2008 presidential contender Senator Barack Obama — Miller is unapologetic about publicizing his religious beliefs.

“I think it’s essential that more political leaders are able to relate to voters with the heart, as opposed to just throwing out public policy papers, which in an era of 30-second TV ads just gets lost,” Miller told the Forward. “Liberals, Democrats, folks on the coast, need to understand that most Americans — most conservative Christians — reach their positions on public policy issues not because some televangelist tells them something, but because of their own struggles with the Scripture.”

On a political level, Miller’s public display of faith seems designed to help him make two arguments that are critical to improving his chances of winning higher office: First, that although he is a Jew, he is not so different from the state’s Christian residents; and second, that although he is a Democrat, he grounds policy prescriptions in strong personal values.

Miller’s willingness to embrace faith distinguishes him from previous generations of Jewish politicians — including Louisville’s Abramson — who have won office in areas with few Jewish residents by drawing a distinction between their own private faith and their ability to serve predominantly non-Jewish constituencies. “I don’t see [my faith] as part of my public life,” Abramson explained in an interview with the Forward. “I talk about the importance of my faith to me and my family, but I don’t wear it on my sleeve.”

The mayor recalled his 1985 campaign, during which a rough crowd at a bar heckled him, as well as black photographer, during an ill-considered late-night campaign stop.

“They didn’t particularly like African-Americans, they didn’t particularly like Jews, and they let us know,” Abramson said, chuckling. “They let us know, and we ran out the side door, got the car and left. And that was my one and only experience [with antisemitism], but it was my own fault for getting there too late” in the evening.

During his two terms as state treasurer, Miller has pursued bipartisan policies popular with the middle class, including the creation of a pre-paid college tuition savings program.

There have also been glimpses of his progressive values agenda: This fall, he publicly urged the state’s retirement systems to divest from companies doing business with Sudan, in response to the ongoing genocide in the country’s Darfur region. In his book, he discusses Judeo-Christian values in order to bolster traditional Democratic positions, as when he discusses a “holy war on poverty” or “declaration of American energy independence.”

At the same time, on socially divisive issues such as abortion, Miller treads carefully, arguing for a focus on areas of bipartisan agreement, such as efforts to reduce the rate of unwanted pregnancies. If compassionate faith is a net, Miller is staking his political future on the hope that it is big enough to catch Republicans and Democrats, liberal Jews and conservative Christians.

“Every election we get the Democrats writing off half the country to focus on 20 states to try to pull together the electoral map,” Miller said. “Not every evangelical is following Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson and not every Jew is wanting to take God out the Pledge of Allegiance.… It’s stereotypes on both sides we need to tear down.”

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