Among the cherished family memorabilia in the home of Inez Tenenbaum, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in South Carolina, is a signed letter to her father-in-law from Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
“It’s written on this tiny little piece of notebook paper,” Tenenbaum told the Forward in a telephone interview.
The note hints at one of the Democratic candidate’s little-noticed political strengths: Tenenbaum, 53, boasts a slew of familial and philanthropic ties to the Jewish community that are likely to translate into Jewish votes and pro-Israel campaign contributions.
Tenenbaum, South Carolina’s superintendent of education and the state’s top vote-getter in her last election, is a Methodist. But she and her husband, Samuel Tenenbaum, a retired businessman originally from Savannah, Ga., who is Jewish, are leading charitable supporters of the Jewish community in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia.
Such Jewish and pro-Israel credentials have given the candidate an avid base in Columbia’s small but potent Jewish community, as she seeks to capture the seat being vacated by the retiring Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings. With Democrats facing an uphill fight to regain control of the Senate, Tenenbaum appears to represent one of the party’s better hopes for a November victory in the South — and a feature of her campaign will be the ability to raise money from pro-Israel donors in her state and beyond.
“Given Inez Tenenbaum’s family connections and pro-Israel perspective, she is very likely to get pro-Israel money from around the country as well as from South Carolina,” said the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman.
She’ll be working those connections soon: Tenenbaum will attend
the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse. Tenenbaum will be at the event May 17, her spokesman said.
Tenenbaum, who describes herself as “a strong supporter of Israel,” has visited the Jewish state twice; on one visit she met with the minister of education in Jerusalem and was interested to learn that “the issues were the same as what I was facing.”
In addition to her support for Israel, Tenenbaum and her husband have a long record of support for the Jewish community in South Carolina. The family has endowed a visiting lectureship in Jewish studies at the University of South Carolina and at Emory University in Atlanta. A former president of the Columbia Jewish Federation, Samuel Tenenbaum is an ardent pro-Israel and interfaith activist who’s been honored by Israel Bonds.
“He’s one of these mentshes who, even though he’s served his time, doesn’t fade into the woodwork,” said the federation’s director, Steven Terner.
Inez Tenenbaum has developed a following of her own in the Jewish community. “She’s spunky, bright and optimistic,” said a supporter, lawyer Richard Gergel, a Democratic politico and amateur Jewish historian in Columbia who hosted a fund raiser for Tenenbaum with Senator John Edwards of North Carolina May 1. “She’s like a firecracker. People like her. When she says she’s going to fight for the kids of South Carolina, people believe her.”
The candidate downplayed concerns that her surname could cause her problems with some non-Jewish voters, insisting that she had never experienced any sort of bigotry in South Carolina politics.
“I don’t know if my opponents will try to do anything about that issue, but I have never experienced that and don’t anticipate it,” she said.
Others noted that South Carolina has a long history of electing Jews to public office. While its Jewish population now stands at a miniscule 11,500, at the turn of the 19th century South Carolina had the most Jews of any state — fully a quarter of the Jews then living in America, by some estimates. Georgetown, the state’s third-oldest city, founded in 1729, elected six Jewish mayors before the Civil War. Charleston, one of the nation’s most important cities in the colonial period, had two.
“Notwithstanding its intolerance regarding African Americans, South Carolina has an extraordinary history of tolerance regarding its Jews,” Gergel said.
More problematic than her surname is the “D” next to it, given South Carolina’s heavily conservative, Republican cast. The GOP has vowed to highlight in the South the liberal social stands of the presumptive Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, creating a problem for Democrats running on the ticket with him. But Tenenbaum has taken any number of positions that set her apart from the nominee and the more liberal national party.
She caused dismay among many in South Carolina’s gay community when she recently came out in support of President Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages.
“Personally pro-choice” — she did legal work for the pro-choice movement — Tenenbaum said she would have voted for the recently passed Senate ban on so-called partial-birth abortion, although she added that “there has to be a procedure to protect the life and health of the mother.”
While she hopes to focus in the Senate on education and healthcare, she carefully phrases her plans to sound measured and non-threatening to centrist and conservative voters: Healthcare reform, for example, should be done in a “bi-partisan” manner, entail a “public private partnership” and be “done over time… with all the various parties consulted,” she said.
“I won’t be a rubberstamp for anyone,” Tenenbaum told the Forward, stressing South Carolina’s tradition of sending senators to Washington who demonstrate an independent streak. “We’re going to vote what’s best for South Carolina. For 40 years, South Carolina has sent a Democrat and a Republican to Congress. I think that trend will continue.”
Tenenbaum supports the USA Patriot Act, the mention of which was one of the sure-fire hiss lines among the liberal activists in the Democratic presidential primaries.
Finally, while she gives lip service to Kerry’s presidential campaign — “I support the Democratic nominee,” she said, sweetly but not warmly — she’s not exactly cozying up to him.
As Lee Bandy, the dean of South Carolina political columnists, wrote last week in The State newspaper: “Tenenbaum’s campaign views Kerry, a Massachusetts liberal, as a hazard to her political health.”
Add to her centrist positions a severely divided Republican field — six candidates, including a congressman and a former governor want the nod — and good campaign skills, and Tenenbaum emerges as a highly competitive candidate, pundits say.
“She’s in the ballgame,” said a professor of Southern politics at Emory University, Merle Black. “She may do very well among professional women in suburban areas….If she can carry African Americans and white females, she certainly could win the Senate.” Larry Sabato, director of the University or Virginia’s Center for Politics, thinks that Bush’s weaknesses this time around may redound in Tenenbaum’s favor.
“Bush will have difficulty matching his 2000 performance in South Carolina because of all the job losses in textiles and other areas …. The lower Bush’s margins, the better chance Tenenbaum has,” Sabato said. “I don’t think Bush’s margin in and of itself will sink her.” Even if her opponent tries to identify her with Kerry, Tenenbaum still “can capitalize on Republican splits,” Sabato said. Tenenbaum said she looks forward to running on her record of raising SAT scores and other measures of educational achievement in South Carolina.
“People in South Carolina are more interested in what I want to do for South Carolina” than in her party identification, Tenenbaum said. “I’m going to be a very independent voter. I’ve shown already that I’ve taken independent stands.”