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From Alaska to Alabama, the Races That Could Change the Jewish Face of Congress

There would be enough members for a whole new minyan in Congress if all the Jewish candidates running for federal office were elected next month.

Scandal, ethics clouds, changing demographics and a favorable political climate will help some of the 11 Jews vying to be elected to the House and the two Jews running for the Senate, but a clean sweep by all 13 Jewish candidates — which would set a record for the number of Jews elected to Congress — remains a long shot, according to analysts, campaign operatives and election handicappers.

Regardless of the election outcome, Jews continue to be well represented, at least in terms of raw numbers, on Capitol Hill. Though Jews are only about 2% of America’s total population, Jewish lawmakers already represent nearly 10% of Congress. They include 29 Jews in the House and 13 in the Senate.

All but three — Virginia’s Eric Cantor in the House, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Norm Coleman of Minnesota in the Senate — are Democrats. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman is considered an Independent, but he remains a registered Democrat despite his hearty support for Republican nominee John McCain. Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders also caucuses with Democrats.

Policy toward Israel has not been an overarching theme for most of the Jewish candidates this year. Instead, they say they are running to spur local economic development, to help middle- and lower-income families, and — for the challengers — because they contend that the incumbents in their districts are too far to the right or the left.

Fueled by a more motivated base and a large number of Republican retirements, Democrats had what insiders believe was a strong recruiting year.

Some of the races involving Jews have received extensive coverage in the Forward, including the contests between Norm Coleman and Al Franken in Minnesota, and the one between Annette Taddeo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida.

What follows is a look at some of the other interesting races that could change the shape of Jewish and congressional politics.

Alabama Congress
Joshua Segall (D) vs. Mike Rogers (R)

There aren’t many states that have fewer Jews than Alabama, but Joshua Segall sees parallels between the challenges faced by the Jewish community, particularly those in the South, and rural communities, such as this Alabama district.

“The thing that’s motivating to me is that rural areas all over the country are having trouble sustaining themselves. The Jewish community has the same problem,” said Segall, a Montgomery attorney.

While Segall draws upon being Jewish, he says religion hasn’t been much of an issue in the race. “I think it’s more an issue that I’m 29,” he said. Even when he is able to asuage skepticism about his age, he has to face down a lack of trust among many Southerners toward the national Democratic Party, which once dominated Southern politics.

His enthusiasm and his detailed ideas for reviving the struggling economy in a district that’s lost 20,000 textile jobs in the past five years have helped Segall narrow the gap somewhat in a district drawn to Republican candidates.

“People are looking for a plan,” said Segall.

He’s focused on concrete ideas, like turning waste from local chicken and peanut plants into energy, and building basic infrastructure like roads, schools and medical care institutions to support and attract industry.

The incumbent, Mike Rogers, 50, who was elected to the Calhoun County Commission before he was Segall’s age, is seeking a fourth term representing the staunchly conservative district that observers say will be tough for Democrats to win. Backed by much of the business and farming communities, he has pushed for tax cuts that he says will help lower fuel prices, and for an energy policy that includes additional drilling.

Rogers could not be reached for comment.

Pennsylvania Congress
Marina Kats (R) vs. Allyson Schwartz (D)

When it comes to powerful personal narratives, this race offers not one, but two. Marina Kats, the penniless immigrant who came to the United States from the Ukraine knowing barely any English, went on to earn business and law degrees from Temple University. And Allyson Schwartz, the first-generation American whose family fled Austria and the Nazis, and who has served nearly two decades in public office, is viewed as a potential candidate for statewide office.

Unfortunately, the buzz around the race between these two hasn’t lived up to the billing.

“You’re not hearing a lot,” said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Kats was expected to tap into the support of the large Russian-Jewish community around Northeast Philadelphia, but influential rabbis have mostly remained neutral, according to Republican insiders. Kats has also struggled to raise money against Schwartz, a fundraising powerhouse who had more than $2.2 million on hand as of June 30. Kats had $50,000 at the time.

“Allyson’s firmly in command in the district,” said pollster G. Terry Madonna, of Franklin & Marshall College.

Schwartz, a former state senator in her second House term, is the only Jew and only woman among Pennsylvania’s 19 House members.

“I take my responsibility very seriously as someone to represent the community and the values we share,” said Schwartz, who often credits her mother’s Holocaust experience with shaping her views.

Kats’s rags-to-riches story also shaped her views on government’s role and on self-reliance. The education she received, first at a community college and then at a synagogue, was critical to her success, but she also acknowledged that government can play a supportive role.

Kats’s campaign did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Colorado Congress
Hank Eng (D) vs. Mike Coffman (R)*

Aerospace engineer Hank Eng would seem an unlikely fit for a district that wraps around Denver’s eastern suburbs and then extends 70 miles into the prairie, which has been represented since 1999 by retiring Representative Tom Tancredo, one of the House’s most conservative members and a leading anti-immigration crusader.

The New York-born Eng migrated to the district from Appleton, Wis., where he was a city councilman, in 2005. He was introduced at a National Jewish Democratic Council reception during the Democratic National Convention as the newest Jewish Democrat. The son of Chinese immigrants, he recently converted to Judaism and belongs to Conservative Rodef Shalom synagogue in southeast Denver, where his stepdaughter recently celebrated her bat mitzvah.

“Between 1994 and 2000, I discovered the Jewish tradition at the growing community in Beijing, and I decided to do what Jews do — to make the world better,” he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz at the convention. “This generation has a prospect of leaving our children a worse world than the one they received, and as a Jew, I feel an obligation to change it.”

Eng, who raised less than $50,000 and loaned his campaign $50,000 through midyear, is considered a long shot in the staunchly Republican seat against Mike Coffman. Neither candidate could be reached for comment.

Alaska Congress
Ethan Berkowitz (D) vs. Don Young (R)

The story of Ethan Berkowitz might have been the biggest political story line to come out of Alaska this election, had John McCain not picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

In the race for Alaska’s lone congressional seat, Berkowitz, a former Democratic state lawmaker is locked neck and neck with embattled incumbent Don Young, who is wrapped up in the scandal over a federal corruption investigation of oil executives and Alaskan lawmakers.

Berkowitz, a Harvard and Cambridge graduate, came to Alaska as a state prosecutor and has vigorously sought to portray himself as a rugged Alaskan. To win Alaska’s lone congressional seat, Berkowitz will have to draw strong support from Republicans, who dominate state politics. Young’s scandals seem to be helping that cause — Berkowitz is campaigning on ethics. After decades of Republican control, Cook rates the race a toss up.

New Jersey Senate
Dick Zimmer (R) vs. Frank Lautenberg (D)

New Jersey is one of two states – the other is Minnesota – where no matter which major party candidate wins, a Jew will represent the state in the Senate. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to know that New Jersey even has a Senate campaign going on.

The incumbent, Frank Lautenberg, has kept a low profile this past summer, and continues to do so, after facing a tough primary challenge. So far, he has refused to appear on the same stage as Dick Zimmer and has conducted few media interviews. The lone scheduled debate on a public broadcasting station is set for November 1, three days before Election Day.

Zimmer, who served three terms in Congress during the 1990s, criticized Lautenberg’s campaign strategy.

“It’s sad that after serving 24 years in the Senate, he is unwilling to stand up and say why he deserves another six years,” Zimmer said.

Lautenberg’s unwillingness to debate Zimmer earlier or more often has earned the incumbent scathing editorials, but the public doesn’t appear to mind. Zimmer continues to trail by seven to 10 percentage points in public opinion polls.

Zimmer also has lacked the resources to raise his campaign’s profile in the expensive New York and Philadelphia television markets that cover New Jersey. He has cast himself as fiercely independent, vowing to vote against congressional earmarks that lawmakers use to fund individual projects. Zimmer also vows to cut federal spending.

“It’s obviously still not a good year for Republicans, and New Jersey is still a blue state,” Zimmer said. “But this is a change election, and after 24 years, Senator Lautenberg is not a change candidate.”

Lautenberg declined to be interviewed.

New Jersey Congress
Dennis Shulman (D) vs. Scott Garrett (R)

Each session day of Congress begins with an opening prayer. Catholic priests, Lutheran ministers, rabbis, imams and Buddhists, among others, have served as guest chaplain to lead the prayer. There are also official House and Senate chaplains, though a rabbi has never held the post.

Dennis Shulman doesn’t want to be Congress’s first rabbi; he hopes to be the first rabbi in Congress. Not only that, but the Democrat challenging Scott Garrett is a trained psychologist — and he is blind. Motivated by outrage over the Iraq War, what he views as the country headed in the wrong direction and reading about civil rights leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., Shulman said he felt moved to run for elective office.

He describes Garrett as a “fiscal extremist” who is too conservative for the district, which runs across Northern New Jersey and south through Warren County to the West, on such issues as health care, energy policy, locks on guns, funding for veterans’ programs and abortion rights, even in cases of incest and rape.

Garrett, who has a 100% rating from the American Conservative Union — the highest rating among New Jersey lawmakers — favors market solutions and less government intervention. Although the district is home to many who work on New York City’s Wall Street, Garrett helped lead the rebellion and voted against the Bush administration’s initial financial bailout plan, as well as the legislation that Congress eventually passed.

The blind psychologist-turned-rabbi has had no problem getting attention for himself. Yet, his personal story hasn’t translated into public support. A recent poll showed Shulman trailing by 15 percentage points.


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