When the new Congress debuts in January 2009, a record 45 Jews will take the oath of office: 32 in the House of Representatives and — regardless of the outcome in the still-contested Minnesota election — 13 Jews in the Senate.
Among the three newcomers to the House are a young, gay, multimillionaire entrepreneur; a seasoned veteran of New Jersey’s rough-and-tumble politics, and a wealthy attorney who poured $2 million of his own money into a raucous campaign that now gives him the right to say he represents Mickey Mouse.
And even with all that, the record is bittersweet for those who work to elect Jews to public office. Some high-profile races fell short: Losers included Ethan Berkowitz at the hands of longtime Rep. Don Young in Alaska, blind rabbi Dennis Shulman in New Jersey and Josh Segall in Alabama.
But those who won bring along their own share of news. Jared Polis, 33, a multimillionaire Internet entrepreneur who will represent Colorado’s 2nd District, is the first openly gay non-incumbent male to be elected to the House of Representatives. (Barney Frank — who, notably, is also Jewish — came out after serving several terms.)
Polis made his fortune, estimated between $150 million and $200 million, while still in his 20s. The Boulder native, who served on the Colorado State Board of Education, founded BlueMountain.com, an online greeting card company that spun off from his parents’ business, and sold it in 1999 for a reported $780 million. Polis also founded and sold the florist Web site Proflowers.com.
In recent years, Polis has devoted the bulk of his time to his philanthropic endeavors, with a focus on education. In 2004, he founded the New America School, an English-language school for new immigrants. There he took an unusually hands-on approach, serving as New America’s superintendent until last year.
Polis won a tough primary battle in a largely Democratic district that includes Denver suburbs with a growing Jewish population. According to David Shneer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Jewish population of the Denver metro area grew by roughly 40% over the past 10 years. Polis’s district includes the liberal enclave of Boulder as well as other Denver suburbs, though not the capital city itself.
Polis, who handily won the general election with more than 60% of the vote, said that neither his religion nor his sexual orientation cropped up much during the campaign. “I think they were both non-issues,” he said. “The issues of most concern to voters in our district were the war in Iraq, affordable health care, improving our schools.”
Still, both of those factors did come into play in recent weeks, when Polis received a “frantic” e-mail from a Barney Frank biographer who wanted to know whether he was left-handed. Why? As Polis explained, the biographer was working on a book titled “Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed Gay Jewish Congressman.” If Polis were left-handed — which, he reassured the biographer, he is not — his election would have discounted the book’s title.
Polis is a member of Congregation Har HaShem, Boulder’s only Reform synagogue. The congregation’s senior rabbi, Deborah Bronstein, said that Polis embodies Jewish values. “He takes a lot of personal concern in nonprofits that have to do with helping people get ahead who might not otherwise,” she said.
Where Polis brings a youthful and entrepreneurial zeal to office, John Adler, 49, brings 20 years of elective experience to the job of representing New Jersey’s 3rd District, a seat that no Democrat had won since 1882. Adler, who spent the past 16 years in the New Jersey State Senate, where he was assistant minority leader from 1994 to 2001, won the seat of retiring Rep. Jim Saxton.
Residents of the South Jersey district, which includes Cherry Hill — where Adler lives and was a former councilman — and Ocean and Burlington counties, will have a stalwart supporter of Israel in their new congressman. Adler, who says he has been Jewish “virtually my entire adult life,” converted from his Episcopalian faith in 1985 after meeting his wife in law school. He has served on the New Jersey-Israel Commission, which helps foster cultural and business relations between the Garden State and Israel.
In the State Senate, Adler cultivated a reputation as a well-respected legislator and chaired the Judiciary Committee. According to Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker, he played a central role in helping Governor Jon Corzine push state Attorney General Zulima Farber out of office after it was revealed that the latter had outstanding speeding tickets and a bench warrant against her. “He brings legislative skills that are applicable to the House, and I predict that he will quickly move to make himself unassailable in that seat,” Baker said.
At least for now, Adler, a member of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, says that his focus is on helping struggling middle-class families, a core theme of his campaign. “This is the first decade since the Great Depression that the middle class stepped backwards,” Adler said. “I am [eager] to address problems that have been plaguing America the last few years or my entire life.”
In Florida’s 8th District, Alan Grayson found success in his second run for Congress, winning a seat that includes the part of Orlando that is home to Walt Disney World. Grayson, the surprise victor of the Democratic primary, defeated incumbent Republican Ric Keller in what the Orlando Sentinel called the ugliest fight in Central Florida House races.
Grayson, a Bronx native who lost a 2006 congressional race, spent more than $2 million of his own money this year to win the seat considered part of a GOP stronghold. As an attorney, he sued government contractors responsible for defrauding taxpayers and for supplying defective equipment to American soldiers. Keller tagged him as an “ultraliberal” who would vote to cut off funding for troops in Iraq, but apparently the voters believed otherwise.