The firestorm over President Donald Trump’s refusal to disavow a white supremacist group is burning especially hot in Florida, where two competing Congressional candidates took opposite sides of the issue — and both women are Jewish.
“I think Jewish organizations should be more concerned with Antifa and Black Lives Matter than the Proud Boys,” said Republican candidate Laura Loomer in a phone interview.“Gavin McInnes is a friend of mine, he’s the founder of the Proud Boys and he is not an antisemite.”
Her opponent, two-term incumbent Democrat Lois Frankel, disagreed.
“It’s shameful that the President still refuses to disown white supremacy, going so far as tell the antisemitic Proud Boys, who glorify violence, to ‘stand by,’” Frankel said. “It’s clear he has no desire to unite Americans to move our country forward.”
Lois Frankel, 72, is a Democrat who has served in Congress for eight years after having also served as a two-term mayor of West Palm Beach, after 14 years in the Florida state legislature. Earlier in her career, she was a public defender.
Laura Loomer, 27, became Frankel’s Republican challenger after winning a primary race in late August. The victory shocked people who have long seen Loomer as a virulently Islamaphobic and anti-immigrant, someone whose career would have long ago ended if she made similar comments about Jews or other minorities. The candidate who calls herself “the most banned woman in the world” on the one social media site where she still has a large platform — Parler —Loomer was promptly congratulated by President Trump, who dispatched his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, to campaign with her. Also lending support to Loomer’s campaign: Trump confidant Roger Stone, Fox News Host Jeanine Pirro, far-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos, and Gavin McInnes, the founder of the Proud Boys, an extremist group that got the controversial shout-out from President Trump at the first Presidential debate Sept. 29.
The Anti-Defamation League and other groups that monitor hate speech disagree with Loomer. The Proud Boys, wrote the ADL, is an “unconventional strain of American right-wing extremism.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated it as a hate group (McInness is suing them for defamation in response). Then there was that antisemitic video rant by McInnes in 2017.
Frankel has largely ignored Loomer’s rhetoric, focusing on issues she sees as most urgent for her constituents: COVID-19, healthcare, and school reopenings. She seems deeply ambivalent as to whether Loomer, who regularly calls her “Lazy Lois” and “a self-hating Jew,” even merits a response.
“This is a pretty sacred time for Jews,” Frankel said in an interview just before Yom Kippur. “I’m not going to be talking about her – probably not at all, but definitely not now.”
She made one exception, agreeing to respond to a controversial attack video in which Loomer’s campaign calls Frankel “meshuggeh” and uses gut-wrenching images from the Holocaust to suggest that the politics of the veteran congresswoman and the Democratic party will lead to a new disaster.
“It’s using the most hideous time in Jewish history and bringing it into a campaign so inappropriately,” Frankel sighed. “It’s shocking and it’s sad. The reaction that I’ve gotten from people who’ve seen it is disgust.”
Welcome to campaign 2020, Florida-style.
In a normal election season, it might be exciting to note that it’s the first time in history that two Jewish American women are facing off against each other for a seat in Congress.
But this is no normal election season, and Loomer in particular is— by even her own account and that of her chief strategist, who helped run Trump’s 2016 campaign — not your typical political candidate. Loomer has identified herself as a proud Islamophobe, and has espoused far-right views that led to her being banned on Twitter and most other social media platforms. Uber and Lyft blacklisted her for having called on the ride-sharing apps to ban Muslim drivers. Until recently, she was dismissed as an attention-grabbing, far-right provocateur and conspiracy theorist who, while identifying herself a journalist, would harass professional journalists, embracing a norm-breaking, phone-in-the-face behavior as a kind of new gonzo journalism she branded “loomering.”
Moreover, in an unprecedented, pandemic-poisoned election season in which the discourse has grown so rancorous that even the most ardent proponents of democratic debate are wondering whether there’s any point in subjecting Americans to additional debates between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the Lois vs. Laura contest is one to watch. After all, whoever wins the race gets to claim Donald Trump — the born-and-bred New Yorker who moved his residency to Florida late this year — as her constituent.
There are numerous hot-button issues that provide fodder for the political fire in a district that was previously so solidly blue that Frankel had no challenger when she last ran in 2018. The president’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the national reckoning over race and Trump’s approach towards Israel are all on the list.
The 21st Congressional district in which Loomer is trying to seat Frankel encompasses heavily Democratic-leaning Palm Beach County, where Hillary Clinton won nearly 57 percent of the vote in 2016 and where more than 55 percent of voters are over 50, according to the county’s Supervisor of Elections. The district is nearly one-quarter Jewish, according to the Jewish Electorate Institute in a new study, and has the highest number of Jewish adults of any Congressional district in the nation.
Interviews with both women reveal two very different faces of the American Jewish community — emblematic of a partisan rift that widened as a result of Donald Trump’s election nearly four years ago. The majority of American Jews, or about 65% according to the most recent figures, identify as or lean Democrat. They see Trump’s failures on almost every front, and are worried that things could get far worse and slip towards authoritarianism.
The minority, or about 29 %, are or lean Republican. They argue that the media gives Trump an unfairly bad rap, they see BLM as a threat, and point to Israel’s recent peace deals with Gulf Arab states as evidence of Trump’s success in the Middle East. But perhaps as evidence of many Republicans’ discomfort with Loomer’s rhetoric, the Republican Jewish Coalition has declined to endorse Loomer, prompting a letter of complaint from her campaign strategist, Karen Giorno.
“It is hard to imagine a more strident defender of our staunchest ally in the Middle East,” Giorno wrote in her letter, which she provided to the Forward, complaining of the RJC’s silence.
Loomer’s professed love for Israel may be one of the few spots where she could nibble into Frankel’s bedrock of Jewish support. Many Republicans in general have, since 2012, tried to portray Barack Obama and anyone connected with his administration as throwing Israel under the bus. Loomer picked up on that, insisting that she is “the most pro-Israel candidate” running, portraying Frankel as being soft on Islamic extremism abroad and supportive of protesters’ demands to defund the police at home.
Frankel said she does not support defunding the police and added, “I probably have one of the strongest pro-Israel records in Congress. My record speaks for itself.”
Loomer became politically aware as a result of 9/11, she said, when she was 8-years-old. “My family life became quite dysfunctional and my parents ended up getting a divorce and I went to boarding school at age 12,” she explained. It was there, at the Orme School in rural Arizona, that she said she faced antisemitism for the first time, especially from international students who were Muslim, Loomer said.
At the age of 12, she said, she became a self-taught student of Islam. As a result, she said, her critics “don’t have the understanding of the Koran that I do.” In an interview, Loomer said she did not hate Muslims.
“I satirically posted that I’m a proud Islamophobe,” she said. She then elaborated in ways that would seem to indicate that she views the entire religion with suspicion.
“Islam isn’t a religion of peace,” she said. “The Women’s March makes the hijab a logo, but it’s an affront to human rights.”
In the recent past, Loomer has — without apparent satire — called Islam a “cancer on humanity,” and said it should be illegal for Muslims to seek political office. She’s celebrated the death of immigrants as well.
Asked for her own religious views, she articulated them through the prism of politics.
“Judaism isn’t about whether you keep Shabbat or whether you’re very religious or not, because there’s a lot of Jews who send their children to expensive Hebrew day schools, they’re religious and keep Shabbat, but they’re radical leftist progressives and they may think they’re being good Jews…but these are anti-Zionist policies, and you are working against yourself.”
Loomer’s views on Israel gelled on a Birthright trip in college, and then several more missions with conservative groups. Near the end of her senior year of college at Barry University in Miami, she was expelled, as she tells it, because she made a video “to expose a lot of the political correctness…and recorded professors saying yes, I could start an ISIS club.” Close to graduation anyway, she said, she had to hire a lawyer to get her degree.
That was just five years ago. Loomer next went to New York to work for Project Veritas, a controversial far-right media group engaged in operations such as one that spilled into the headlines this week, which the New York Times and researchers at Stanford reported was “probably part of a coordinated disinformation effort” aimed at Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Loomer’s candidacy is so focused on opposing Omar and other members of the so-called “Squad” that her fundraising site uses images of them to solicit donations.
In fact, Loomer has so far outraised Frankel — donations to candidates for Congress can and do come from anywhere in the country — though Frankel still maintains more cash on hand to wage her campaign.
While it’s difficult to find a political pundit predicting that Loomer will win or a local newspaper offering their endorsement, her campaign is moving ahead as if none of that matters. Supporters are holding events and knocking on thousands of doors, almost as if this weren’t a campaign in the midst of a pandemic. Images on her website showed that she held a maskless debate watch party this week, although there is still a mandate to mask in public places and inside business in Palm Beach County. In response to a question about this, Loomer noted that Gov. Ron DeSantis just moved the state into “Phase 3” of reopening, which, she said, overrides the mandate.
“If people are concerned about catching COVID, they can stay home or wear a mask,” she said. “The country needs to move on. We need to open the economy.”
But from where Frankel sits, saving lives is the top priority. She has vulnerable people in her district to think about, including her 95-year-old mother, who lives in the same West Palm Beach building as she does. Frankel recently lost a friend and constituent: Dr. Steven Silverman, who delivered her son Ben. Silver, a fit runner and cyclist, died of coronavirus complications at the age of 71.
“We’ve got to get COVID contained. We’ve got to make sure health care is accessible. Medicare and social security are among the most important issues for this area,” she said. Trump’s push to have Senate Republicans quickly confirm Judge Amy Coney Barret, she added, was of great concern in large part because of challenges to the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare.
“It’s a scary situation. If they overturn it, women can once again be discriminated against in getting insurance. Children can no longer stay on their parents’ insurance,” she said. At least two million Floridians stand to lose their healthcare, she said. “That’s why this election is so important.”
Asked about her strategies for campaigning in the midst of a pandemic, Frankel said she intends to keep doing what she does.
“My campaign is me doing my job. I don’t have a separate program of me vs. the campaign,” she quipped. Of course, there will be some virtual town halls, mail and telephone operations, and what she called “a full-blast media campaign” of television ads.
“We have a very traditional campaign except that we’re not knocking on doors,” she said. “What I’m spending time on every day is dealing with so many issues, most of them related to COVID.”
If 9/11 and the rise of ISIS shaped Loomer’s worldview, for Frankel, it was the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war protests in the late 1960s. She remembers being on Commonwealth Avenue when she heard that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, and recalls Coretta Scott King coming to Boston University, where Frankel was the vice president of the student government, to inspire her generation to keep advocating for change.
“The slogan of ‘defund police’ is all just rhetoric and a big mischaracterization. Reforming police procedures is part of what needs to change, and that’s why I voted for the George Floyd bill which bans chokeholds and bans racial profiling,” said Frankel. “My policies are not based on rhetoric, they’re based on experience, really living and understanding people. When anyone makes an accusation, I say: judge me on my record, where I’ve been, where my values are, not on empty rhetoric.”
Ilene Prusher is a journalist, author and lecturer. For nearly 20 years, she was foreign correspondent based in Jerusalem, Istanbul, Tokyo and Kabul. She joined the multimedia journalism faculty of Florida Atlantic University in 2015. Her most recent work has appeared in the Forward, TIME, FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times Book Review.
Islamaphobe Lara Loomer faces off against Lois Frankel