Has James Mackler taken leave of his senses? Resigning from a comfortable partnership in one of Nashville’s top law firms? And to run for the U.S. Senate in a Mid-South Bible Belt state as a Jew, married to a rabbi—and, maybe tougher—as a progressive Democrat?
Sitting in an unassuming local coffee shop, the fit, dark-haired Army veteran recalled hearing that same question the last time he left his legal practice—to fly a Blackhawk helicopter in the Iraq War.
Not surprisingly, that’s a career change he emphasizes a lot these days. Whether it will be enough to overcome the hurdles someone with his background faces in red state Tennessee is an open question. But with the retirement announcement last week by Senator Bob Corker, the Republican incumbent in the seat for which Mackler is running, a previously lopsided 2018 contest has been unexpectedly transformed into something less predictable.
Mackler was 30 years old when he pulled off that earlier shift, into the military, far past the usual enlistment age. But on September 11, 2001, when those planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Mackler immediately decided he needed to “do something.” It took a special age waiver from the Army to enable him to enter its flight school program. But he eventually spent 10 years in active service and still serves in the Tennessee Air National Guard.
“I imagine my thoughts were similar to what [my grandfather’s] generation thought about Pearl Harbor,” said Mackler, noting that his grandfather was a World War II veteran. “Our faith teaches, you take action to repair the world, tikkun olam. I could not keep doing what I was doing in light of what was going on the world.”
In April 2017, looking at a Washington that he calls “broken,” Mackler decided it was once more time to do something. Now living in Nashville, he was working as a civilian attorney again, married to Rabbi Shana Goldstein Mackler of The Temple Congregation Ohabai Sholom (who was listed last year as one of the The Forward’s Inspiring Rabbis). The couple was raising two daughters.
“Our country is so tribal, so divided,” he said. “One party crafting a secret bill behind closed doors. That’s not how this country is supposed to work.”
Mackler cited as his inspiration the story of Nahshon, the Israelite who waded into the Red Sea, the waters of which rose up to his head before they parted. “He took action before the path was clear,” said Mackler. “Six months ago, I decided, I’ll be like Nahshon, and begin walking.”
The candidate isn’t shy about referencing his faith. And it’s not just his wife, the rabbi, who inspires this. The couple’s two daughters attend the Akiva School, a K-6 Jewish Day School in Nashville where Mackler serves on the board. Those daughters were evacuated, not once, not twice, but four times earlier this year due to bomb threats.
Yet neither Mackler nor his spouse expect their religious faith to be an issue in the race ahead of them. “What I have seen in Tennessee, is that if you are a person of faith you are welcome in a lot of environments,” said Shana Goldstein Mackler in a separate phone interview. “I hope that people live up to that. Judaism is where he gets his values system, and he’s not going to separate himself from that.”
Some independent analysts agree. “Frankly him being a Democrat is bigger issue than his being Jewish,” quipped Michael Davies, a Democratic political consultant with Tennessee roots, and a partner with Washington, D.C.-based Partner Gumbinner & Davies.
Mackler plans to focus his campaign on health care, job creation and education, fueled, in part, by the legacy of his mother’s career as a public school teacher and his father’s as a physician. Corker, the Republican he thought would be his opponent, was considered a moderate Republican with a very large war chest (between $6 million and $8 million, depending on whom you ask). His main worry was a Republican primary challenge from the Tea Party right. Tennessee hasn’t had a serious Democratic senate candidate since Corker defeated Harold Ford, Jr. in 2006.
To date Mackler has raised $750,000, mostly in small contributions from a base that includes more than 4,000 individuals from 83 of the state’s 95 counties.
“Many people said, ‘You don’t have a chance running against a sitting incumbent,’” Mackler said.
Corker’s decision not to run has sparked rampant speculation about what comes next. On Wednesday, Representative Marsha Blackburn, a hardcore right-winger in the Donald Trump mode, announced her entry into the Republican primary race, declaring, “I’m politically incorrect and proud of it.”
In her announcement video, Blackburn singled out other, more moderate Republicans as her first target. “Let me just say it like it is,” she said. “The fact that our Republican majority in the U.S. Senate can’t overturn Obamacare, or will not overturn Obamacare — it’s a disgrace. Too many Senate Republicans act like Democrats — or worse. And that’s what we have to change.”
Meanwhile, David Kustoff, a freshman GOP congressman, who is also Jewish, is said to be mulling a run for the seat.
Up to now, other Democrats steered clear of what looked like a quixotic quest, leaving Mackler with the field to himself. But some Democrats are giving the race a second look. Bill Freeman, a deep-pocketed Democratic donor, Obama supporter, real estate magnate, and former Nashville mayoral candidate (and, like Mackler, a pilot), is said to be mulling it over. State Senator Jeff Yarbro, and current Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke (who is also Jewish) are said to be considering runs.
Davies, the Democratic political consultant, said either of these last two men would pose a serious challenge to Mackler, “not because they are better, but they are kind of twins. They fill some of the same space.”
Mackler is unruffled by discussions about whether Corker’s retirement makes the campaign ahead easier or harder. “The strategy then, the strategy now, the strategy always will be: make sure people know who I am and what I will do,” he said.
Mackler is not the first red state Jewish Democrat to try countering today’s right-wing by highlighting his military combat background. Jason Kander came close to scoring a political upset against incumbent Republican Senator Roy Blunt last year by playing up his own decision to join the Army National Guard after the September 11 attacks. Kander, who served a tour in Afghanistan, produced a now-famous viral campaign video in which he assembled an AR-15 rifle blindfolded while explaining his support for background checks. It was a powerful rebuttal against GOP efforts to stereotype him as a typical Democrat.
Mackler’s own military career didn’t end with his tour as a chopper pilot in Iraq. On his return, he decided he could better serve if he transferred from aviation to the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps. After another paperwork process (“In the Army, when you do things like that, it’s not easy”), he became an Army attorney, prosecuting military sexual assault cases.
In one instance, he prosecuted an Army recruiter for having sex with 16-year-old girls who came to his recruiting station. Mackler won the case, but what was more rewarding, he said, was the letter he later received from one of the girls. The assault, she wrote, had soured her on the military. But seeing how Mackler handled the case restored her faith in the military justice system, she said. She joined the Army.
Mackler, now 45, met Goldstein Mackler, when she was already a rabbi at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, a historic reform congregation everyone calls “The Temple.” He was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in 2006 after serving in Iraq and wanted to reconnect with Judaism. Nashville, where Mackler had spent part of his childhood, was the closest community.
At services on Simchat Torah, he found himself seated at the young rabbi’s table. “I think she thought she was just showing a new congregant around,” he joked of their first meetings, “but I knew we were dating.”
Goldstein Mackler, wasn’t sure they were on a date, but was interested enough in Macker to tell him that she couldn’t be his rabbi; she didn’t want any conflict of interest. Many of their early get-togethers involved social justice outreach, one of the things for which The Temple is best known. They traveled with a group to New Orleans to aid with rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
Mackler is under no illusions about what it will take to sustain a serious race. Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University estimates that the 2006 Ford/Corker match-up ultimately cost $37 million between both candidates. “It is going to be hugely expensive,” he said.
Still Syler considered the $750,000 Mackler has raised so far from a broad base to be “very respectable” for a Democrat. “[It] means this is a guy who is working hard,” he said. Corker’s retirement is going to give Mackler “a fresh look from donors outside of Tennessee. In a national context, this makes Tennessee interesting.”
When Corker announced his retirement, Mackler’s campaign quickly sent an e-mail urging supporters to contribute before the end of September Federal Election Commission deadline. At that point, the average campaign donation from individuals was $36.
Is this a sign that all his support so far is from the Jewish community? Mackler smiled at the question. “That’s beshert,” he said.
Contact Margaret Littman at firstname.lastname@example.org