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Rite of Returns: Jews Who Ran for Congress — Winners & Losers

O.K., so how bad was it for the Jews? Not as bad as for Democrats in general. A few Jewish lawmakers were defeated, a smaller number of new ones were elected. A quick look at who’s in and who’s out offers some intriguing insights about the current state of American Jewry. As Yogi Berra once said, you can observe a lot just by watching.

One of the interesting things to watch as you peruse the results is how complicated it has become to know whom to count as Jewish. Time was, you had Sol Bloom from the Lower East Side and Manny Celler from Brooklyn and everybody knew where everybody stood. Now, as you’ll note if you read on, everything is complicated.

The biggest deal, of course, is that Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the only Jewish Republican in either house of Congress, is expected to become House majority leader. I think that’s the highest elected position any Jew has held in Washington. (Does anybody know something different?)

Another big deal is the unseating of Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a true liberal hero (and brother of a rabbi), independent maverick, co-sponsor with John McCain of the ill-fated McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform and the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act.

With Feingold’s defeat, Wisconsin loses the distinction of being one of the two states with two Jewish senators (the other is California). Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl now must soldier on alone and defend the honor of our ancient tribe. The whole state has about 28,000 Jews, by the way, barely half a percent of the population.

However, Connecticut will replace Wisconsin among the ranks of two-Jewish-senator states January 1 with the swearing-in of senator-elect Dick Blumenthal, longtime state attorney general. He now joins the previous state attorney general, Joe Lieberman, as a member of the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Also of note: Cantor apparently is no longer the only elected Jewish Republican on Capitol Hill. Nan Hayworth, newly elected from New York’s 19th congressional district, got a shout-out in an AIPAC email blast that congratulated winners and especially saluted the three newly elected Jews, one of whom is Hayworth.

There’s nothing in Hayworth’s official bio to indicate that she’s of the tribe, though Ron Kampeas at JTA reports that she “was born and raised Lutheran, but is married to a Jew and has told friends she is a ‘Jew by choice’.”

Hayworth is an ophthalmologist and political novice who identifies with the Tea Party. Her energy and environment positions are pretty good; they address the issue of global warming and offer realistic solutions (not cap and trade though) without mentioning it by name. Her district includes northern Westchester, all of Putnam County, southern Dutchess and across the Hudson into parts of Rockland and Orange counties, including the Satmar Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, which is cited by some as a linchpin of her victory..

The other Jews congratulated by AIPAC are Blumenthal of Connecticut and Democratic representative-elect David Cicilline of Rhode Island. Cicilline’s mother is Jewish and he identifies as Jewish. As mayor of Providence he was the first openly gay mayor of any state capital. He’s now the third openly gay man in the House, along with Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Jared Polis of Colorado, and all three are Jewish. The fourth openly gay member of Congress is neither male nor Jewish: Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin (what is it with Wisconsin?).

One of the nail-biters of the election was the Colorado Senate race. The Democrat and apparent victor, Michael Bennet, was appointed to the seat last year when the previous incumbent, Ken Salazar, became Obama’s secretary of the interior. Bennet’s mother is Jewish — her parents survived the Warsaw Ghetto — while his father’s ancestors actually came over on the Mayflower. There’s a furious dispute going on among people with too much time on their hands about whether he can actually be counted as Jewish, since he seems ambivalent — he’s been quoted as saying he was “raised in two traditions, Jewish and Christian,” and he believes in God.

It’s something I blogged about last year (what can I say? Hath a Jew not morbid ethnocentric curiosity?) in noting that Bennet’s appointment apparently brought the number of Jewish senators to 14. I’ve heard rumors recently that he’s lately begun calling himself Jewish without equivocation. I’ve heard in the past from various members of Congress that this happens to you when you get to Washington— as the late Paul Wellstone explained, whatever you think of yourself, the world sees you as Jewish and essentially demands to know your stand on the issues.

Summing Up

Senate: Of 13 Jews in the august upper house (14 if you count Bennet), four were up for reelection: Chuck Schumer of New York, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin (and Bennet, which would make it five). Two of them were defeated. One was Feingold. The other was Specter, who lost his Democratic primary early on to Joe Sestak (after having left the Republican Party just a year earlier to avoid a replay of his bruising 2004 primary challenge from right-winger Pat Toomey, who got the nomination this time and went on to beat Sestak).

Subtracting Feingold and Specter and adding Blumenthal, we now have 12 Jews in the Senate (13 if you count Bennet). All Democrats. Nearly one-fourth of the Democrats in the Senate are Jewish (fully one-fourth if you count Bennet).

House: Of 30 Jews in the outgoing House, four were defeated: Steve Kagen of Wisconsin, John Adler of New Jersey, Ron Klein of South Florida and Alan Grayson of central Florida. A fifth, Democrat Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, left the House to run for Senate and lost. Kagen and Adler are moderate liberal freshmen elected in GOP-leaning districts in the Obama sweep of 2008. Hodes and Klein, also moderates, were elected two years before that, when the Democrats took the House in 2006. Klein ran in a Broward County district that for some reason usually goes Republican, probably because the district isn’t coastal but runs inland, away from the beach. The fifth, Grayson, was a riotously outspoken left-liberal (GOP health care plan: “Die quickly”) elected in 2008 to a GOP-leaning district in Orlando. He apparently forgot that he wasn’t in the Bronx anymore and was now the congressman from Walt Disney World, where people don’t talk like that.

Kagen, by the way, represents his hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin,population 70,000, where he was born and raised. The Appleton Jewish community numbers perhaps 300, but boy, what a crew. Other products of the community include Erich Weiss, better known as Harry Houdini, and novelist Edna Ferber. Seriously, what’s up with Wisconsin?

And now, for something completely different, here is a winners-and-losers roundup of New York state election returns as seen through the eyes of the Haredi website

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