The Second Jewish Republican in Congress
WASHINGTON – While 24% of Jews voted for Donald Trump last November according to the Pew Research Center, Representative David Kustoff (R-TN) is not shy about his support of the President. In an interview with Jewish Insider from Rayburn building on Capitol Hill, the Tennessee lawmaker rated Trump’s performance as an “A.” Praising the President’s immigration Executive Order, Kustoff explained, “Everything he’s done, he promised. He’s following through on his commitment from the campaign.”
Entering Congress only two months ago, Kustoff became the second Jewish serving Republican joining ranks with Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY). He attended the Republican Jewish Coalition’s conference in Las Vegas last weekend while enthusiastically recounting the participation of Sheldon and Miriam Adelson along with Vice President Mike Pence. “I want to grow our ranks in the House of Representatives and other elected offices across the country to build from the ground up and let the Jewish people in this country know that there is a home in the Republican party,” he noted. Kustoff cited Jewish Republicans including former Senator Norm Coleman (MN) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) as mentors during his brief time in Congress.
Waking up each morning between 3:15 and 3:45 AM, he usually only eats one meal throughout the day. Kustoff spoke to Jewish Insider from a cramped office filled with volumes of the United States Code in the back of the Financial Service Committee, where he serves as a Member. A staunch conservative, the Tennessee lawmaker repeatedly emphasized the importance of tax reform and rolling back the Dodd-Frank Act. He praised Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy as a Congressman who is “happy and doesn’t get angry, but he plays to win and generally does win.” At the same time, Kustoff declined to cite any Democrats who he have impressed him since he has spent the vast majority of his time working with Republicans.
Commending the President’s work in combating anti-Semitism, Kustoff blamed the Democrats for failing to quickly confirm Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which he argues makes tackling the threat more difficult. A strong supporter of Israel, he emphasized the need to continuously back Jerusalem asserting, “If Israel were to fail, then the Middle East is gone.”
A former United States Attorney representing the West District of Tennessee, Kustoff spent has deep ties to the state. He was born and grew up in Shelby County and graduated from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in 1992. Married to his wife Roberta, Kustoff has two children who live back in the Tennessee district.
JI: How was the Republican Jewish Coalition conference in Las Vegas that you recently attended?
Congressman David Kustoff: “The conference was really good. It was very well attended and to have prominent Jewish leaders from across the country in Las Vegas and have a number of leaders in the government from Vice President Pence to former Vice President Cheney to members of the Senate, members of Congress like myself. It was a very impressive display of people and to have Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.”
Q: Why did you run for Congress?
Kustoff: “I am from the Memphis area, grown up in West Tennessee, lived there all of my life, went to college there, went to law school there, was a former US Attorney for West Tennessee so a lot of the district that I represented as US Attorney is now my Congressional district. When Stephen Fincher was the Congressman announced that he was not going to run, my wife and I, who have an 11 year old and an eight year old, had been concerned about the direction of the country. We may be the first generation of parents that wonder if we are not giving a better country to our children. It was really the opportunity to stand up and lead at a time where we are concerned about our national security, law enforcement, concerned about the economy, jobs that aren’t there, wages that are stagnant.”
Q: What are your legislative priorities?
Kustoff: “We have a real opportunity to affect our current tax system. We haven’t had substantial tax reform since before you were born, 1986. We have the opportunity to revamp our taxes to allow people to have more money in their pockets, to invest, to put in their 401Ks. At the same time, to reduce the corporate tax rate so that corporations who have set up their headquarters in foreign countries will come back to the US and bring their jobs back and bring the cash that they invested overseas back to the US. It’s a no brainer. You take a district like mine, which is the suburbs of Memphis and the rest of the district which is a lot of farms, there are more farming operations in my district than the rest of Tennessee, but my point is if you drive across the district, there are some parts of the district that look the same, they are stagnant and lost jobs. So, you have the opportunity here to pass substantial tax reform and to roll back provisions of Dodd-Frank so that banks can start loaning money. More money in people’s pockets with taxes allowing banks to lend it could really be significant not only in West Tennessee but across the country.”
Q: How would you rate President Trump since entering office?
Kustoff: “He gets an “A.” Everything he’s done, he promised. He’s following through on his commitment from the campaign. He has begun to tackle National Security and law enforcement with the Executive Orders. He identified the seven countries that President Obama had previously identified countries like Yemen, Syria, and Iran. And put a pause for 120 days so we can try and determine who is who and who may be a threat. So, I do support that. We have a window to get things done. 6-7 month window as it relates to tax reform, healthcare, and banking.”
Q: Are there any policies of President Trump, which you oppose?
Kustoff: “I want to hear more about the President’s proposal for trade. I am for fair trade both ways. I don’t want to inhibit the ability for Americans to export to other countries so I don’t know that I disagree with him yet because I haven’t heard fully what his policies and proposals are.”
Q: How is it being one of only two Jewish Republicans in Congress?
Kustoff: “So, with my election we have doubled the size of the Republican Jewish caucus in the House of Representatives and that’s a real honor. We need more Republican Jews in Congress either in the House or the Senate. I have gotten to know both former Senator Norm Coleman and former Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Both men are strong leaders who have given me good advice over these last several months as we see younger generations, Jews my age and younger. It’s generally been a 70-30 split nationwide — Jewish people who support Democrats as opposed to Republicans. If you drill down, my age and younger, you’re seeing that percentage among Republicans rise among younger people who are Jews who didn’t grow up in the era of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman who grew up in the era of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, people who are concerned about Israel, concerned about National Security, jobs and economic growth and they better identify with the Republican Party than the Democratic Party.”
Q: Can you please identify a Republican and Democrat Member of Congress who you have been most impressed by since entering office?
Kustoff: “There are a number of Republican colleagues who I can identify: Kevin McCarthy is brilliant as it relates to legislative and political matters. He is an excellent strategist and has the Ronald Reagan disposition. He is happy and doesn’t get angry but he plays to win and generally does win. As it relates to Democrats, I’ve been here a month and a half and haven’t worked thus far with that many Democrats.”
Q: Has the President worked hard enough to combat the recent spike in anti-Semitism?
Kustoff: “Yes. The President has sent a strong message. The one thing that has hampered in my opinion is that Democrats have slowed the confirmation of his nominees at the Department of Justice, Jeff Sessions should have been confirmed early on. The fact of the matter is he has been doing his job for 2-3 weeks. The Department of Justice is the Department that would investigate as you know I’m a former Federal prosecutor, the acts of vandalism are hate crimes. He did send a message out condemning these acts. The Vice President certainly conveyed messages and visited one of the cemeteries in Missouri. Remember the President’s son-in-law and daughter are Jewish. He feels strongly about the issue. They have to be investigated by the Department of Justice. Until 2-3 weeks ago the Department of Justice had no confirmed Attorney General.”
Q: Besides your views on Congressional policy, what are some aspects of your personality your constituents and Washington insiders may not know?
Kustoff: “I’m up very early in the morning usually between 3:15 and 3:45. I get to work early. I generally eat one meal a day, dinner. Although in the mornings I have started sometimes having one of those yogurt cups. I’m very committed to what we are doing. My wife and I continue to live back home in Germantown, which is a suburb of Memphis. I am home every weekend or whenever we are not in session. If I’m home, I’m traveling the district. There are 15 counties and we travel through the district talking to people, talking about these issues getting in the weeds of healthcare, repealing the Affordable Care Act.”
Q: Can you please describe your work on the terrorism subcommittee?
Kustoff: “It’s a brand new standing subcommittee and so we are going to trace issues of finance, this money is funding a number of terrorist organizations like ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas so if we can cut off the funding we can take the head off the snake.”
Q: Do you support the two-state solution?
Kustoff: “Even the Prime Minister supports a two state solution, but we have to make sure that the terms are right and pulling back even further. Israel is the democracy in the Middle East, our greatest ally in the Middle East. I am from a district that is very Church oriented. Christians in my district of West Tennessee are so concerned about the security of Israel. If Israel were to fail, then the Middle East is gone so for that reason and so many more we have to do what’s right. In the last eight years, the Obama Administration did not support Israel and President Obama’s last 60 days in office allowing that UN resolution to be passed is spiteful.”
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Kustoff: “I’m very committed to be a Jewish Republican member of the House of Representatives is special because there are only two of us. I want to grow our ranks in the House of Representatives and other elected offices across the country to build from the ground up and let the Jewish people in this country know that there is a home in the Republican party People may not identify down the line with the Republican platform. My guess is people don’t identify along the line with the Democratic party. You don’t have to agree with every issue. A husband probably doesn’t agree 100% of the time with his wife. A wife doesn’t agree 100% of the time with her husband. But generally on issues of the economy, taxes and national security. Today more Jews identify with the Republican Party and certainly in this day of age in 2017, the Republican party is a better friend of Israel than the other party.”