In the Florida 20 special election, one candidate declares opposition to Iron Dome funding

Omari Hardy previously stated his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, but has since thrown his support behind the effort

In the crowded special House primary to succeed Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), no fewer than 11 candidates are competing for the rare open seat that had long been occupied by the former dean of Florida’s congressional delegation, who died in April at 84. 

Even with just a few weeks remaining until voters cast their ballots on Nov. 2, the race remains somewhat in flux. But experts who spoke with Jewish Insider identified a group of top-tier candidates who are likely to emerge from the crowded field, including such elected officials as state Sen. Perry Thurston, state Rep. Bobby DuBose and Broward County Commissioners Dale Holness and Barbara Sharief, the latter of whom earlier this week notched an endorsement from Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL).

Holness, for his part, led the pack in outside contributions last quarter, pulling in $305,000, but has been vastly outspent by healthcare executive Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick. The two-time former Hastings challenger, who has personally loaned her campaign more than $2 million, is running to the left of her opponents on domestic issues, advocating for such progressive policy proposals as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Whoever wins is expected to prevail in the Jan. 11 general election because the district is heavily Democratic.

While the leading contenders all seem largely aligned in their support for Israel — a cause championed by Hastings during his time in Congress — one staunchly progressive wild-card candidate, first-term state Rep. Omari Hardy, is sharing more critical views of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

In an interview with JI on Monday, Hardy, 31, expressed his firm opposition to legislation that would grant $1 billion in supplemental aid for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. The bill, which is currently stalled in the Senate, was overwhelmingly approved last month by both parties following an emotionally charged House vote in which just eight Democrats and one Republican voted against the measure. 

“I would have voted no,” Hardy said bluntly. “Some folks have argued that voting against the billion dollars is taking the position that Israel doesn’t have a right to defend itself or that America should not help Israel defend itself,” he added. “I think that’s disingenuous given that we’re still providing $3.8 billion of military aid to Israel this year.”

But in Hardy’s view, even that spending — guaranteed in a 10-year memorandum of understanding between Israel and the U.S. — merits scrutiny. Hardy supports conditioning aid to the Jewish state, arguing that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank amounts to a series of human rights violations that the U.S. is effectively funding by proxy.

“I understand, given some of what we’ve discussed here, the political ramifications of this conversation,” the state legislator told JI, later adding: “There’s no political good that can come out of it.”

“The funding is leverage that we have to ensure that Palestinians are not mistreated, and to the extent that we have leverage to generate an outcome that is in comportment with our values, we should use that leverage,” said Hardy, while hastening to clarify, lest he be accused of unfairly targeting the Jewish state, that he also advocates for withholding foreign assistance to Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries he described as human rights violators. But Israel faced the harshest criticism. “I can’t vote to send military aid to Israel,” he explained. “My conscience won’t let me support some of the very problematic practices there.”

Though critics have argued that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement also unfairly targets Israel, Hardy said he supports the cause out of a conviction that non-violent resistance is the last avenue of legitimate recourse available to the Palestinians. “I think it’s the only option Palestinians have to draw attention to their plight and to change the behavior of Israel’s military and political leaders,” he said, “whose decisions have resulted in repeated human rights abuses.”

While Hardy’s positions on Israel stand well outside the Democratic mainstream, they are even more striking because they go beyond what some of the most outspoken Israel critics in the House have been willing to say publicly. Only a small handful of House Democrats, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), support BDS. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who introduced an amendment last month that would block a $735 million arms sale to Israel, initially voted against the Iron Dome funding before switching to “present” at the last minute, shedding tears in the process.

Even the leading far-left candidates across the country who are now mounting congressional primary challenges with backing from Justice Democrats, the feisty political group that had at one point labeled Israel a “human rights violator,” have balked at calls to boycott Israel, instead advocating for conditioning aid to the Jewish state.

Josephine Gon, vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Palm Beach County, said she had met with “the main candidates” in the South Florida race. Hardy was the lone voice in support of BDS and conditioning aid to Israel, she said. “He did express that he wants to learn more about Israel and is open to doing so and we will continue to dialogue with him,” Gon told JI in an email.

Over the course of a long and broad-ranging discussion as well as in subsequent phone conversations with JI, Hardy sounded eager to engage on the issues, making clear that he had not arrived at his conclusions without having grappled intensely with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since he declared his candidacy last April. 

Weighing aloud the consequences of revealing his potentially inflammatory views for the first time to a reporter, Hardy — who spoke deliberately and often took long pauses before commenting — acknowledged that he was venturing into hazardous terrain. “I understand, given some of what we’ve discussed here, the political ramifications of this conversation,” the state legislator told JI, later adding: “There’s no political good that can come out of it.”

“But that’s not how this should work,” he said. “We can’t have elected officials hiding from the media and, by extension, hiding their views from the public eye. I have had to learn a lot really quickly on this issue. I have a lot more to learn on this issue.”

Local Jewish leaders in and around South Florida’s 20th Congressional District, which includes Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, expressed varying levels of disapproval with regard to Hardy’s Middle East foreign policy views, despite his appeal to transparency. 

“On the BDS stuff, that’s obviously disappointing, and on the Iron Dome stuff that’s obviously disappointing,” said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and prominent Hardy campaign donor. “On how much you fund Israel, that’s a legitimate topic for debate right now.”

He said he would continue to support Hardy in spite of their disagreements on Israel. “I’ll certainly try and educate him as to why he is wrong on these things,” Berger told JI.

“We are concerned about him, there’s no question about it,” said Richard Stark, who chairs the Broward County Democratic Party Jewish Caucus and co-hosted a candidate forum last month in which Hardy participated. During the forum, as Stark recalled, Hardy seemed significantly more sympathetic to Israel than his current views would suggest, even explicitly stating his opposition to BDS. “That doesn’t mean that he was not speaking the truth,” Stark told JI. “But what’s getting out is that he may not be so pro-Israel like he portrayed himself in our meeting.”

For his part, Hardy admits that his evolution on the matter only took place recently. “Look, a month ago, if you had asked me this question, I would have said, unequivocally, I do not support BDS,” he told JI. “But I’ve since learned a lot, and this is part of the problem with the way that these issues are politicized. The second someone declares for Congress, folks are trying to pin them down on positions on issues that are extremely complicated.”

While some experts speculated to JI that Hardy could find a path in the primary election next month, he has so far failed to garner the sort of grassroots momentum one would expect of a candidate who has racked up more than 164,000 Twitter followers and is sometimes compared to Ocasio-Cortez. 

“Part of the problem is that only a fraction of his statehouse district is in the 20th Congressional District, and his viral tweets don’t necessarily translate into votes,” said Dave Wasserman, an elections forecaster for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “He’s also not getting the same kind of progressive lane to himself as other pro-Green New Deal and Medicare For All-type candidates.”

Brand New Congress, the progressive political action committee which has backed Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez, endorsed Cherfilus-McCormick in June. “She has a chance,” Wasserman said, noting that she is outspending the field and is now dominating the airwaves as the race enters its final stretch. “That presents a risk to the old guard.”

But Mitch Caesar, a former longtime Broward County Democratic Party chair who is not supporting anyone in the race but has spoken with most of the candidates, quibbled with that assessment. “Cherfilus-McCormick’s money is important,” he told JI, “but whoever is going to turn out is going to be a super voter and super voters are less swayed by commercials.” 

He characterized Hardy as a “serious contender” among a subset of viable candidates in a packed race where the threshold for victory is expected to be low.

Hardy, who describes himself as “the most progressive candidate in the field,” has pulled in just under $95,000 as of the most recent quarterly filing, well behind the leading fundraisers in the race. The final round of quarterly campaign finance reports, to be released this Friday, will provide a more detailed barometer of the dynamics at play. 

The other candidates include former state legislator Priscilla Taylor, author Elvin Dowling, retired Naval officer Phil Jackson, former Department of Labor investigator Emmanuel Morel and internist Imran Siddiqui. 

The race has so far failed to attract national attention from Democratic leaders, despite similarities with the high-profile Cleveland-based House primary between Shontel Brown and Nina Turner this summer. While more than a dozen candidates entered the race to replace former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who vacated her seat for a Cabinet position in the Biden administration, the primary ultimately coalesced around Brown and Turner in what became a high-stakes proxy battle between competing moderate and progressive forces within the Democratic Party.

But in South Florida, the same dynamic is unlikely to take hold as the scant publicly available polling indicates that a plurality of Democratic voters in the majority-Black district remains undecided — as, it appears, do national Democratic figureheads who have refrained from weighing in. 

National Democratic and bipartisan pro-Israel political groups also appear relatively disengaged from the race. Pro-Israel America, which supports Democrats and Republicans, does not plan to get involved, according to a spokesperson. Democratic Majority for Israel, whose early and consequential presence in the Cleveland race is credited with helping boost Brown over Turner, is taking a wait-and-see approach. “There are a number of strong, pro-Israel Democratic candidates in that race and we are continuing to watch it,” said Rachel Rosen, a spokesperson for DMFI’s political arm. 

The Jewish Democratic Council of America has yet to make an endorsement but is hosting a candidate forum on Oct. 20.

Hardy assumed state office last November after serving as a Lake Worth city commissioner, but his profile has risen considerably since viral footage of a heated city commission exchange last year in which he loudly castigated a local mayor over her response to the pandemic drew national attention.

“Those three minutes of video were really three years in a nutshell,” Hardy said of his experience as a local commissioner. “We had many disputes like that, where we were choosing between a status quo that was broken and doing something that would positively affect working-class people.”

Raised by two mothers in Broward County, the former educator, who received his undergraduate in economics from the University of Miami, said he was first elected “very much as a generic Democrat” — last year, even earning an endorsement from the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association — but has since shifted leftward as his priorities evolved to encompass affordable housing, free public education and universal healthcare, among other issues. Hardy now touts support from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee as well as a number of left-leaning lawmakers in Florida while embracing his affinity for the “Squad,” a growing coalition of vocal House progressives including Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Omar. 

Earlier this month, Hardy was endorsed by the editorial board of South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, which praised the candidate as “an unapologetic progressive who’s unafraid to challenge deeply entrenched powerful interests.”

“I think it’s necessary for us to elect members of Congress who are going to push for the systemic transformational change that we know working-class people need rather than settling for incremental change,” said Hardy, who supports a strategy among House progressives who have vowed to withhold votes for the $1 trillion infrastructure package until an accompanying social safety net bill is approved by the Senate. “This is really about our willingness to leverage everything that we have,” he said, “everything that we can leverage.”

He has yet to notch endorsements from any like-minded allies in Congress, even as a July poll from the think tank Data for Progress identified him as “the most viable progressive candidate” in the race.

In conversation with JI, Hardy cast himself as inheriting a progressive mandate from Hastings, who was the longest-serving member of Florida’s congressional delegation before his death earlier this year. “If you look at the Green New Deal, his name is the very first name that appears on it right after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s name,” Hardy said. “This is a guy who supported Medicare for All. This is a guy who was ahead of his time on immigration stances. I believe that he was largely a progressive Democrat. I just think he came from a different era where politics was practiced differently.”

“How else are Palestinians supposed to draw attention to their plight and to encourage Israel’s military and political leaders to change their behavior if not by non-violently calling for an economic boycott?” Hardy mused. “How else are they to do it?”

But if Hardy is aligned with Hastings on domestic issues, they part ways — and in dramatic fashion — when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East. Hastings, who established himself as a leading pro-Israel voice in the House, visited the Jewish state approximately 20 times throughout his congressional tenure and in 2007 helped lead an effort to grow a new forest in northern Galilee that was destroyed the previous year during the war with Hezbollah. A staunch critic of BDS, he once described the movement as “a deeply flawed approach to advancing peace.” In 2015, Hastings voted against the Iran nuclear deal.

Despite his unequivocal endorsement of the BDS movement, Hardy initially seemed reluctant to express his personal position on the matter when it came up for discussion in the interview. At first, he simply expressed his opposition to anti-BDS legislation at the state level, including in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced that Ben & Jerry’s parent company Unilever had been placed on a list of “scrutinized companies that boycott Israel.”

Hardy views such efforts to stifle political speech as violations of the First Amendment. “The government in this country is not supposed to punish private citizens or businesses for their speech,” he said. “That is not the American way, and if you disagree with it, then you can state that. But to leverage the power that the government has against private citizens and private businesses because you don’t like what they say? That’s un-American.”

Pressed to provide his own assessment of BDS on the merits, Hardy inched closer to an answer. “How else are Palestinians supposed to draw attention to their plight and to encourage Israel’s military and political leaders to change their behavior if not by non-violently calling for an economic boycott?” Hardy mused. “How else are they to do it?”

“There’s a two-step process for me,” he elaborated. “Are Palestinians’ human rights being violated? Yes or no? I think the answer is yes, and I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment.” He alluded to a recent controversial report, published by Human Rights Watch in May, accusing Israel of apartheid. “If you believe that Palestinian rights are being violated, then what can be done to stop that? Violence is not the answer. Shooting rockets at civilians is not the answer.”

Hardy said he has engaged with a number of Jewish leaders since he launched his campaign but had not heard from Palestinians until recently. The discussions changed his perspective. “I’ve had conversations with Palestinian-Americans who had questions for me that I could not answer,” he said.

Finally, after an uncomfortably long pause, Hardy declared his support for BDS, though he emphasized with dismay that those “three letters” are “heavily freighted” in a manner that can foreclose reasonable debate. Still, he said he was struggling “to understand why it’s controversial for people to non-violently call for change.” 

Those who regard BDS as antisemitic because it singles out the only existing Jewish state on earth might disagree. For his part, Hardy, who said he would join the Black-Jewish Relations Caucus in Congress as part of an effort to build on “shared values,” condemned recent instances in which pro-Palestinian protestors engaged in acts of antisemitic hatred amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas last May. “I will say — and what I think is true — is that antisemitism is of course very real and acts of antisemitism have become more common in recent years,” he said, “especially since the election of Trump, and certainly there was a spike in what we saw in the summer.”

“I think that we have to separate a few things here,” Hardy told JI. “It’s OK to ask Israel’s allies and other governments to bring pressure to bear with respect to how Israel treats Palestinians, and I think that’s what BDS is doing.” But supporters of the movement “should be able to have a discussion about human rights issues with respect to the Palestinian people without there being an uptick in hate crimes and violence against Jewish people,” he added. “That is disgusting, and we just have to be able to hold both ideas in our heads at the same time.”

Notwithstanding his support for BDS, Hardy said he was open to visiting Israel, a country he has never been to, if he is elected to the House. “I really care a lot about trying to find ways to create peace with folks,” he told JI, “and if traveling there on a mission to bring the two sides together would further the cause of peace then that’s something that I’d be very willing to do.”

Like some progressive House Democrats who, accurately or not, view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of racial oppression in the U.S., Hardy claimed that the Palestinian experience particularly resonates for him as a Black man “concerned about police violence” as an outgrowth of systemic discrimination. “I can’t apply my values in one case and not in the other.”

But if Hardy has found his own narrative reflected in a conflict thousands of miles away, the issue, he said, is hardly a top priority for the majority of voters in the district. The subject is so charged, however, that he felt compelled to engage in a deeper manner than perhaps he had expected, even if his own research led him to provocative conclusions.

“I’ve had to spend an inordinate amount of time wrapping my brain around these issues not because they loom large in terms of priorities that voters have but because the reactions that people have to a given position are so intense as to require someone in my shoes to make sure that they’ve done the work to justify whatever position that they arrived at,” he said. “What’s happening in our politics around this issue is not conducive to good decision-making and good policymaking. The intensity with which this debate rages does no one a good service here.”

That goes for his own party, he suggested, as divisions have intensified between far-left Israel critics in the House and mainstream Democrats who are broadly supportive of the Jewish state. “There are lots of folks who care about these issues,” Hardy said, “and we have to find a way to make sure that our concerns are reflected in our policymaking but not in a way that reduces people through whatever moral judgments we have about their positions with respect to these issues.”

“I know that these issues matter a lot to people,” he said. “I know that people have drawn all kinds of red lines about it. I’m going to do my best to think through these issues and to apply my progressive values consistently across the board, not just with respect to Israel, but with respect to other human rights abuses.”

He expressed confidence that his broader approach to the issues would resonate with voters as he seeks to join a growing cohort of progressive lawmakers in Congress who are strategizing to reshape the Democratic Party on matters both foreign and domestic. “The point of vying for power is to use the power to help the American people, and I think that everyone in this race wants to do good things for the American people,” Hardy told JI. “But not everyone in this race is willing to go as far as I’m willing to go.”

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