Andrei Cherny, son of communist refugees, vows to defend democracy in Arizona congressional race

The entrepreneur and former presidential speechwriter is challenging GOP Rep. David Schweikert in one of the nation’s most competitive districts

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Andrei Cherny was an average American kid. But his parents, who left behind their lives in Communist Czechoslovakia in the hopes of finding a better one free of antisemitism in the United States, made sure he knew their horror stories from back home. All four of Cherny’s grandparents survived the Holocaust. 

“Just as he was starting a new life and a new family,” Cherny said of his grandfather in his campaign launch video, “he saw democracy toppled again. This time, it was the Communists. And they put him in jail for the crime of being a capitalist.”

So when Cherny’s parents began to question in recent years whether America was beginning to face the very thing they wanted to leave behind — the prospect of authoritarianism, and democracy under threat — the entrepreneur and former political speechwriter looked on with alarm. 

“Seeing the rise of antisemitism over the past few years brought back to them all kinds of memories of what they endured growing up, the taunting that they experienced,” Cherny told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “My mother’s father helped rebuild their synagogue, which had been burned down during Kristallnacht. She recalled how they would have to keep their Judaism under wraps and pray in private, because of their fear, and I think that fear has come back for them. That’s really scary because it’s something that I never thought the United States would be facing again.”

Cherny, a Democrat, is responding to that newfound fear by running for Congress, with a campaign focused on promoting democracy in the United States.

“Democracy rarely disappears overnight. It vanishes step by step with 1,000 small cuts, and so vigilance is incredibly important,” explained Cherny, who is 47. 

“Democracy is most under stress in places all over the world and throughout history, when people no longer believe in its promise, when people feel they’ve been left behind and let down,” Cherny added. “The ability to have a ladder of opportunity for people that they believe in for themselves, as well as their children, is a huge part of making sure we preserve democracy. Because when that doesn’t happen, that’s when the forces of hate and division become stronger than the forces of hope.” 

He launched his campaign in April, entering the Democratic primary in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, which covers parts of Phoenix and surrounding suburbs, including Scottsdale. He hopes to challenge  Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ), who is viewed by political analysts as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the 2024 election cycle. 

“Schweikert won by less than a point when Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly carried [the district] by roughly seven points, and [Democratic Gov. Katie] Hobbs carried his district by 3.5 points,” said Mike Noble, an Arizona pollster. “We’re heading into a presidential election which is less favorable to the GOP, and abortion is going to be a top issue.”

After facing allegations of ethics violations for years, in 2022 Schweikert and his campaign agreed to pay a $125,000 fine to the Federal Election Commission for misusing campaign donations and failing to report certain expenses. Two years earlier, after a House Ethics Committee investigation, Schweikert admitted to 11 rules violations and paid a $50,000 fine. 

The lawmaker earned a reputation as a fiscally conservative renegade, but Schweikert has since 2020 tacked more to the center. In 2022, he tried to navigate an endorsement from former President Donald Trump that helped win over Republican voters in the primary but hurt Schweikert’s odds with Democrats and independents in the general election. He was first elected to office at age 28, when he won a seat in the Arizona statehouse.

“After the last race, I felt that chapter of my life had come to an end,” Cherny told The Los Angeles Times in 2019. “But the same values that brought me to politics still mattered a lot to me. I was looking for a way to be part of a cause larger than myself.” 

Cherny, a seasoned Washington veteran, has a career in politics that dates back more than 20 years. At age 21, he served as the youngest presidential speechwriter in history for President Bill Clinton. During his years in Washington he founded the left-wing policy journal Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. 

After Cherny moved to Arizona with his wife, he turned toward state politics, serving as an assistant attorney general before mounting two unsuccessful bids for public office. He was the Democratic nominee for state treasurer in 2010, and in 2012, he challenged now-Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) in a Democratic congressional primary. After losing to Sinema, Cherny pivoted and started Aspiration, a financial services company focused on sustainability.

“After the last race, I felt that chapter of my life had come to an end,” Cherny told The Los Angeles Times in 2019. “But the same values that brought me to politics still mattered a lot to me. I was looking for a way to be part of a cause larger than myself.” 

Cherny stepped down from his role as CEO of the company, which offers sustainability-focused banking and investing tools, last year. 

“We go through phases which are not always sequential, and they can intertwine,” said Jeff Nussbaum, a friend and former colleague of Cherny’s who most recently served as a senior speechwriter for President Joe Biden. “It’s learning, earning and returning, and I think Andrei’s always learning and always returning. I think those two themes in his life are converging at this moment.”

Cherny already faces two Democratic competitors, state Rep. Amish Shah and local orthodontist Andrew Horne, in the primary that will take place next year. Cherny is positioning himself as a moderate.

“I bring to this race a real focus on pragmatism,” said Cherny, who noted his past experience running a company and as a member of the Navy Reserves. “In all of those goals, the only thing that mattered was results.”

Benee Hilton-Spiegel, a Jewish philanthropist in Arizona, said Cherny’s “commitment to Israel and Judaism is in his bones. I think that’s just who he is.”

His biggest focus, he explained, would be strengthening democracy, countering climate change and promoting “financial freedom,” drawing a throughline from what Aspiration does in the private sector to the work he hopes to do in Congress.

That support for democracy extends to Israel, and Cherny pointed to the enduring nature of Israeli democracy at a time when protests over a controversial judicial reform plan proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have rocked the country for months. 

“While I may have my concerns with any particular Israeli leadership at any one time, just like people around the world had concerns with American leadership in many cases during the Trump years, none of that negates the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Cherny. “In fact, it just highlights how important it is to have a strong, viable and vibrant democracy in the Middle East.” 

Cherny pledged to join what he described as a “proud tradition of Democratic leaders who really understood the importance of keeping that U.S.-Israel relationship at the forefront of conversations around what’s going on in the Middle East,” Cherny said. 

Benee Hilton-Spiegel, a Jewish philanthropist in Arizona, said Cherny’s “commitment to Israel and Judaism is in his bones. I think that’s just who he is.”

She added that she knows Schweikert through her work in the pro-Israel community, and he also “has always supported the Jewish people.” Hilton-Spiegel pointed out that the state’s Republican Party has moved far to the right in recent years. 

“I’m a little disappointed in our Republican Party here, because I happen to know a lot of moderate Republicans that are really good people,” she said. “I think our party here got hijacked by these crazies.” 

The result is a congressional district that has historically leaned Republican — Schweikert was first elected in 2010 — but may now be uniquely vulnerable, as Arizona has moved to the left and far-right candidates have put Republicans at a disadvantage.

In 2021, Schweikert split with many of his fellow Republicans and voted to certify the state’s 2020 presidential election results, but he voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. And voters will have to decide whether to group him with far-right candidates such as Kari Lake, last year’s Republican gubernatorial nominee who is closely aligned with Trump and supports his claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

“Andrei absolutely has a chance, and I’d argue he has the best chance to flip a House seat to the D column in Arizona compared to the rest of the congressional districts,” said Noble. 

Cherny said that for him, running for office comes down to democracy, and the lessons he learned from his parents and grandparents. 

“I had a sense of safety that they of course never knew. I think it also left me not taking things like democracy for granted,” said Cherny. “It’s hard to have a bad day with the normal frustrations of life when you think about what my grandparents went through what my parents saw growing up.”

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